Saturday, October 20, 2018

Old Sea Dogs Never Die

A colossal dance and musical collaboration rocks the Joyce as the Stephen Petronio Company celebrates 25 years. If Trisha Brown, queen of quirky choreo, and Steve Paxton from Judson Church had a kid together, that kid would be Stephen Petronio. Not looking like he has been choreographing 25 years, Petronio’s choreography on his company is fresh and relevant. In the dance world, he is like Hollywood royalty, having worked with major figures early in his dance career. Like Petronio, both Trisha and Paxton are mavericks. And, when I say he is a maverick, I’m not talking “shooting wolves from a helicopter” type of maverick. I’m talking about Petronio’s sustained artistic career as a risk taker. Despite his dance lineage, Petronio’s work is his own, a singular dance vocabulary. He has mastery over a richly fluid movement that is quite classical, although he has little classical dance training himself. When asked if his dancers are reflections of his own dancing, he replied:

I didn’t go to class and beat my feet like that but my brain beats like that.

Indeed it does. While the company celebrates 25 years at the Joyce, rather than trot out some ‘greatest hits’ (a sign that you are truly coasting), Petronio 

takes it to death con four. I Drink the Air Before Me is an ambitious undertaking that works much like a rock opera. The evening-length dance is inspired by a line from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Petronio’s work is flowing with drop dead gorgeous dance sections and the mercurial dynamism of a great score. Like the great retro-movies about the modern age (Willy Wonka or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) it has lots of moving parts that bathe the eye in movement, color and sound. 

Nico Muhly lavish original score was banged out live by a phenom of a quintet upstage and the heavenly voices of the Young People’s Chorus of New York City. On the whole, the performance effort feels a bit under rehearsed as was discussed during the Q&A after the show. However, it is difficult to imagine contemporary dance company having the luxury of time in this current economic climate. Petronio pushes to present—LIVE—twelve dancers, a conductor/composer, a quintet and a large choir perform at the level of say a national company from the EU. Still, all in all, Petronio is a process person, and is quite pleased with the efforts of his whirlwind collection of dancers, musicians, singer’s and other creative collaborators. Surprisingly, some have been with him nine years while others a mere three months. I truly believe it will be a critical success once it gets its sea legs fully under it.

After you enter the Joyce, Petronio, the ‘salty dog’, is barking orders to his crew. He is dressed the part from head to toe by Cindy Sherman. His old sea-captain’s scruff is complete with a bright red, sunburned neck. He is aided by a first mate in a yellow rubber coat and rain hat. He passes out little cards on which are the words to an evening song, which is a consecration of church bells.

One day tells its tale to another…

The dancers are busy about the stage with a large sail being pulled across the front. The rigging, which both mirrors sea life and the theatrical world of stage hands, is flown overhead extending the space into the audience as it creates one large ship. Finally, Petronio climbs a large scaffold to the top of the proscenium and observes as the storm begins one dancer at a time. 

A dancer enters with stripped leggings and what appears to be long, trailing warming-underwear on top. She is flanked by two men wearing long navy blue trench coats and sea-grey ‘long john style’ underwear. They glide across the stage like water drips down a windshield. The long legs of the dancer extend slowly both showing the lines of the body and continuing the movement. The heavy costume doesn’t detract at all, but lends credibility to hardships of sea life. Petronio’s movement incorporates lots of contact partnering that, when combined with classical ballet, creates perpetual motion machines. Lifts are fully incorporated into his vocabulary and become the catalyst of more movement.


Nothing drops. Every body is lifted and as the musical score intensifies, so does the storm. The dancers start at a steady pace, and the movement is demanding. Twenty minutes in, they are breathing hard, but Petronio and Muhly continue full speed ahead. Past the point of exhaustion, the work continues, and the bodies melt into movement. Two standouts in the dream cast are Gino Grenek and Tara Lorenzen. Each of Grenek’s solos comes with this wave of energy that extends through the space to touch the back wall. Grenek’s body cuts through air, and his awareness that he is being watched makes each line perfect. Today, too few dancers understand a ‘face forward’ or how to ‘work the back’. He carves his space out of the center even in large ensemble sections. Like a water sprite, Tara Lorenzen is not bound by gravity. A Purchase BFA grad, she dances from the heart and has an amazing facility in the fast, athletic phrases.

The marathon continues, and the seven movements in the score keep ramping up. One beautiful duet follows a stunning trio completed by sweeping movement sections. Some of the gesture-laden movement incorporates fists and pointing fingers. Petronio blends theatrical ballets, such as Jerome Robbins Fancy Free, with irreverent movements from country line dancing. In a Popeye stance, three dancers look to each other and shake their heads. They drop into a low second and lean back shaking their fists. Finally, they kick up their heels as if about to square dance. These ‘less classical’ movements are like child’s play; you cannot see the design behind it, only the product of an exuberant mind. Petronio has a freedom of expression that marks all great choreographers. They just can’t shut up the creation of movement after movement and one great idea after the next. 

I Drink the Air Before Me showcases great classical technique with creative structure and a magical score. It is fluid like a long run-on sentence. You have the sense that you are witness to an event—a ritual even—as the overarching design seems consecrated by a higher power. Towards the end, the choir rejoins the group upstage ringing hand bells, adding another juicy layer to the composer/conductor and his rocking quintet. At this point, the dancers have been dancing non-stop for over an hour, and they continue by entering the space one by one, the ensemble dancing to the upstage direction. 

One day tells its tale to another

One night imparts knowledge to another

Although they have no words or language

And their voices are not heard

Their sound has gone out into all lands

And their message to the ends of the world

As the choir sings the words on the card, Petronio’s Captain Ahab character passes out, leaving the audience sitting in amazement. Not fully able to digest all that is witnessed on stage, I swallow hard, take a deep breath and try to drink it all in. Petronio has a way with movement, large collaborations and touching his audience. I am moved.

Photos by: Quinn Batson (1st photo top left) and Steven Schreiber

iDANZ Critix Corner 

Official Dance Review by Sasha Deveaux 

Performance:  Stephen Petronio Company 

Choreography:  Stephen Petronio

Original Score:  Nico Muhly

Venue: The Joyce Theater, New York City 

Date: Wednesday, April 29, 2009, 7:30pm

Speak Your Mind

Tell us what you're thinking...
and oh, if you want a pic to show with your comment, go get a gravatar!

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Get Adobe Flash player