By Monique Erickson // Photo by Yi-Chun Wu. Emily Stone, left, and Cori Kresge of the Stephen Petronio Company in the Trisha Brown work “Glacial Decoy” at the Joyce Theater.
This week at the Joyce Theater, Stephen Petronio Company presents the second season of Bloodlines, which celebrates the pioneers of modern dance. The 2016 roster features Trisha Brown’s Glacial Decoy (1979), Stephen Petronio’s MiddleSexGorge (1990), and the premiere of Petronio’s new work Big Daddy (Deluxe), now through March 13th. This year commemorates the company’s 22nd season at the Joyce Theater, and 32 years in dance.
With the very first movement of the Stephen Petronio Company’s riveting performance of Trisha Brown’s Glacial Decoy, I am immediately transported to an ethereal otherworld, anotherworld, some last feminine hideaway, perhaps, of a bygone America. Set to silence, a rotation of black and white images by Robert Rauschenberg, and wearing only his nearly nude pleated shifts, two sensual and sure-footed nymphs take to the stage not with Mr. Petronio’s usual force and friction, but with a delicacy of movement and a quietude that seem to transcend space.
As the dancers move, we see behind them the faded backdrop of America: a husky, an old house, a garden hose; dilapidated furniture, a doorway, a dance. This is the poetry of images and movement. A third dancer appears from the wings, a fourth seemingly from midair. Behind them the clock from a funeral home lies on its side; there is a motorcycle, an oil-slick swan, 3 trucks and a ladder. Are we there yet? Have we arrived? Glacial Decoy is as ephemeral as dance itself. Will we be remembered, after? The dance seems to ask. With Bloodlines, Stephen Petronio tells us how.
BIG DADDY (DELUXE)
After a brief intermission best used to re-center oneself on this physical plane, the curtain rises for Big Daddy (Deluxe). As Mr. Petronio takes center stage, flanked by 2 male dancers, we realize two things very quickly: he’s miked, and we are embarking on a soul-searching, grief-stricken elegy-memoir-dance-poem. It’s private, it’s personal, and it hurts. At times his voice is shaky. He stumbles slightly in the difficult patches. Mr. Petronio’s command of the audience is so powerful that sometimes I forget to watch the dancers, but I get the feeling that’s the point. Mr. Petronio is asking us to participate in his grief. It is close and uncomfortable. The piece ends with Mr. Petronio sitting on the edge of the stage, inches from the front row. He is low lit and somber and alone. Here he is not polished or perfect or sanitized. He is painfully real.
In the late 80s and early 90s, as the AIDS epidemic ripped through the gay community, and lawmakers and politicians attempted to turn a blind eye, activist artists turned to their respective crafts to compel New York City to pay attention. First performed in 1990, MiddleSexGorge is Stephen Petronio’s anthem, not only to the AIDS crisis, but also to the body in peril, out of control, under the hands of others, impacted by touch. Today, the work is as resonant as ever: fluid, genderqueer, in touch, alive. It is set to the electro-punk music of Wire. The women wear black leotards; the men, corsets. Gino Grenek and Joshua Tuason sport wild floor-length bloomers festooned with orange rosettes. The company comes together electrically, in signature Petronio break-neck style. The sex is palpable but so is the sadness. As the piece closes Mr. Grenek is borne aloft, as though poised for flight, or dead.
IN CONVERSATION WITH STEPHEN PETRONIO
MONIQUE: So first, talk to me about Glacial Decoy (by Trisha Brown).
STEPHEN: When I joined Trisha Brown’s Company as the first male dancer in 1979, she had just finished Glacial Decoy. It was her last all women’s work, and her first piece for the proscenium stage. So I watched it, as the odd person in the room, like, a million times. When we went on tour I would sit in the wings because I loved it so much, and I would just watch it and watch it and watch it. I began to help rehearse it and lay it down in the space. It totally impressed me as a young wannabe creator: the formality, the slippery-ness, the feline, feminist, elusive power of it left a very deep impression on my still forming mind.
MONIQUE: I guess we should talk a little bit about how to preserve dance, and keep dance relevant? Isn’t that’s what Bloodlines is all about?
STEPHEN: There are many ways to approach preservation (there are written codes, and video codes) but Bloodlines is a way of honoring the people who opened the door for me, as a creator. It was Merce Cunningham, and Trisha [Brown], and the people who came from the Judson Movement that really broke all the rules of Modern Dance, and said that you could make it anything that you want. They said that dance doesn’t have to be some dramatic narrative, that it could be an abstract form, that it could be a mixture of forms, or that it could be pedestrian movement as well as virtuosic movement. I come from that tradition. I started dance as an adult with no training so they really opened the door for me. Part of the thing about bloodlines is that I’m only working with choreographers who directly preceded me, with whom I had contact and were learning the dances from - either from the original creator or from people who were in those original creations. It’s really mouth to mouth, hand to hand, body to body transmission.
For Trisha Brown, I was in the room when Glacial Decoy was finished, and it was set by people who were there when it was made, and who danced it for many years, and so it’s a tradition, like storytelling. This is the physical form of storytelling: I really believe that it has to go from someone’s body in the original, to our bodies. The urgency, for me, in bringing Bloodlines out into the world now is that I want to do it while the creators, or those who had that first hand experience with the creators, are still very much alive and breathing. That’s why it’s Bloodlines.
MONIQUE: How do you propose to keep dance at the forefront of the conversation about the performing arts, when it could be viewed as more marginal. How do you keep dance relevant?
STEPHEN: What’s interesting is that, in the dance world especially, there are so many people who have read about works like Glacial Decoy, or Merce Cunningham’s Rainforest (Stephen Petronio Company premiered Rainforest last year for the debut season of Bloodlines), but hadn’t seen it, because they missed it. Bloodlines is a great opportunity to introduce the next generation of audiences to these seminal works that really changed the course of history. For me, it’s a very emotional service to provide, and I hope it has an impact on new audiences, and I think it will.
MONIQUE: Within the Bloodlines concept, is it important to present the work as it was originally, or do you put your own stamp on it, or is it somewhere in the middle?
STEPHEN: From every creator’s company that I work with, I have to take their lead. With the Cunningham work Rainforest, they had a very specific version in mind, but of course we can’t do it like the Cunningham Company because we are not the Cunningham Company. We can do it like the Petronio Company.
Part of the reason that I want it by my company is that I’m an original, modern voice. The ballet companies are the most likely to acquire these works because they have the structure and the money to afford them, but I really believe that as the son of these creators, I feel like only I can give [the work] what a modern choreographer can give. I don’t want just the ballet companies to have [the Bloodlines works]. I want the modern world to have these works too.
With Trisha Brown, I saw Trisha and loved Trisha so much in that period, that I feel like I’m getting as close to her spirit as I can. She was an amazing choreographer and she definitely influenced me. This is my version of what she did to me.
I want people to support Bloodlines because it is an opportunity to see these works, but, basically, I love these works. They’re masterpieces. I am going to take as good care of them as I can.
MONIQUE: For Big Daddy (Deluxe), tell me about the decision to merge your memoir with dance, and to perform the memoir in that way.
STEPHEN: I wrote a memoir a couple years ago. My father was dying when I wrote it. I wanted to wait until he passed away to publish it because there are certain things I just didn’t want him to read. When I finished it, I realized that because I was grieving his death, that particular moment was really present in my body. I’ve always resisted working with language, but he was so in my body and on my mind and in my heart when I finished the memoir that I thought ‘What if I tried to physicalize this?’ Originally, I made it a solo, where I was talking and dancing, as only a son could do with the imagery of my father. I felt like it was a great way to meditate on him. I sprained my ankle last year and I asked some of the guys [in the company] to come in and do some of the earlier stories when he was younger. I really began to like the whole idea, so I decided to expand it to the whole company. I removed my body as a dancing body, more just as the voice. I think there is a big danger in writing with dance, because everybody wants to make a story out of everything, anyway. Sometimes it undercuts the subconscious potency of the movement, but since I wrote the language and the language was visceral, I felt compelled to really try.
MONIQUE: Especially at the end when you’re just sitting on the stage reading, it’s so raw, so real, so personal, and so private. It’s true that while watching Big Daddy (Deluxe) from the audience there is the quandary: do we look at you? Do we look at the stage? Does the dance become secondary to your presence and your words?
STEPHEN: Look, I’m not a professional reader but I am an honest reader. I thought it was a pretty big risk and I knew I might get crucified but for me, vulnerable and earnest is the new orange.
MONIQUE: We participate in your grief with you.
STEPHEN: I question whether it was a valid thing to do on the stage but I feel like I’m 60 years old and too fucking bad. I’m going to do exactly what I want. It feels like dangerous territory, and that’s what I have been doing for 30 years. There’s no way I was going to shy away from it. It’s taken me over 30 years as a choreographer to get to that place and I’m really happy that I did.
MONIQUE: Tell me about Middlesex Gorge.
STEPHEN: I made MiddleSexGorge when I was in ACTUP, the Aids Coalition to Unleash Power, in the middle of the AIDS crisis when the mayor and the health officials were ignoring the fact that there was an epidemic going on. I joined ACTUP and we used our bodies to intercede in public places, to try to get the city to pay attention to us. We did a lot of civil disobedience. I began to realize that getting carried into police vans, and getting arrested during demonstrations was the most potent thing I was doing with my body. I felt like, if I can’t make a dance that somehow touches on that, I should just give up. I began to make MiddleSexGorge. I focused on how people handled each other, and how people gave up control to each other’s touch, how people controlled each other with touch. I wanted it to be a really violent and aggressive. It was the 80s. The lack of subtlety, and I don’t mean lack of skill, but the lack of subtlety was like banging a drum for me. I tried to put that into the dance. 25 years later, it’s relevant. Oppression never goes out of style.
What resonated with me was that it did seem very relevant right now, because of our modern concept of gender and sexual fluidity. Maybe we are all queer. I thought it was very powerful. When the Republican candidates are talking about retracting marriage rights, I think that MiddleSexGorge is relevant again. It’s about the female empowerment as well. Queer or not, every woman knows what it’s like to feel invisible and discounted. For women to be empowered in that way is really important. It’s not just for the queer boys; it’s for the women as well, straight women, and gay women and everyone in between.
Stephen Petronio’s memoir, Confessions of a Motion Addict is available to purchase here from Amazon.com.