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Stephen Petronio Dances on the Cutting Edge

By: Susan Reiter
Date: Apr 04, 2014
Stephen Petronio Company looks forward and backward at the same time


Stephen Petronio's choreography intermingles discipline and wildness, with an underlying structure that gives his dances heft. In landscapes where danger lurks amid beauty, there's always something significant at stake.

What's more, these stakes always feel immediate. Petronio's dances resonate with the moment in which they are created---reacting, responding, and commenting in fascinating ways. A cutting-edge group of collaborators, including visual artists like Cindy Sherman and composers like Laurie Anderson and Rufus Wainright, also helps his work speak to our time.

To that end, Stephen Petronio Company's 30th anniversary season at the Joyce Theater (April 8 - 13) will careen forward even as it engages with the past. The major premiere on the program, Locomotor, explores the idea of "traveling forward and backward through space and through time." He's also made a new solo for himself, Stripped, that investigates the specific possibilities of a mature male body.

In Petronio's recently published memoir Confessions of a Motion Addict, he vividly conjures his early years in suburban New Jersey amid an expansive Italian-American family. The book chronicles his evolution as a dancer and a gay man, describing how he came to dance late, how the now-legendary postmodernist Steve Paxton opened up new possibilities, and how his career and life sometimes careened out of control.

Petronio didn't set out to write a book. When he was struggling with the creation of 2010's Ghost Town, he distracted himself by posting stories to Facebook. "I'm an insomniac by nature, but I wasn't sleeping at all during this process. So I began writing," he says. "My childhood memories are very vivid, so I thought, 'Maybe I should record some of these memory ghosts as an exercise, painting in words. Maybe it will somehow inform what I was doing in the studio.' People began really responding. At one point somebody said, 'When are you going to publish these?'"

He continues, "Learning how to write so consistently was a really interesting exercise. Before, whenever I was inspired I would write. But to actually have a goal---and know that every night at 3 or 4 when I woke up, I would be writing---that was an interesting kind of discipline for me. I actually felt that my writing was informed by my dance-making more than my dance-making was informed by my writing. There are certain rhythmic inclinations that I have in movement that I could feel in my writing pattern."

For Locomotor, Petronio is working with a new musical collaborator, albeit one he has known for years. The original score is by Michael Volpe (a.k.a. Clams Casino), who has emerged as an innovative producer in both hip-hop and experimental music. The 26-year-old musician is also the son of Petronio's first cousin. (In his memoir he portrays her as a fellow free spirit, stretching the boundaries of suburban propriety, leading him on forays to Greenwich Village, and taking him to see his first dance performance.) So Volpe has been seeing Petronio's dance performances since his childhood.

"He's just exploded in the last couple of years," Petronio says of his young cousin's career. "I loved what he was doing. Then he released an album of tracks of electronic music without text that was so beautiful and innovative. When I heard that, I had to work with him. When I called, he said, 'I was hoping you'd ask me.' "

The <i>Locomotor</i> collaboration has been a real back and forth. "He's been coming to the studio a lot for rehearsals," Petronio says. "He understands the work on a very intuitive level. We don't discuss it that much. I'm super-verbal, but he's not. He works on instinct, and that's how I work. We're both not formally trained in what we do. That's exciting."

Petronio also speaks admiringly of his dancers. "As the difference in agility between my body and theirs widens, what I find very emotional is that I can give them the small piece of inspiration and they spring to life with it in the most amazing way. That, to me, is such a beautiful and touching and hopeful thing; they keep me 20 years old by interpreting my energy in their bodies."

Meanwhile, Petronio keeps finding the impetus for new dances. "There's a spring that's always there," he says. "What I've gotten more used to is figuring out how you weld that energy and that excitement into highly detailed movement with innuendo and specificity. When I was younger, that was much harder to do. Now I understand that's what I do. It comes slightly more automatically, but the well of inspiration feels like it's the same place."


Susan Reiter is a freelance arts journalist who contributes to the Los Angeles Times, Playbill, Dance Magazine and other publications

Photo by Sarah Silver

Susan Reiter covers dance for TDF Stages.