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Stephen Petronio Traces His Bloodlines

Date: Mar 04, 2016

The choreographer celebrates several of his families


If you've ever wondered about Stephen Petronio's family, then take a trip to the Joyce Theater from March 8 to 13. The choreographer-dancer is inviting audiences to learn about his clan through a program that includes Trisha Brown's 1979 Glacial Decoy and Big Daddy (Deluxe), an investigation into his father's life. Together, the pieces extend his Bloodlines series and paint a vivid portrait of his heritage.

In this case, though, "heritage" doesn't only refer to genetics. "Bloodlines is about the inclusion of family – the group that developed me as a dancer and dancemaker," Petronio says. "Merce Cunningham, the great father, was right for the first in the series, and now Trisha is the matriarchal figure, my 'dance mother.' Putting ,Big Daddy Deluxe next to Trisha's work, I'm able to have my real family and my bloodline of movement blended: flesh and blood mixed with my dance flesh and blood. It's emotionally overwhelming for me, actually."

Audiences who flock to see Petronio's own sexy, swift, idiosyncratic movement will still be sated by BD(D), as well as MiddleSexGorge, the third piece on the program's bill. But they'll also discover the results of his recent interest in reaching beyond his own shapes and inclinations. "The people whose choreography I'm showing in Bloodlines were instrumental in opening the door to my career as an artist, especially as a young American without a classically trained mind," says Petronio, a former Trisha Brown Dance Company member. "They challenged me to make it up as I go. Around my 30th anniversary as a choreographer, I started to think about what was next, and I got greedy by selecting master works that changed and influenced my own."

In this round, Petronio's decision to showcase Brown's creation meant exploring a tender moment in his past. "Trisha had just made Glacial Decoy when I joined the company as the first male," he remembers. "It was the last all-female dance she made, while being the first she crafted for a proscenium. I was a young novice viewing it, and I looked up to these women as goddesses. I got to watch the piece many times in rehearsal: It's wild, intelligent, and structural, and it combines the complex mind of a woman at the height of her power in a very clear, minimalist form."


While Brown masters Diane Madden and Lisa Kraus led the performers, instructing class and teaching the movement, the juxtaposition of Brown's aesthetic against Petronio's own proved challenging for his crew. "I always thought doing this piece was a great idea, but it turned out to be life-changing for my dancers," he says. "They understand something about Trisha through my language, but my approach is much more aggressive than hers. So when we finally began, they had to go through an incredible letting go and be much more soft and relaxed about the way they tackle the movement. Once they let that happen, they saw a deeper connection between Trisha and myself. In Trisha's method, you have to let your weight go all the time. In mine, you have to release and pick it up. And so that was the biggest realization: to do less and less. To see them try the movement was emotional for me. She was in the room with us."

When transforming Big Daddy from a solo into the full-company Deluxe iteration, Petronio's artists were able to rely on a more familiar process: translating his instincts and movements into larger swaths of choreography. In this case, it was Petronio that had the letting go to do. "The catalyst for changing it was injury: Last year I sprained my ankle, so I had some of my company members take on the more difficult dance passages," he explains. "And I realized I liked that idea since it was about the evolution of my father over the course of life. In the same way, I'm close to 60 now, so to watch my body execute movement is different than the proposition of my dancers doing so. They are the manifestation of my thought. They're my body now. It's that same connection to family – of all sorts."


TDF Members: At press time, discounts were available for Stephen Petronio Company. Go here to browse our current offers.

Lauren Kay is a writer and performer who regularly writes about dance for TDF Stages.

Photos by Sarah Silver. Top photo: Stephen Petronio Company.