Friday, March 11, 2016

Stephen Petronio Company at The Joyce Theater

Emily Stone (r) and Cori Kresge of Stephen Petronio Company
in Trisha Brown's Glacial Decoy
(photo: Yi-Chun Wu)

Trisha Brown can claim special place in Stephen Petronio's artistic DNA and now, as well, in his "Bloodlines" series, a platform for reviving masterworks by choreographers who have informed his practice. Last spring at The Joyce TheaterStephen Petronio Company launched Bloodlines with performances of Merce Cunningham's RainForest (1968). For the current Joyce season, the troupe has mounted Glacial Decoy, the 1979 landmark collaboration between Brown and Robert Rauschenberg that features the artist's unforgettable costumes and visual design.

A line from Petronio's brand new ensemble piece--Big Daddy (Deluxe), second work on the bill--reminded me of the one concern I had about Glacial Decoy. Towards the end of Big Daddy (Deluxe), a danced/spoken homage to the choreographer's late father, Petronio says, "Death, like gravity, steals the show." Gravity, ultimately, does not steal Glacial Decoy, but Petronio's dancers keep us too aware of it, and what might be a silken transition for a Trisha Brown dancer looks like a split-second negotiation with gravity, a conscious, visible decision about making one's body disrupt its expected patterns to do the unusual. Brown's dancers never look heavy or hesitant, even for a nanosecond; they yield, elusive, incomprehensible. Only Petronio's pairing of Emily Stone and Cori Kresge restores Brown's sleight-of-hand, sleight-of-shoulders, torso, everything else. I loved these two sisterly clouds, so much pleasure in their billowing and playfulness.

"The anger forged into my language is utilized as a call to action," wrote the choreographer and ACT UP activist of his ensemble work, MiddleSexGorge, premiered in 1990 but new to me. The problem with MiddleSexGorge is that--aside from its grating, unrelenting music--the work doesn't read as angry. Saucy, at times, and outright orgiastic for the most part. But not angry. I really can't see what it's saying about AIDS, about community, about society. In any case, I longed to be released from it.

Stephen Petronio, at center, in Big Daddy (Deluxe)
(photo: Yi-Chun Wu)

Big Daddy (Deluxe), then, seems the more radical of the two Petronio works on the program. Bear with me for a minute.

Based on Petronio's 2014 solo, Big Daddy, this loving, compassionate piece includes all the dancers in a visualization of the choreographer's memories of life with his Italian-American family and Thomas Petronio, its charismatic, "warm and luminous" patriarch. Bringing Tom, Sunny, Big Daddy--the man had numerous nicknames--to life for us, Petronio narrates throughout and does so imperfectly with stumbles, here and there, and the smallest hint of upwelling emotion. It's a transparent and bravely imperfect un-performance. And this is the reason I find it radical--at least for the Joyce where we expect polish even when polish might not end up meaning anything in particular.

Petronio's victory in Big Daddy (Deluxe) is to make me chuckle a lot more than once and wish that I could have met Tom Petronio and--although he'd probably not care for my politics--shake his hand. What could be more successful than that?

Stephen Petronio Company continues at the Joyce through Sunday, March 13 (various times). For information and tickets, click here.

The Joyce Theater
175 Eighth Avenue (at 19th Street), Manhattan
(directions)

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