It’s kismet that Stephen Petronio’s recent Joyce Theater run, which ended last weekend, coincided with that of Trisha Brown Dance Company’s BAM engagement, but it proved an interesting scheduling twist. Mentor and protégé dancing across the river from one another—in Petronio parlance, recalling his memorable dance City of Twist of a several years back—you might say “twist of boroughs.”
Petronio danced with Brown from 1979-86, and was the first male dancer with her company. Dancing for such an inventor as Brown in the formative years of his career might leave a tangible imprint on Petronio’s vocabulary. But he created a unique language that seemed radical when he began, and 25 years later, still looks remarkably fresh and independent from Brown’s style, apart from flowing, organic phrasing.
Another of Brown’s influences that Petronio might have picked up is the knack for choosing smart collaborators. Brown’s recent BAM season was dedicated to the memory of her longtime associate, artist Robert Rauschenberg. He designed the set for Glacial Decoy, which was performed at BAM. Painter Vija Celmins created the spacious starry sky backdrop for O zlozony/O composite, and sound by Laurie Anderson.
Petronio’s list of past collaborators includes noted fashion designers in addition to renowned artists and composers, including Rufus Wainwright. This year, for I Drink the Air Before Me, he got a two-for-one bargain with photographer Cindy Sherman, who set the tone for the evening-length work by designing a salty dog costume for Petronio, who simply spoke from his crow’s nest (lighting truss) before the dance began. (Adam Kimmel chose the costumes for the dancers, balancing the line between nautical and penal.) Ropes stretched above the audience’s head just before curtain enforced the maritime idea, but proved to be a red herring.
The choreographer is known for his bold physicality, with phrases darting frenetically across stage, bodies and limbs whipping in spirals. The movement in I Drink the Air felt more modulated, less anxious than his usual. The slashing arabesques and boosted lifts still remain, plus the occasional beautiful group tableau, but a greater sense of calm prevailed, particularly in the last section. I also remembered how fond I am of his dancers, particularly vets Shila Tirabassi and Gino Grenek.
Young composer Nico Muhly, who works with Philip Glass, wrote the score, which he conducted and performed with a small orchestra. Occasional swells of notes reinforced our presumption of a sea theme; chords, punctuated notes, bits of melody, and choice of instrumentation combined to form an impressionistic picture of sound. The Young People’s Chorus sang movements that bookended the work, another of Petronio’s cultural time capsules.
Photo of Stephen Petronio Company “I Drink the Air Before Me,” from left to right: Davalois Fearon, Mandy Kirschner, and Shila Tirabassi. Image by Steven Schreiber.