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Are We in a Platinum Age of Dance?

Stephen Petronio Company, "Underland." L-R: Reed Luplau, Julian De Leon, Natalie Mackessy. Photo by Julie Lemberger.

We often hear that the golden age of modern dance is past, and that the genre hasn’t cohered in any discernible way since that era—roughly the 1970s, after the Judson movement had guided choreographers into parallel modern and postmodern threads. But at this moment, we’re able to enjoy the fruits of mature artists—whether new works or restaged older gems—as well as those of the generations that followed. The end-of-this-year dissolution of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company has forced a closer consideration of the situation. MCDC performed wonderfully at the Joyce recently, most prominently presenting a remounting of Antic Meet (1958). Robert Rauschenberg’s witty, absurdist costumes teased the work into its humorous shape. We laughed with the dancers, not at them, nor they at us. While less reliant on choreographic structure than visual jokes, it felt like a breath of fresh air within the knotty, puzzle-like (albeit rewarding) repertory, including CRWDSPCR and Quartet, also on the bill.

Trisha Brown, another all-star modern choreographer, presented a program at DTW in March. Her rigorous structure was at its most challenging in For MG: The Movie (1991), with its relentless accumulations, repeating sections, and sheer ambition. Brown’s work is technically challenging as well, but there’s a warmth and humanity manifested in the dancers’ contact and interpersonal exchanges. (In Cunningham, they interact more as scientific analysis than stemming from emotion.) A Brown classic, Foray Forêt (1990), was also performed, with the brain teasingly clever use of a marching band in the lobby, plus the solo Water Motor (1978, danced by Neal Beasley), showing a rarer sharpness and ferocity.

The dancing in Water Motor conjured the image of ex-Brown dancer Stephen Petronio, whose company is at the Joyce this week with the New York premiere of Underland. Set in 2003 on the Sydney Dance Company to Nick Cave’s songs, the multi-part, hour-long work is a bit of a departure for Petronio, who often creates shorter (half an hour or less) repertory works. Underland bursts with his torquing, explosive style, made to feel all the more on edge with Tara Subkoff’s de-reconstructed, multi-change costumes. In sections with a slower tempo, or when the movement fades into gesture, the work falters temporarily, as the drama in Petronio’s language comes from sheer energy—momentum, or arresting it, as in the spectacular finale of Underland. Of special note is dancer Reed Luplau, with his hummingbird fluttering feet and darting precision—another highlight in the current platinum age of dance.

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SundayArts is made possible in part by First Republic Bank and by the Rubin Museum of Art. Funding for SundayArts is also made possible by Rosalind P. Walter, The Paul and Irma Milstein Foundation, The Philip & Janice Levin Foundation, Elise Jaffe and Jeffrey Brown, Jody and John Arnhold, and The Lemberg Foundation. This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Additional funding provided by members of THIRTEEN.
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