Stephen Petronio Company

at the Dance Center of Columbia College, December 5-7

By Terry Brennan

Heroes aren’t what they used to be.

That sentiment is one of the inspirations for Lareigne, Stephen Petronio said in an audience discussion after a performance at the Dance Center. He also said that the title is a pun suggesting that after a reign of heroes will come a reign of heroines.

When I grew up in the 60s, heroes were simple; they were supermen like Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Batman, and Superman. John Kennedy even took on the persona of a superman: he was a war hero whose book Profiles in Courage I read. Kennedy’s superman persona made his sudden death doubly shocking, and later made the details of his sex life both extremely sordid and almost understandable.

Petronio’s dancers come out of the superman mold. They are lightning fast, strong, tireless, and sensitive to the nuances of movement. Their movement combines classical forms–arabesques, pirouettes, pointed toes–with such modern innovations as snaky, coiling torsos and head rolls during double-speed chaine turns. It’s stunning stuff.

But the superman style of hero died sometime during the 1960s or 1970s, and a new kind of hero emerged from Joseph Campbell’s work on myths. Campbell’s hero is snatched from a normal life and forced to undergo a series of trials, then finds some treasure and returns to enrich his society with it. Campbell’s redemptive hero is far more interesting than a superman. An alcoholic penetrating the labyrinth of his denial to find the treasure of the fact of his addiction, then returning to his society a changed man–that’s a hero’s journey.

Redemptive heroes seem to be everywhere you look. Petronio’s dancers are not only supermen and superwomen but redemptive heroes in the midst of their trials. None of the dancers is paid for rehearsals; all of them work other jobs so they can dance. Assistant artistic director Kristen Berg, who has danced with Petronio for 13 years, told a story about being onstage in a European theater with a couple thousand people applauding and thinking, “Yeah, well, if you really like me, you can come to the Burger Barn next week and I’ll be your waitress.”

Petronio’s dancers face the common dilemma of contemporary artists–the task of producing exquisite work while being paid less than minimum wage. They exemplify the deep social division between a mainstream TV culture and an arts counterculture. The fine arts in America today are less high art than contra-art, its practitioners marginalized rebels rather than exalted leaders. The best popular image of this kind of hero is Luke Skywalker, an orphan boy from an obscure place who falls in with a ragtag band of misfits on a dilapidated spaceship but somehow becomes part of a rebel force destroying institutionalized evil: the black mask of the corporation.

For a redemptive hero the treasure isn’t always obvious. The treasure a hero seeks may turn out to be fool’s gold, but the hero accidentally returns with real treasure. For example, I suspect that the feminine reign Petronio seeks in Lareigne is fool’s gold, inspired by ideology rather than experience. The many contradictions of Petronio’s work puzzle me and make me wonder if he can accomplish a hero’s task. The first riddle is that he’s created a dance about the end of heroism while he and his dancers live heroes’ lives on more than one level. A second problem involves Petronio’s dance logic. Petronio said that he tried to make the movement in Lareigne too fast to perceive as a way of showing that his heroes, his dancers, no longer exist. But the dance simply left me numb, as if the superfast movement were pummeling me; I felt angry and bruised. Petronio’s attempt at alchemy–converting superheroism into antiheroism–simply fails.

Third, style and substance are often at odds in Petronio’s dances, which have a luscious, exciting surface; the costume designs are some of the best I’ve seen. Among Manolo’s designs for Drawn That Way are leather fishnet skirts worn by bare-chested men. Often the costumes hint at ballet forms but are uncharacteristically revealing, sexy, elegant, and visually arresting. In all the evening’s dances the men are bare-chested, and Petronio in his solo Number 3 has the buff body of a weight lifter. Petronio’s frequent use of rock music–the score for Lareigne is a rock song by the Strangers and a commissioned composition by David Linton that combines bubbling sounds with assaultive rock choruses–makes his work seem more accessible. In fact this beguiling surface led the San Francisco Chronicle to title its review “Petronio’s Beautiful Bodies,” and the advertising for the Dance Center performance claimed that Petronio is “more a part of rock culture than modern dance.”

Which is nonsense. Petronio danced with Trisha Brown’s postmodern company for seven years. In the after-show discussion, he said that he’s proud to be the kind of thinking choreographer that Brown is. Yet much of Petronio’s audience seems to respond to his shimmering, stylish surface without understanding its intellectual depth.

A final contradiction is that Petronio’s fast, technically brilliant movement communicates heat, urgency, and passion, but the dances as a whole seem ramshackle and unstructured; often their only clear message is detachment. Perhaps this is due to Petronio’s method of making dances. He creates a series of phrases, then drills the dancers until they can perform the phrases almost without thinking. This relentless drill gives the movement its intensity. Then Petronio works with the dancers, setting tasks, structuring improvisations, slowly building the piece as if putting together a jigsaw puzzle. Reflecting this process, the works seem intellectual–they don’t have much emotional impact beyond the visceral impact of the movement.

The only dance escaping this fate is Middlesex Gorge, which has a sort of narrative. Dancers isolated at first form couples, then a large group that swings each member in turn into the air. The throbbing chorus in Wire’s commissioned music–“ambitious…ambitious”–suddenly makes sense of the dance as a story: a group of competitive friends have joined together to launch each person by turn onto the arc of their ambition. I suddenly saw in them the groups of traders hanging out at the bars near the Board of Trade on Friday nights.

Because of Petronio’s way of working, the success of each dance depends mainly on the phrases he initially creates for it. And he puts a great deal of thought into these phrases and what they mean. For example, the phrases in Middlesex Gorge are intended to embody manipulation and control, in particular sexual manipulation–a big pelvic circle is part of the phrase. One of Petronio’s characteristic movements is a twisting torso led by the head, which he described as his “existential” movement, expressing curiosity about the world. But for me this movement phrase isn’t eloquent enough to communicate this meaning. And Middlesex Gorge comes across as sexy but doesn’t communicate anything about control.

Through all these contradictions a portrait of Petronio begins to emerge. He is clearly an exceptionally bright, complex individual for whom “sexy” and “intellectual” are not contradictions. He is clearly hero material, but I see a flaw that seems to be preventing him from going further. Part of the hero’s journey is to bring back his treasure for the enrichment of his society. But Petronio seems to feel cut off from his society and sees no need to enrich it. Lareigne is actively hostile to the audience, and none of the other three dances makes a strong emotional connection. Petronio is right about himself–his characteristic movement is a curious exploration of the world, led by the head. This is useful work, but it’s not hero’s work.

Whether Petronio’s alienation is his fault or the fault of this topsy-turvy world, I don’t know. But a hero would seek to turn the world back on its feet.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Beatriz Schiller.