at MoMing Dance & Arts Center

April 27-30

Stephen Petronio’s dances defy description. Movements rush by with gale force. Dance phrases are so densely packed that they barely register; if ever there was a choreographic equivalent of subliminal advertising, this is it.

The dances’ actual movement images, even the most mundane and gestural ones, affect the viewer without his consciously perceiving them. Petronio alternately collapses and explodes our sense of time: clear and emphatic unison sections may last only five or six counts; a solo passage featuring the movement of one finger on one raised hand may take several minutes. Petronio’s movement vocabulary is entirely idiosyncratic: these steps, jumps, lifts, and turns aren’t in any of our dance lexicons–not in ballet, not in modern, not in social-dance forms, not even in the multitude of postmodern vocabularies derived from pedestrian and natural movement. With no familiar vocabulary, no narrative framework, and all our usual notions of temporality shot to hell, we lack the perceptual tools to make watching these dances a conscious experience.

Perhaps this is why people either adore Petronio’s work or abhor it. These dances provoke kinesthetic and emotional reactions: you could almost check your brain at the door. And yet the moment the dance is over, the intellect reengages with a perceptible jolt. These dances, these dancers, are profoundly thoughtful, thought-provoking, and tough.

Surrender II, a duet for Frey Faust and Jeremy Nelson created for an April ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) benefit in New York, is an effortful, abstract, and evocative dance. Surrender is primarily about the possibilities of dance: the ways a dancer transfers weight from one limb to another, the ways two dancers can shift their combined weight from one to the other, the ways movement can be initiated, the contrasts between supported, solo, and shared balances. Some of the possibilities are smooth, some beautiful, some dangerous, and others ungainly: Surrender is all that and more.

In the midst of the dance’s improbable lifts, explosive leaps, and lightning-fast changes of direction, Surrender suddenly veers from the formal to the literal. The explicit sexual imagery lasts barely a moment, so brief that it nearly recedes from consciousness but so powerful and clearly etched that it resonates throughout the remainder of the dance.

Surrender strikes me as an astonishingly affirmative vision of human potential. It is frank, sincere, and confident. Petronio refuses to pander to popular tastes: Surrender neither titillates nor proselytizes. People–homosexual and heterosexual alike–all too often pigeonhole works by professed gay artists. But Surrender is simultaneously so abstract and so human that it can no more be reduced to a single politically correct dogma than it can be rejected out of hand as perversion. The choreography is inventive and innovative, the performance sterling: Surrender is good dance, pure and simple.

All seven members of the company–Faust, Nelson, Petronio, Kristen Borg, Susan Braham, Rebecca Hilton, and Mia Lawrence–are strong, supple, and surprising dancers. They have seven distinct body types, seven distinct personalities, even seven distinct ways of presenting the same movement material. Petronio’s choreography incorporates such short, quick bits of unison movement that we never have the opportunity to see them as an ensemble, yet each dances with an absolute awareness of the other six, constantly shifting to accommodate the others. They can catch one another in mid-leap, arrest each other’s falls at the last skull-threatening second, and never lose the tensionless quality that characterizes even Petronio’s riskiest choreography.

If any one of the seven stands out, it is Petronio. His body is marked by his seven years with the Trisha Brown Company; he is a fluid dancer, loose-jointed and sometimes apparently boneless. In his signature solo, #3, Petronio links angular, awkward, even anguished movement images with liquid transitions. The imagery is evocative rather than specific: his cupped hand runs through his short hair and drifts down to waist level; his shoulders pull farther and farther back, then pop forward with startling suddenness; crossed forearms obscure his face, fingers flutter and suddenly draw hands to thighs. #3 focuses on the torso, arms, and head; the legs are lost below the spotlight and change position only two or three times. Ken Tabachnick’s moody lighting underscores the dance’s purely sculptural qualities and increases the ambience of pain and foreboding.

#3 is as dark and threatening as a dance that lacks a specific story can be. I have no idea just what the dance’s emotional content is, or what those vague, unsettling poses represent, only that the dance is deeply disturbing. What stands out in repeated viewing is the dance’s startlingly lyrical musicality. #3 is set to Lenny Pickett’s “Dance Music for Borneo Horns #5,” a memorable score that honks, tweets, and saunters. The dance opens with only the sound track and a dark stage: the score creates the impression of a social rather than a theatrical dance.

When Petronio emerges from the darkness, the choreography immediately establishes a tension between the easygoing music and the dancer’s tortured postures; the music softens the dancing. Musical and movement accents frequently coincide, so we hear satin and see steel.

Petronio’s use of music is more classical than postmodern. His dances are wedded to their scores, some of the marriages full of conflict, some of harmony, and still others constantly veering between the two extremes. Musicality lends Petronio’s dances a necessary accessibility. In Walk-In, composer David Linton’s “Dias de Fuego Muerte” strings the dance’s disparate sections together like so many multicolored beads in a necklace.

Walk-In begins with Susan Braham standing in a dimly lit corner of the stage. Justin Terzi’s black-and-white painted drops are ambiguous, larger than life: a face that might be Mao, a twisting nude reminiscent of Rodin’s bronzes, a ladder. The initial movement is focused, almost minimalist: a creeping turn of the head; slow, straight arms driving flexed wrists; a series of movements for one peculiarly articulated fourth finger. Braham’s extended arms conspire with the soft lighting and the score’s rippling electronic glissandi to create the impression of falling, drifting, sinking. The brightly lit second solo, Petronio’s own, juxtaposes slow, symmetrical arm movements with fast-footed jumps, kicks, and changes of direction; in a fraction of a second a leg rotates from full turnout to a torturous turn-in.

The movement builds upon itself, layer by layer. In the quartet that follows, time shatters. We see the dancers glance at their palms, look at their wrists, and perform slow isolations of the shoulder as well as repeat Braham’s slow head gestures and Petronio’s mercurial rotation. But everything happens so quickly, the dance phrases press so many steps into so little time, that the movement begins to blur; we see qualities rather than movements. In the next section, a duet for Borg and Faust, we see the dancers dancing together only in moments of stillness; in the duet for Petronio and Nelson, we see the score’s sounds moving through their bodies in waves of energy, the substantial physical danger of Petronio’s idiosyncratic movement vocabulary and characteristic partnering. The score rings with increasing urgency, then lapses into silence; the group of dancers exits in great, crashing leaps.

Walk-In continues to complicate itself: images from the duets reappear in different pairs of dancers, in trios; unison phrases referring back to earlier movement motifs are so quick that they end even as we notice them. The continuous succession of sharp changes in the lighting, the score, and the expressive qualities of the movement create a dance maelstrom. Walk-In is well-nigh overwhelming, even in its quiet closing.

AnAmnesia is a more fluid and coherent dance, still difficult but in familiar ways: spatially complex and very expressive, with choreographic structures much closer to the surface than those of #3, Walk-In, or Surrender II. Tabachnick’s bright, rosy lighting alternately sparkles and veils; Terzi’s red costumes suggest play clothes and swimsuits; Peter Gordon’s boisterous score hints at klezmer bands and carnivals. No wonder AnAmnesia is such a romp.

AnAmnesia opens with two dancers standing quietly, backs to the audience, followed by a hushed, restrained unison trio of undulating torsos and carefully placed arms. The men occupy the dark foreground of the stage while the women breeze in one by one, balance, leap, and exit behind them. The women’s movement is all flashes of extended legs and powerful turns; the men’s, simple shapes. The frieze awakens–the men rollick across the stage in great arcs–and AnAmnesia takes off.

AnAmnesia is slower than Petronio’s other dances and allows us to see the contrasts between different tempi and levels of energy more readily. He builds much of AnAmnesia around passing dance phrases from one dancer to another across the performance space; each dancer picks up precisely where the other left off, mid-gesture, even mid-leap. Ripples of movement guide the viewer’s eye through the dance. Petronio also plays with rhythmic complexity–the way the touch of a toe syncopates the rhythm of the following step, for example–rather than with relentless speed and density. The dance phrases themselves are longer, the stillnesses more telling, the dance more carefully focused and approachable.

AnAmnesia signals several new directions for the choreographer, but it’s still pure Petronio–the wheeling leaps that plummet to the floor, the off-axis turns, the constant danger, the blurred line between physically impossible and merely improbable movements. AnAmnesia presents the company’s seven dancers at their very best–their extraordinary physical prowess, their utter unself-consciousness, their straightforward and unmannered dancing. They are playful, powerful, and altogether real.