The Dance Enthusiast Hits the Virtual Streets: Stephen Petronio Company's #LoveSpreadsFaster, Featuring the Premiere of #GimmeShelter
May 29, 2020
Choreography: Stephen Petronio
Performers: Larissa Asebedo, Ernesto Breton, Jaqlin Medlock, Tess Montoya, Tiffany Ogburn, Ryan Pliss, Nicholas Sciscione, Mac Twining
Music: Igor Stravinsky, the Rolling Stones
Life has shrunk in 2020. Time is a loop that spins endlessly, like a top that won’t stop. Space has collapsed to the confines of our homes and the occasional socially distanced stroll. Group interaction unfolds through screens save the tiny bubble of friends and family with whom we live.
So how do we dance when its very nature requires us to manipulate time and space in the presence of others? These days, that’s impossible, considering the deadly spread of Covid-19. Seasons have been canceled, presenters have temporarily shuttered, and companies are weathering PAUSE in far-flung locations. As for the future, when we’ll gather in theaters and studios? It’s uncertain, and that’s at best.
Yet dance we must, and we’re fortunate the field contains resilient, creative artists who will manage regardless of the circumstances. Like suns that must shine, their resoluteness pokes through the gloomy forecast. The positivity infects us all.
In March, when the world changed from normal to abnormal seemingly overnight, choreographer Stephen Petronio and his eponymous company were on tour in Akron, Ohio, for a residency at the National Center for Choreography. As the states began quarantining, the dancers dispersed to their homes, and Petronio retired to the Petronio Residency Center in Round Top, New York. Yet all were determined to keep dancing.
Thanks to the gift of Zoom from the Howard Gilman Foundation, they were able to do just that. Although the troupe’s thirty-sixth anniversary season at the Joyce Theater was called off, it celebrated with online programming, featuring archival pieces and, most thrillingly, new works. The first of the latter, #GimmeShelter, premiered on YouTube on Friday, May 29. The second, debuting May 30, was Johnnie Cruise Mercer’s A Shadow Prince, from Petronio’s new initiative, Bloodlines (future). Plus, the Merce Cunningham Trust is running a recording of Cunningham’s Tread performed by the Stephen Petronio Company through June 14.
I caught the livestream of #LoveSpreadsFaster, which included #GimmerShelter and the Danse Sacrale solo from Full Half Wrong. Although I worried I’d miss the bustle and bonhomie of a Before Times show, they were surprisingly present in the virtual world. During the live chat that ran concurrently, attendees penned greetings to friends and colleagues while others plied the company with well wishes. Exclamation points and emojis — hearts, smiley faces, and rainbows — abounded.
Petronio issued an emotional welcome and then discussed what he called “the corona-sphere” where “distance is enforced, touch is forbidden, and we, as dancers, can’t do what we’re born to do.” He gave thanks for the unexpected opportunities Covid-19 has wrought, such as making him take filmmaking more seriously and spending more time at home. Then, it was showtime although, here, a scene cut acted as a curtain pulling back.
Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring provided the propulsive score for the Full Half Wrong excerpt. Instead of a fertility ritual where a virgin is sacrificed, Petronio envisioned a solo of female empowerment and sexual ownership. He chose veteran company member Jaqlin Medlock to perform, describing her as “coming in to her own during this most ridiculous moment.”
Medlock flicked and sliced her limbs like flames licking at regressive ideas of femininity. She orbited her hips and undulated her spine, a manic cyclone of energy. When she pressed her wrists together, they suggested handcuffs until she swaggered downstage, shaking her fist over her head. The deep rectangle of her Jersey City apartment, its furniture pushed to the sides, emphasized the antic pathways that zip forward before zig-zagging backward. Afterward, Petronio said, “She disappeared into the piece.”
#GimmeShelter packed the punch of a music video with its scintillating editing by Blake Martin. Although less than five minutes long, it gushed with images both searing and tender. As the Rolling Stones’ song of the same name jangled, snippets from contemporary news footage (Trump, Fauci, the coronavirus) were cut by dancers performing in living rooms, in childhood homes, and on New York streets. They were clad in robes, T-shirts, or no shirts.
The piece swept from dancer to dancer to dancer, the choreographic impulses passing among them like a game of Frisbee. One would sink into a deep plié before another dove into a turn, and then a third gestured. Close-ups of their faces and a dog sleeping on a sofa displayed the company’s generous intimacy. They not only danced for us; they also welcomed us into their private areas, melting the typical confines that separate audience and stage. For once, since this all began, space and time had meaning.
“We’re in the middle of a global pandemic and enormous racial and social unrest, and it’s an incredibly poignant time to be dancing for you,” Petronio said at one point. “But we are here.”