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Dance Up Close to 32 Years of Choreography with Stephen Petronio

Dance Up Close to 32 Years of Choreography with Stephen Petronio

Published on March 3, 2016
Photo: Sarah Silver

Stephen Petronio Company Hits The Joyce- Following the Heart of Movement

Stephen Petronio Company

The Joyce Theater

March 8-13

Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m.

Thursday, Friday, Saturday at 8 p.m.

Sunday at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.

Please visit The Joyce Theater for tickets

Stephen Petronio went to Hampshire College in Massachusetts with the intention of studying medicine, but life — as it often does — took a serendipitous turn. While there, he discovered dance. He went on to become the first male dancer in Trisha Brown’s company before founding his eponymous troupe in 1984.

His many accolades are too long to list, but the short version includes a Guggenheim Fellowship, a New York Dance and Performance “Bessie” Award, an American Choreographer Award, and in 2015, a Doris Duke Performing Artist Award. It’s almost impossible to envision the contemporary dance landscape without Stephen Petronio.

This March, the Stephen Petronio Company’s season at The Joyce Theater features three works differing in tenor and temperature: the hot, feisty MiddleSexGorge, which is celebrating its silver anniversary; Trisha Brown’s Glacial Decoy, part of the Bloodlines initiative that showcases prominent works by modern-dance pioneers; and Big Daddy (Deluxe), a deeply personal text-and-movement piece about Petronio’s father.

A Minute of Stephen Petronio Company in Rehearsal with MiddleSexGorge


Petronio created MiddleSexGorge in response to his work with ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) in the ‘80s. To strident, sexy music by the British group Wire, dancers charge through space and sensually ripple their spines and hips. Two-and-a-half decades after its premiere, Petronio remarks that the biggest surprise regarding MiddleSexGorge is how much the work still interests him. “I think of this piece as a celebration of strength and empowerment.” The dancers of the Stephen Petronio Company didn’t live through the AIDS crisis and resulting activism, but he says, “They’re interested in that moment in history and that physicality.”

Glacial Decoy is the second piece in Petronio’s Bloodlines. Bloodlines embraces the dual goal of invoking a significant moment in dance history as well as fostering a conversation between dance’s past and present. The first work selected for Bloodlines was Merce Cunningham’s Rainforest, which the company continues to tour. Glacial Decoy holds a special place in dance’s history: It was Brown’s first work for the proscenium stage, and it features costumes and visual design by Robert Rauschenberg. It also holds a special place in Petronio’s heart: Brown choreographed it the year he joined her company. Of Glacial Decoy, Petronio says, “Its elusive movement is like razor-sharp mist that shifts magically between juxtaposed physical states.” 

  Stephen Petronio Company in Glacial Decoy choreographed by Trisha Brown; Photo by Sarah Silver

Big Daddy (Deluxe) grew out of a solo created for The American Dance Festival. “It was all on my body, but then I sprained my ankle. So I began to ask the dancers to do certain phrases for me. I got really into that idea, so I decided to make it into Big Daddy (Deluxe).” The work uses text from Petronio’s recently published memoir, Confessions of a Motion Addict. Having a text altered the energy during his choreographic process. He says, “I loved having a text. It made the arc of the piece very defined.” The text did provide some limitations due to the potentially literal association of speech to action. “I disliked being trapped by the illustrative nature of words in relationship to movement.” The challenge was to make something that was both interesting in movement and words.

Petronio has been choreographing for 32 years. Making the best work he can is what propels him forward. He strives to give his dancers his absolute best, and in return, they give him their absolute best. “Having to stay afloat for 32 years. . . Do I want to have a success every year? Yes. Do I have a success every year? No. Maybe from the outside it looks like I have, but there are many ups and downs in the cycle.”

To all the fledgling choreographers out there, Petronio advises, “If you’re doing anything because you think you should, stop. Dig in and find the heart of what you think you should be making. That’s the heart you should follow.”




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