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IMPRESSIONS: Stephen Petronio Company at NYU Skirball including Choreography from Merce Cunningham and Rudy Perez

IMPRESSIONS: Stephen Petronio Company at NYU Skirball including Choreography from Merce Cunningham and Rudy Perez

Published on April 23, 2019
Photo by Ian Douglas

April 11, 2019
Tread (1970)
Choreography: Merce Cunningham

Music: For 1, 2, 3 People by Christian Wolff performed live by members of Composers Inside Electronics

Coverage Revisited (1970)

Choreography, Sound Assemblage, and Costume: Rudy Perez

American Landscapes

Choreography: Stephen Petronio // Music: Jozef Van Wissem and Jim Jarmusch // Images: Robert Longo

The woman sitting next to me has caught me scrolling notes in my notebook in the dark. She turns to face me for a long moment during Tread, a work from 1970 by Merce Cunningham, restaged and performed by Stephen Petronio Company, the first of three works in their season at NYU Skirball Center.

At the pause, she asks me (along with Christine Jowers, intrepid founder of The Dance Enthusiast and my date) to offer context for what she has just seen, which has thoroughly perplexed her. She wonders about the standing fans that line the front of the stage, blowing out. She’s skeptical of the many times she saw men catch and lift women. She’s resistant to the bound movement. She asks, “What am I supposed to get from it?”

As we chat, it hits me. This conversation in 2019 may be Stephen Petronio’s aim with Bloodlines. The stated initiative of this ongoing series is to revive and honor the legacy of postmodern dance. Here we are, in Bloodlines’ fifth edition, considering Cunningham’s perspective as if it had just premiered.

A woman in lilac lifts her leg to the sides as other dancers watch
Stephen Petronio Company in Merce Cunningham's Tread; Photo by Ian Douglas

During Coverage Revisited, also from 1970 by Rudy Perez, we will soak in the perspective and experience of an American artist of color and consider all that has and hasn’t changed in nearly 50 years. It is all made live again. Finally, Petronio will add his voice to the conversation with the premiere of American Landscapes. The mix is like being at a roundtable, each work informing and questioning the others.

Of course we don’t have a definitive analysis to give our new friend, but we suggest that she let the images, memories, and sparks of each piece wash over her.

In Tread, ten dancers in bright-colored leotards and wild knee-high socks cover every inch of the stage with sharp attitude jumps, long arabesque lines, and joyful skips. Their friendly eye contact and sustained smiles are most noticeable. In brief and flighty connections, they catch, support, and lean on each other. A dancer strikes a side plank over a seated partner’s shoulder. Three men carry a woman low across the stage as if transporting a long boat. At times dancers link elbows and twist around each other like a barrel of monkeys. In one moment, when they are all seated, one performer scoots to a partner and slithers under his bent leg while the others watch intently. Several stand, scurry to pick someone up, relocate them, then sit once more.

One group of dancers slump over each other while another plays like children
Stephen Petronio Company in Merce Cunningham's Tread; Photo by Ian Douglas

It’s a playful game made richer by an ever-changing score of electronic rumblings and pings, muffled slightly by the blowing fans. Tread, to me, is a mood of open windows and freedom to explore.

Dancer Ernesto Breton tackles Rudy Perez’s Coverage Revisited with focus and charisma. Overhead, we hear radio announcements: Saturday 1 p.m., Central Park Mall . . . demonstration . . . NY State Abortion Laws . . . power to the people. Breton, in a jumpsuit and hard hat, tapes a large square center stage, anchoring the strips to the floor with strong, stylized steps. As bagpipes ring out, he takes a knee, pensive.

Soon, he sheds his suit and hat to reveal white shorts and a bandana tied tightly around his brow. As if free of significant weight, he now moves with freedom and elasticity, arching upward toward the sky. At times he stumbles and trips; at others he sassily flips a hand or flies in an assemblé jump. Although he explores numerous textures and moods, he remains confined to the square he made. 

A man and a woman lie on the floor, their legs loosely extended
Stephen Petronio and Martha Eddy in Petronio's American Landscapes; Photo by Ian Douglas

Readorning the jumpsuit, he takes up the tape as "God Bless America" blares. Not quite done, he lets the final strip fall, his vulnerability swirling with his stubbornness. He takes off his hat in a final cheeky salute.

American Landscapes begins before the audience is back from the intermission, the house lights up. As the crowd realizes Petronio is onstage, slow dancing with Martha Eddy, they cheer. A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn in hand, the two perform a loose foxtrot of sorts. When Petronio leaves, Eddy stays still in a low squat, then bursts toward the audience with swift circling arms.

The full company fills the stage, moving in and out of diagonal patterns with driving lines and turns. I am deeply struck by the way Petronio’s dancers form strong, elongated shapes and then twist them into new forms. With rare directness, they pierce through the space. Featured soloist Nicholas Sciscione exudes tangible confidence as he falls into spirals and rebounds unwaveringly to one leg.

Dancers form a dynamic stage-scape in front of an image of planes in New York
Stephen Petronio's American Landscapes; Photo by Ian Douglas

Attention bounces between the stage action and projected images by Robert Longo: waves, children’s faces, stars, horses, fighter planes, a torn American flag — things that pull at the heart and illuminate Petronio’s deeper questioning beneath the work. Having absorbed the history of 1970, we are now catapulted to our own moment. There are crowds in pussy hats at the Women’s March, football players on a knee. We know this stuff.

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