Bud Suite, BLOOM, and The Rite Part, presented by Stephen Petronio Company
At UCSB’s Campbell Hall, Wednesday, January 24.
Reviewed by Elizabeth Schwyzer
Lights up on two men in tight red underpants, each wearing half a suit jacket held to his body by a row of black elastic straps. One man leans heavily on the other’s back, slips off, grasps at a dangling arm and sends his companion into a whipping corkscrew turn. Scythe-like arms slash through the air with lethal efficiency, joints fold and buckle. “Why am I always on a plane or a fast train?” croons Rufus Wainwright, as the two men tussle. With a sudden burst of violence, one man yanks the other past him and then busts a breathtaking arabesque.
This is choreography that tests the limits of physical possibility. Set on lesser dancers, this kind of movement would be painful to watch — you’d see the absurd difficulty of it, sense the struggle. These dancers, though, have been tempered by fire. They are tough, taut, and relentlessly agile. They perform with maximum intensity, pushing beyond extreme exertion and hardly noticing. On and on they go — tossing limbs with total abandon, yet maintaining pyrotechnical precision. In this kind of commitment to movement, there’s absolute security for the audience; the movement never seems chosen because it’s within reach. Instead, anything seems possible, as if, were the dancers to levitate or sprout extra limbs, it wouldn’t surprise anyone in the slightest.
All this intensity is infinitely satisfying to any admirer of athletic and technical prowess or choreographic virtuosity, but even those who like it hard and fast need to come up for air once in a while. And Petronio doesn’t allow much breathing space. Even in the relatively gentle BLOOM, the new group piece set to Wainwright’s lovely and wide-ranging choral score, there’s a relentless push and a refusal of respite. In fact, the more Petronio holds back from the more familiar language of savage space-eating and breakneck speed, the more he seems frustrated, even passive-aggressive, finally sending his dancers flying back and forth and back again across the stage at a furious pace, leaping in full contractions as if pursued and tortured simultaneously.
It’s in The Rite Part, his 15-year-old take on Nijinsky’s 1913 ballet, The Rite of Spring, that Petronio really lets his Italian temper rage, imbuing one sinuous female soloist with awesome fury, agony, and power. When she unleashes it all in an orgiastic explosion, nothing is withheld. That’s what I call pure Petronio: unbridled, aggressive, and unadulterated.