Stephen Petronio Reflects on the Challenge of Modern Choreography
New York choreographer Stephen Petronio was the first male member of the legendary Trisha Brown Dance Company, where he performed between 1979 and 1986. He founded his own company in 1984, and has become one of the world’s most sought-after dance artists. His work is hip, jarring and highly demanding, blending modern fashion, new music and visual art with physically extreme, highly technical movement. A collaborative artist, Petronio has worked with American photographer and filmmaker Cindy Sherman, and Spanish fashion designer Manolo Blahnik. His dances have been set to the music contemporary composer and musicologist Michael Nyman, and more recently with rockers Lou Reed and Rufus Wainwright. Last week Petronio spoke about the company’s new season of touring, and considered the ways in which the tone of his work has shifted in recent years.
In Santa Barbara you’ll be showing your new work, BLOOM and last year’s bud suite, both set to tracks by Rufus Wainwright, as well as 1992’s Rite Part, set to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. How’s the tour of that program going so far? Bloom premiered in New York in April, and the company started this week on a US tour that will go until next April. I love it. It has been fantastic. Rite Part is pretty scary. It’s quite tense. BLOOM is much more uplifting, so the mood moves over the course of the evening. Our audiences seem engaged, especially in BLOOM. Rufus wrote some incredibly beautiful and hopeful music.
How did the collaboration with Wainwright arise, and what was he like to work with as an artist? He’s a great musician, I love his music. I was working with Lou Reed a few years ago and he wrote “The Balloon Song,” which was sung by Kate Mcgarrigle. Right before the show, I found out that she was Rufus’s mother. Rufus came and saw the work, liked it, and we started talking about collaborating.
Why did you decide to involve the Young People’s Chorus of New York City in BLOOM? What kind of impact did that have, and how does it differ on tour? My idea for Bloom was to have it surrounded by the vibe of youth. I wanted to collaborate with Rufus, and I wanted to have a chorus as well. He loved the idea. He wrote a full-on choral score—he’d never done anything like it, and it was great to see him attack the problem. What happens is in some cities is we engage a chorus, send out the score out and have them rehearse in advance. In Santa Barbara, I think we’ll be using a recording, where Rufus sings all the parts.
Deborah Jowitt, longtime dance critic at the Village Voice, has admitted your work scares the hell out of her—why do you think that is? A lot of my work has been made in anger, so the movement can be quite violent and aggressive. There are a lot of near misses, and a driving force to the work, especially the earlier work. In Rite Part, particularly the last solo, I created an angry, hysterically empowered woman. I think there’s a lot in the world to be mad about. I think most artists’ work is like a scream in the void. With Right Part in particular, it was about the concept behind Rite of Spring—having a virgin sacrificed to perpetuate the agricultural cycle. I thought about how angry I would be if I was a woman and that was the scenario, so I made the most powerful and sexually aggressive woman I could. It’s also the music that’s scary—the pianist pounds the piano as if it’s a jackhammer. It’s percussive and violent.
That’s a piece of music that’s been used so often by choreographers—was it intimidating to attempt to do something new with such a well-exercised score? I felt the same thing—Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring has been used a lot. At the time I chose it, I knew very little about classical music, and I just wanted to start with the hardest thing possible. I had to be brave enough to try it. I think the sacred dance at the end is one of the best things I’ve ever done. There’s no virgin being sacrificed in mine. The woman dancing at the end of Rite Part is not giving anything up. My work is pretty abstract—there’s really no narrative.
Tell me about the impetus for bud—it started as a male duet and has been extended to a four-part suite, right? Yes—I was using these four tracks I took from Rufus before we did BLOOM. I was doing it partly as a way to entice him and work with his rhythms. I wanted to make a male duet where men were throwing one another around—using all the playful and sensual implications of that kind of interaction between two buddies. Then there’s a female duet, a female quartet, and section for the whole company. All four songs are about desire and about how people are together, how they handle each other.
Going much further back in time to your early years as a dancer, what aspects of Steve Paxton and Trisha Brown’s work do you think you responded to initially? What do you think you took on as your own? The investigation of movement and movement invention—they pioneered that in a very specific way. I have natural sequencing in my body and they both have that, too—a sequencing through the spine and the limbs. It was a very natural progression. Steve was improvising, so early on I got to investigate a personal movement vocabulary of my own. Trisha was improvising and then memorizing it, which encouraged me to begin to set a movement language.
Can you elaborate on what you mean by a natural sequencing in the body? Just like the alphabet goes from A to Z, a movement ripples from my toe through my leg into my pelvis through my ribcage and shoulder and out through my arm—it’s like a wave of energy passing through the body. Stylistically I think I’ve moved away from that work, though. I work with classical companies too. I really steal from everybody. I think my work is much more virtuosic than Steve and Trish’s stuff—I like that virtuosity. I’m really interested in the look of virtuosity.
Tell me a little about your interest in Kabbalah—how do those beliefs and practices intersect with your approach to making art? I think everything influences everything. I’ve been studying Kabbalah for over 10 years now. I think actually BLOOM might be more about light than dark because of that—I think in the last 10 years I’ve become more interested in making a positive contribution to the world, as well as a disruptive contribution.
You’re 50 this year, am I right? What’s that landmark like for you as an artist? Does it mean much to you? Yeah, totally! I’m 50—I’m an old wise man now. (Laughs.) I still feel like an idiot, and a child. But I wouldn’t have made BLOOM 10 years ago. It’s pretty harmonic and symmetrical. I wouldn’t have let myself do that before. I wasn’t mature enough, I wanted to mess up the audience more than that, and deconstruct the stage. I think the shift comes as much from years of experience as from my age itself.
People refer to your work as provocative and audacious—is that your intention? Do you want to shock or provoke? There’s certainly an overtly sexual charge to your work—how does that energy intertwine with the themes of youth and innocence in bloom? I’m not interested in shock. I’m definitely interested in prodding myself and others. I like going into new territory, I like being disoriented, and disoriented audiences. I think it’s important not to tell audiences what to think. That’s not very interesting. Art is challenge—it should be bringing up questions and causing arguments between people afterwards in the lobby, not lulling them into agreement. That’s always been the function of art in my life, and it has served me very well.
How has it served you well? It has pushed me into territory I wouldn’t have gone to before. I love being challenged, oddly confused, thinking that I don’t understand. You come to clarity, then go on to the next thing. That’s how I work with movement, too: I try to up the ante every year. I ask things like, “How many beats per minute can we tolerate, how much information can the body absorb when you’re making movement?” You struggle with it, and then a few months later you think, “I found that hard?” and you get it and go on to the next level with it. It’s kind of an American thing I guess, but I think our capacity for learning things is pretty infinite.
How do your dancers respond to that challenge? I think they’re here for that very reason. The work is too hard—if you’re lazy, you won’t make it through the first month. It’s not for everybody.
How do you hope audiences will approach your work? Open your eyes wide and don’t sweat it, just enjoy it. That’s what it’s there for.
As well as to disorient us? Exactly. I like being disoriented. I know that’s a little perverse. You ask some good questions, I’ve really enjoyed that.