Dance Review: Stephen Petronio: Past and present
The choreographer has recovered and re-staged several postmodern classics, which inform his own current work.
Stephen Petronio returned to Portland’s Newmark Theatre four years after his company danced the haunting, longform piece Like Lazarus Did. This time, his company performed a concert that included both a recent, original work and a set of iconic and influential pieces from some of Petronio’s postmodern heroes and mentors—Yvonne Rainer, Steve Paxton and Anna Halprin.
Starting in 2014 with Merce Cunningham’s RainForest, the company has added one or more historic pieces to its repertoire as part of the project Petronio calls Bloodlines. After celebrating his company’s 30th anniversary, Petronio began Bloodlines as a way to honor the choreographers whose works were pivotal to Petronio’s own legacy. At the same time, the series provides a new path forward for the company—each season they perform a new, original work alongside the historical pieces. As writer Melanie George explains in her excellent essay included with the program, Bloodlines establishes “a ”dialogue with itself and current and future pieces by Petronio.“ It’s a way of saying, ”this is where we’ve come from,” that doesn’t just leave Petronio’s influences in the past: The historic pieces brought to life on the stage, some of them for the first time in many years, find an equal footing with brand new work.
This invites a comparative reading of the dances, new and old alike. Besides Cunningham, Petronio has focused on Trisha Brown, Halprin, Paxton, and Rainer for this exciting, ongoing project.
The Portland program, which runs through Saturday night, proceeds from old to new, and given where it starts in the history of postmodern dance, it may also proceed from hard to easy for some viewers. This show opened with three pieces from Rainer, who, like her contemporary Trisha Brown, was one of the foundational figures in the minimal, deconstructed dance that came out of the New York scene in the 1960s and 1970s and continues to influence choreography today. The pieces from tonight’s program were first performed within a few years of Rainer’s famous No Manifesto, which serves as a useful introduction to her aesthetic:
“NO to spectacle. No to virtuosity. No to transformations and magic and make-believe. No to the glamour and transcendency of the star image. No to the heroic. No to the anti-heroic. No to trash imagery. No to involvement of performer or spectator, No to style. No to camp. No to seduction of spectator by the wiles of the performer. No to eccentricity. No to moving or being moved.”
Rainer’s first piece, Diagonal, is a game in a very literal sense. The company enters the stage counting in place to a steady beat that lays the foundation for a set of movements, coded by numbers and letters, that they must perform on command. Every dancer has the power to declare a code or tag someone else into the action, though there appear to be rules that select only portions of the company at a time, which sets up opportunities for conflicting movements. They play the game until Petronio calls “time.”
What we see are the bones of choreography, simple movements that become complex when performed over time, subject to the different desires and circumstances of the performers. While it may seem repetitive or procedural at moments, it becomes clear that the dancers are speaking to each other in the language of movement when you realize that some of them are struggling not to laugh in response to a command thrown out by one of their colleagues that seemed designed just to mess with them.
Minimalist and deconstructed work like this sometimes faces an ironic challenge with the contemporary viewer. The work often comes out of efforts to strip its subjects of affect or distracting context so that the core qualities of its medium can be seen more clearly. To that degree, what happens on stage when Stephen Petronio Company performs a piece like Diagonal in 2018 is very similar to what it looked like when it was first performed in 1963, especially compared to how a modern staging of The Nutcracker compares to its first performances.
However, what we as viewers bring to the experience has changed enormously. The lack of aesthetic in this work becomes an aesthetic in itself when placed on a timeline of modern and postmodern dance in the 20th century. It is tempting, if not automatic, to look for something “to get” that Rainer has emphatically told us is not there to be found. Work like this attempts to reference nothing more than the movements and encounters it contains, which may engender a feeling of “I don’t get it” if you mistakenly see that simplicity as an indication that you are not clever enough to see what’s missing. The more you can leave that worry behind, the more clearly you can see what’s on the stage in front of you.
George characterizes Rainer’s movement vocabulary as “a fascination with pedestrianism and repetition, direct locomotor movement, limb initiation as an obstacle to traveling movement, and an averted gaze.” This is a great list of qualities to watch for in the iconic Trio A with Flags and the more jubilant Chair Pillow.
Trio A with Flags establishes the use of cycling, repetitive movement and counterpoint as other useful tools to examine the real actions of the dancers and their performance. Originally performed in the nude, the piece was intended to be available to anyone willing to try it, regardless of skill level. This proposal is another challenge to seeing the work as it is rather than as a historical piece with its own aesthetic, given the thematic qualities identified by George
Beyond that, the anti-classical qualities of it may present a challenge to performers with some degree of conventional skill. ArtsWatch editor Barry Johnson once watched Rainer teach this piece as a visiting instructor at Reed, saying that “everywhere the body wants to turn out, this turns in.” This worked for some dancers and absolutely did not for others. The later addition of American flags, draped around the dancer’s necks like long bibs, is a sort of active demonstration of the way that historical context intercedes in these efforts to strip dance and performance down to their abstract components. Given the political climate in the early ‘70s when they were first added to this performance, they can be seen as a gesture of political minimalism. The flag is just there, a specific but neutral symbol that will receive the connotations that we put onto it as viewers.
Chair Pillow infuses the ingredients of Rainer’s minimalism with a lively joy. We see the same sort of simple gestures and cyclical actions unite in a company-wide number. The titular props provide a framework for what the New Yorker called “everydayness coupled with endless variation” when talking about similar work from Trisha Brown.
After a pause, dancer Nicholas Sciscione took the stage to perform Steve Paxton’s Excerpt from Goldberg Variations. Paxton’s application of modern choreography to Gould’s interpretations of classical music is another opportunity to reframe our historical readings of these aesthetic choices. Gould was famous for seeking a sort of musical purity in his performances, eventually refusing to perform live in favor of using technology to assemble a “perfect” version of the piece. It’s a beautiful, watery solo piece that Sciscione carries with incredible lightness. Its place in the program invites comparison between how we read the difference between Paxton and Rainer’s use of spareness, repetition, and energy, and where they are located within the structure of their choreography.
Anna Halprin’s The Courtesan and the Crone opened the second half of the show. Created in 1999 when Halprin was 79, the piece departs from the formal concerns of the previous half of the show, engaging directly with narrative and the aesthetics of stage performance. Petronio himself performs this feminist mediation on aging, beauty, and self perception. His big-hearted, sultry performance expands the conversation to drag and genderqueer themes, and there was something very human and generous about seeing the man whose name is on the marquee tease the audience as he literally stripped off a mask and costume, alone on stage.
Petronio’s new work, Untitled Touch finished the show. The company’s talents were running high in this one. Petronio’s ability to attract new work by avant garde musicians once again brought us an exclusive soundtrack by Son Lux, which by itself would be worth seeing the show. It’s a tactile performance, with the dancers crossing bodies more than they work together, meeting in an energetically precise tangle of limbs. George puts it well when she says, “in the context of this program, we see clear nods to Trisha Brown’s dynamism, Paxton’s athleticism, Rainer’s intellect, and Halprin’s humanity.”
Of course it’s not just a pastiche of other styles: It’s still very much a contemporary piece, with Petronio’s style on full display. The preceding program has just given us a history lesson on how this new creature evolved.
What’s remarkable about the Bloodlines project is that it shows, in a very real way, what the historical pieces it examines were and where they went rather than fixating on the historical details that surrounded them. It is easier to list the features of history than it is to bring it back to life for an evening. But Petronio didn’t get where he is today by taking the easy route.