Review: Stephen Petronio Company at The Joyce Theater (Closed Sunday March 13, 2016)

Stephen Petronio Company at The Joyce Theater (Closed Sunday March 13, 2016)
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited

Stephen Petronio Company returns to The Joyce Theater with the second season of “Bloodlines,” a multiyear project that embraces significant works by trailblazers of American postmodern dance. The 2016 season features Trisha Brown’s “Glacial Decoy” (1979), Mr. Petronio’s “MiddleSexGorge” (1990), and the world premiere of Petronio’s “Big Daddy (Deluxe).”

Trisha Brown’s landmark “Glacial Decoy” (1979) was her first work for the proscenium stage. This dance for five women uses the edges of the stage to magnify the reach of dance beyond its frame. It features an iconic visual design of projected images depicting classic Americana, along with billowing white costumes, both by Robert Rauschenberg. Mr. Petronio’s description of this iconic piece could not be more accurate: “it celebrates the intelligence of a gender-driven story like no other.” Against the backdrop of images of Americana moving left to right, five female dancers enter and exit in stunning patters of pairing, mirroring, counterpointing movement often leaving the stage bare with anticipation. The movements are in synch, just out of synch, and are mirrored by dancers who disappear into the wings with just an arm visible – powerful images representing the sometimes ephemeral and elusive nature of emotional strength and gender identity.

Mr. Petronio plays Brown’s cool, all-female meditation against the heat and volatility of “MiddleSexGorge,” (1990) his signature anthem to gender and power in the midst of repressive cultural norms. The piece is set to a commissioned score by the British post-punk band Wire, with costumes designed by H. Petal. The now iconic “bare-bottomed” male dancers clad in pale corsets or flower-bedecked “pants” collide with one another and the Company’s female dancers in a kaleidoscope of beautiful images that defy gender conformity or definition. These striking images explore a matrix of strength, weakness, sorrow, compassion, healing, and community. Ken Tabachnick’s lighting – as it does in “Big Daddy (Deluxe)” – embraces the dancers with an ethereal and enchanting glow that accentuates each movement with grace.

Mr. Petronio’s company of formidable dancers are the stars in the premiere of his talking dance, “Big Daddy (Deluxe).” Based on an uncharacteristically personal and emotional solo, “Big Daddy,” the work – originally commissioned by the American Dance Festival in 2014 – features text about his father culled from his recent memoir, “Confessions of a Motion Addict.” Mr. Petronio is to be commended for continuing to push the envelope in the development of dance in America (the genre is thankful he changed his major from pre-med); however, the “lecture demonstration” convention introduced in this world premiere seems not to serve well the overall strength of this otherwise impressive memoir to his father. The imagery in the movement settles in the memory here – not the spoken word. The calculated exits of the dancers to demonstrate the gradual dissolution of Petronio’s father’s “v-shaped” body and sharp mind is a remarkable trope better served by silence or a recording of his important reminiscence.

“Bloodlines” is not around for long and should not be missed.