At fifty, Stephen Petronio has a postmodern dance sensibility that remains a force of nature. Though he came to dance late, as a college student, his self-assured technique — developed in part through his experience in Trisha Brown's acclaimed company and with contact improvisation — traffics in high-energy, rigorous, pure movement. As Petronio has said, "A verb follows straight after a verb." But that's not to say his unrelenting momentum isn't sensitively — and stylishly — deployed. Since founding his New York-based company in 1984, Petronio has collaborated with such artists as Laurie Anderson, Anish Kapoor, Lou Reed, and Cindy Sherman.
The identical programs presented Friday and Saturday, February 16 and 17, at the Power Center by the University Musical Society, boast two 2006 projects developed with lauded singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright (also slotted as one of January's Ann Arbor Folk Festival headliners). Hugely accomplished and satisfying, Bud Suite incorporates four Wainwright songs from his Want One and Want Two disks. Oh What a World sets the stage with a magnetic male pas de deux accompanied by Wainwright's louche, world-weary voice, Bolero quotes, and a plodding horn section. Like competitive ice dancers, the two are in almost constant touch, and when apart, they tend to spin and leap in unison. A female quartet follows — one that is, as legendary Village Voice critic Deborah Jowitt has noted, vaguely reminiscent of the iconic linked foursome from Swan Lake. Shrugging and swirling, accessorized with flirty half tutus, the women exhibit a rag-doll adolescent quality. The piece concludes with a group dance to Wainwright's meditative "Agnus Dei." Like scattershot bright stars etched against a dark cosmos, dancers buzz with energy, flail, and then join together in an atmosphere less formally religious than collectively spiritual.
For BLOOM, Petronio and Wainwright joined forces with the Young People's Chorus of New York City, producing an original choral work inspired by the optimism of youth. For his part, Wainwright set poems by Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, along with Latin Mass texts, to new music. Petronio's choreography reflects the self-consciousness, hope, and heady intensity of young adulthood. At one point a dancer contorts and balances awkwardly on the floor while the others continue hitting their marks, performing with easy assurance. Later on, a more aggressively phrased solo, full of sharp elbows and angles, gives way to athletic yet hymnlike duets.
The Rite Part — an excerpt from Full Half Wrong (1992) and Petronio's provocative take on the vanguard Stravinsky score The Rite of Spring — rounds out each evening. Teeming with sensual heat and exacting, hard-edged isolations, the work expertly diversifies the program, providing a taste of Petronio's earlier, perhaps tougher, repertoire.
[Review published February 2007]