Interview with Stephen Petronio

by Donald Hutera

October, 2003


For his ninth Umbrella visit (some of which happened when he was dancing for Trisha Brown), New York resident Stephen Petronio is bringing three pieces charged with a specifically urban energy. First up is Broken Man, a short solo in which the barefoot, shaven-headed dancerchoreographer resembles a businessman whose suit has been rearranged by a mighty wind. It’s a terrifically neat expression of a troubling psychic split.

Petronio has scored a collaborative hat-trick on his two other, ensemble dances. City of Twist, premiered last year, is graced by a percussive, viola-laced score from live art legend Laurie Anderson. Its companion piece, the suggestivelytitled The Island of Misfit Toys, will receive its first-ever performance at QEH. For this Petronio was given unlimited access to the back catalogue of Anderson’s partner, the great rock experimentalist Lou Reed. To top it off the designer of Island is visual artist Cindy Sherman, on her first foray into sculpture.

‘As a dancer with Trisha,’ Petronio says, ‘I grew up in that tradition of thinking of dance as a visual art.’ Years ago he spotted Sherman’s work on a postcard while on tour. Returning home, he took a chance and phoned her. They clicked. She now serves on his company’s board. In 1993 she designed Petronio’s The King is Dead. For Island, which he regards as ‘a string of Gothic fables, kind of like little dark nursery rhymes,’ Sherman is constructing a giant totem of dolls’ faces and several other similar free-standing pieces. ‘I only want to complement what Stephen comes up with,’ Sherman says. ‘I’m making large doll parts.’

The Anderson-Reed connection is newer and less direct.Work on City of Twist began before, but was completed after, 11 September 2001. ‘I was wrecked during that period,’ Petronio recalls, ‘Going to work [he was making the superlative House of Magnet for Ricochet Dance Company] was the only thing that kept me going. There’s nothing like that kind of devastation to make you do what’s right, and put your best foot forward’. Inevitably, he says, when he returned to City of Twist, the dance’s emotional tone shifted ‘from being noir and cheeky to knife-in-heart.’

‘I’ve been a lot of things in my life,’ Petronio continues, ‘but never wildly grateful. Yet there I was, feeling privileged that I’m able to make dances with people I adore in a city I love.’ Embedded in the nocturnal glamour of Twist is some savvy physical portraiture of each of his dancers. ‘I was looking at what I thought was the dance essence of each company member, and the behavioural traits that came out of that characterisation. Is it real? Is it really them? Some of it comes from my germ of understanding of them, but on a fictional level.’

Working closely with company lighting designer Ken Tabachnick, Petronio’s intention was ‘to create a ‘faux’ city, somewhere between real and cartoonish. The set is just light, but we wanted from it a feeling of multiplicity that is very urban. The idea was to write a love letter to New York without making it overt.’

Petronio was unable, however, to settle on the right composer. At the time he was listening, for his own pleasure, to Anderson’s recording Life on a String. ‘It hit that sweet, sad love of New York that I was feeling then,’ he recalls. One day the penny dropped: Anderson was the one. ‘Laurie loves dance and understands collaboration. I caught her at the right moment.’

Anderson’s pensive music may have helped temper Petronio’s trademark whiplash, gyroscopic kinetic style. ‘City of Twist is a quieter work,’ he says. ‘Not in terms of the movement. But the scale is more personal. I got tired of the structural fireworks I’m known for. One more proof of that kind of finesse – who cares? There’s barely a structure there. Everything in it is based on instinct. My best work is instinctual. Anything intellectual I discarded. The metaphor for the piece is crying. Anything not coming from that was not allowed to stay.’ Given that Island is, according to Petronio, homage to the city’s darker underbelly,’ taking a walk on the wild side with Reed makes sense. Anderson introduced the men. Behind Reed’s initially prickly exterior, Petronio indicates, was an extraordinary generosity. ‘Lou said, ‘I like what you do, but I won’t do what Laurie did.What if I write a score and you hate it? It’ll cost you a lot’.’ Instead Petronio was permitted to trawl through Reed’s personal aural library, selecting music ranging from the post-Velvet Underground 1970s through Reed’s notorious electronic noise experiments to more orchestral and text-based pieces. ‘We got down on the floor, kicked our shoes off and started looking and listening,’ says Petronio, adding, ‘I feel crazily lucky.’


This article first appeared in the Spring 2003 edition of Dance Umbrella News

Donald Hutera writes regularly on dance, theatre and the arts for
The Times, Time Out, Dance Europe, Dance Now and Dance Theatre Journal.
He is co-author, with Allen Robertson, of The Dance Handbook.

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