GUEST FEATURE: Stephen Petronio and Kate Weare in ADI’s Final Rockville Season


By Luella Christopher, Ph.D.

Stephen Petronio may just be the classiest “bad boy” in the genre of American post-modern dance. Inspired by icons as diverse as the late Rudolf Nureyev (defector from the Soviet Union turned ballet superstar in the West) and Steve Paxton (widely credited founder of contact improvisation), Petronio danced with Trisha Brown in the 1980s and became the first artist-in-residence at the Joyce Theater in New York City. He does not read music or play an instrument. Nonetheless, Petronio asserts that he knows “how to move” a mere 15 seconds into any composition. His choreographic phrasing – the way steps are organized within a musical phrase – supports a “singular brand of whipping limbs, urgent limbs, and proud eroticism” that is “visceral, ravenous, and riveting” (blogger Brian Schaefer, April 7, 2014).

The uber-curious would do well to consult the artist’s memoir, Confessions of a Motion Addict. It reportedly reveals a raw portrait of Petronio as an “unapologetic thrill-seeker” who reveres the fluidity of gender and eschews the exclusivity of male-female pas de deux. Astoundingly, his choreography manifests the paramountcy of classical ballet even as it adds post-modern moves driven by gravity and often dependent on exceptionally strong torsos.

American Dance Institute’s presentation of STEPHEN PETRONIO AND COMPANY on December 9 and 10, 2016 marked the last performance in an accelerated local season before vacating the Rockville space and moving to New York. The offering showcased American post-modern influences on Petronio and evidenced the progression of his gift for blending divergent stylistic concepts and genres. Without detracting from the “pioneers” who preceded him over the last fifty years, Petronio’s “Locomotor” (2014) – which occupied the second half of the program – elevated the evening’s selections to a worthy, logical zenith.

Petronio characterizes “Locomotor” as a “meditation on the contrast between hurling energy through space and transiting energy that’s contained in the body.” The resulting opus is one of great velocity and force that never stops pulsating and undulating. The audience is dazzled by a series of balletic cabrioles, renversés en dehors, assemblés en tournant, jetés ciseaux (scissors leaps), and flat-footed tours de chaînés. Partnered lifts are mostly executed by same-sex pairs. In a nod to Merce Cunningham and Yvonne Rainer (the other two choreographers represented in the evening’s performance), arms swing like pendula, dragging the movement toward the floor. Bodies swirl in place or weave in and around each other. Commanding solo work is performed by Megan Wright, a late entry into the piece (she does not appear in the first two works). Others in this superbly balanced ensemble of physique and technical mastery include Ernesto Breton, Davalois Fearon, Kyle Filley, Jaqlin Medlock, Tess Montoya, Nicholas Sciscione, and Joshua Tuason.

“Bloodlines”, a five-year project now in its third season, both honors and curates the lineage of the post-modern trailblazers. It was launched with Cunningham’s “RainForest” (1968), with which Petronio begins the program. In a “pre-Merce” forerunner of his eventual trademark structural ambiguity, the choreography in “Rainforest” is delightfully physical but cerebral, dramatic yet nuanced. It does not seem preoccupied with a fetish for new technologies.

Experimental for its time, however, is the décor of “RainForest.” Cunningham appropriates Andy Warhol’s outsize, whimsical, helium-filled silver pillows – an early example of interactive art from the 1960s borrowed from an actual Warhol museum. The pillows float about onstage and are alternately kicked or jumped over by the dancers. They are even propelled into the laps of audience members sitting close to the performance space.

Six performers in “RainForest” (Fearon, Filley, Medlock, Montoya, Sciscione, and Tuason) are attired in tattered thin tops and tights reminiscent of skin tones. They lend the appearance of slithering creatures. Gazes are fixed, while poses like fondu (think “dying swan”) are intrinsically balletic. There are turning arabesques or attitudes derrière in a semi-lowered (penchée) position. One female is swung around by her partner as if she is dangling on a vine. Windmill arms end abruptly in straight lines.

Music for “RainForest” was originated by David Tudor, who worked for many decades from the 1950s forward with avant-garde artists such as John Cage and Robert Rauschenberg. It is realized in Petronio’s production by John Driscoll and Phil Edelstein, longtime members of Composers Inside Electronics. CIE, as the group is known, has pursued composition and live collaborative performance of electronic and electro-acoustic music since the mid-1970s, employing resources from robotic instruments and algorithms to rotating loudspeakers. The style utterly suits Cunningham who, along with his life-and-work partner Cage, relied on chance procedures to strengthen a conviction that dance and music needed to be created independently of one another.

Least satisfying of the evening’s offerings from the standpoint of dance vocabulary, though thematically daring and often humorous, was “Trio A with Flags” (1966/1970) by Yvonne Rainer. The first half of the piece is dominated by two dancers (Nicholas Sciscione and Joshua Tuason) who walk onstage, draped in American flags tied lengthwise at the neck, beneath which they disrobe completely. The two proceed to strut, roll, and lunge sideways in poses that intermittently reveal their anatomy.

Smooth moves in opposition to one another and low swaggering of the arms provide a distraction from the nudity. However, Rainer’s message (if any was intended) remains elusive. The two men are eventually joined by three women (Fearon, Medlock, and Montoya) and a third male (Filley). The music shifts abruptly to rock – “In the Midnight Hour” by The Chambers Brothers. Simultaneously, the mood of the piece lightens with skips, one or both hands behind the back, as well as scoops of arms from one side of the body to another and swinging motions in opposition from back to front – signature Rainerisms that prompt perennial smiles.

Earlier in the final local ADI season on Oct. 28 and 29, 2016, KATE WEARE COMPANY achieved a similarly strong synthesis of modern and ballet genres in her 2016 work, “Marksman.” Weare, inspired by a relatively recent pregnancy and childbirth, credits Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugene Herrigel for identifying the construct of focusing and loosening. “The book articulates the most beautiful concept of forming while being formed, playing while being played, aimed while being aimed,” recounts one observer of her work (Roy C. Dicks, June 22, 2015). Choreography thus includes thematic repetition of a triangular shape made by dancers’ arms, like a bow, and single arms outstretched like arrows being aimed in a “post-apocalyptic world . . . in which people move in a neo-primitive society of intimacy and aggression” (Jennifer Brewer, Portland Press Herald, July 20, 2016).

Influenced by her family in Oakland, California – including a painter and a printmaker – Weare utilizes visual art sources in her work and evinces fascination with the fields of language, poetry, contemporary music, and psychology. “Marksman” is set to a Zen-inspired backdrop of waves projected atop giant dark panels. Perhaps the delicate feathered fronds lining the womb? The ambiance is discordant at first, featuring a sequential pairing of mostly same-sex dancers. The choreography adopts a vertical feel that is accentuated by repetitive group leans on a slant. There are flat-footed soutenus, jerks into place in each other’s space, pairs in wraparound attitudes interspersed with hops, backward skips, and tours de chaînés – some with arms at waist-level and angled. Thrashing, sloshing sounds in the score once again evoke for this writer those of a fetus in the womb. Yet there are wonderful moments of silence and slo-mo.

Noteworthy attributes of “Marksman” range from the filmy costumes of Brooke Cohen – backless dusty lavender tank tops with flowing shirttails and wide grey Capri trousers – to the high resolution mega-photographs and set design by multimedia artist Clifford Ross. Also, original music and sound design by Curtis Robert Macdonald, which features performances from Bobby Avey (piano), Patrick Breiner (tenor saxophone), Ari Chersky (electric guitar), Curtis Macdonald (alto saxophone, ukelin), Alon Tayar piano), Christopher Tordini (acoustic bass), and Kyle Wilson (melodica).

Dancers and creative collaborators in “Marksman” include: Julian De Leon, Nicole Diaz, Kayla Farrish, Douglas Gillespie, Thryn Saxon, and Ryan Rouland Smith.

Both the Stephen Petronio and Kate Weare companies in this final season are distinguished by the laudable and much appreciated influence of ballet on the ever-evolving genre of modern dance.

Copyright © 2017 by Luella Christopher