Time Passages

The quintessential N.Y.C. choreographer, Stephen Petronio, marks 20 years

Retrospectives are a wonderful way for audiences to experience the evolution of an artist in one event. With visual art, it’s easy enough to mount. But how do you re-create live performance that was part of a different historical moment? It’s more than just the moves. This is the fascinating tension that precedes Stephen Petronio’s 20th anniversary season home performance.

To the world, Petronio is the quintessential New York City choreographer. His work channels and conveys Metropolis energy and Gotham desire, speed, sex, precision, excess and abandon. He has collaborated with Laurie Anderson, Lou Reed, Nick Cave, Diamanda Galas, Yoko Ono, Cindy Sherman, Donald Baechler, Ghost, Manolo and Imitation of Christ. His public image as a gay bad boy helped bring him to attention, but don’t confuse the artist with the man. He is a modest guy who cherishes and safeguards his private life, and his work has grown as a result of that.

“Before, I focused on what I wanted,” he told Gay City News. “Now I concentrate on what they can do as dancers. I’m concerned with the actual range and skill of the dancers, when to push them, when to use what they bring to it.”

For his company’s week-long engagement at the Joyce Theater, Petronio is presenting two trademark works from the ‘90s—“MiddleSex Gorge” and “Lareigne,” as well as “Prelude” made in 2000 and “bud,” a new work that he calls a teaser for his 2006 season.

“‘MiddleSex Gorge’ was made during the middle of the first AIDS crisis,” Petronio said, “when we were dealing with a mayor who was pretending there was no gay population, and I was working with ACT UP, getting arrested. It was an intense time.”

“The generation before me was draining meaning from everything. Working with ACT UP made me think that I can make dance where my sexuality is underlined, and address issues of power play, passive and aggressive and who’s really in control.”

The choreographer said his vocabulary crystallized in “MiddleSex Gorge,” which premiered in 1990—men in corsets, asses out. Individuals tangle into a group, are stopped, lifted. They try to jump, jerk free, get pulled back in, pull the group along. It is aggressive, but not enough.

“I want to understand what you mean when you do that,” he said to his dancers in rehearsal. “Scream that movement. This is not an abstract dance—I need to feel your desire, what are you telling me through the movement? Surrendering, fighting? Your arms are up but what are you saying?

“It’s about struggle, and pain. What’s missing,” he continued, “is the subtext. They are amazing, proficient dancers, but they don’t know what the movement means.”

“Lareigne,” which premiered in 1996 is “more about space, form not content,” Petronio explained. “At my ten-year anniversary, the speed looked dated. Now it doesn’t look fast enough.”

The sneak peak is the male duet “bud,” with music by Rufus Wainwright, the latest in a long line of fashionable collaborators. Petronio called the recorded track “Bolero with voice,” and the movement “tough, almost clowny tough.”

“Things have been great,” Petronio said, looking back on his company’s 20-year career. “I have a premiere post-modern dance company. I’m ambitious and work hard. But it wasn’t until college that I got interested in dance. I saw Sleeping Beauty when I was in high school and didn’t understand it. I was the first man to dance with Trisha Brown, but I never did the steps right—I just filled them with something, not necessarily correctness.”

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