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Ravishing Dance, just in time for spring! - Stephen Petronio Company

by Richard Penberthy
April 23, 2006
The Joyce Theater
175 Eighth Avenue (at the corner of 19th Street)
New York, NY 10011
212-242-0800
Performances April 18-23, 2006
This program from Stephen Petronio is alive, multi-dimensional, and thoroughly engaging. He has retired from performing, but his company of dancers is so convinced of his importance that they take up the art and task as he did - with full-out energy. It is that quality that drives this evening of dances. They are striking, and they are a considerable departure from the frequently dark, sometimes provocative, work Petronio's fans have come to expect.

Performances from earlier seasons sometimes brought audiences into the world of illness and despair, or loneliness or unfairness - taught them sympathies they may not have felt without the visual power of these well-made dances. They enticed the heart with honesty and example rather than persuading it with argument. They engaged, rather than entertained, an audience.

The current program has another quality. Here, the mood is hopefulness; now, the direction is upward. Nothing is less than serious, but all is less somber. It's a fine thing to realize that, in both genres, what draws, what changes, the viewer is exploration, is the presentness of the dance. This is a choreographer who eschews the single chill rosebud as symbol for affection; he holds out bouquets saying "Look - these are all for you!"

Two of the dances on this schedule are world-premiers, "Bud Suite" and "Bloom," while the third - "The Rite Part" - is an excerpt from a 1992 dance, "Full Half Wrong". These three dances gratifyingly develop a theme through the evening.

"Bud Suite," wonderfully quirky, performed to the music of Rufus Wainwright - "Oh What a World", "Vibrate", "This Love Affair", and "Agnus Dei" - addresses at once the oddities of our busy but disconnected lives. The costumes (Tara Subkoff/Imitation of Christ and H. Petal with Deanna Berg) are wonderful. The initial movement of the suite - a daring, intimating, and powerfully sexy duet danced by Gino Grenek and Thang Dao - brings the men to the stage in red shorts, but each wears half a suit jacket, a right half for one dancer and a left half for the other. They fit perfectly on the suited side, and are held on by crossed straps evident on the - if you will - unmasked side. In the next movement/song of the suite, the women of the company wear men's white shirts, but the backs are missing, replaced - again - by criss-crossed straps. And as the suite develops, with each costume change, the shirts become more enveloping and the straps disappear, but the women wear the same red shorts as the men, but with the wisp of, a vestige of, a red ruffle at the rear. The effect is wonderfully subversive - it is masking and gender bending all at once - and it suits (pun intended) the dances. Partners seem to long for as much as to support and lift their partners. This is not a long dance but it is extraordinarily affecting. Although this suite is named "Bud Suite", it isn't until the next dance that Whitman's poem, "Unseen Buds", is heard - a clever segue.

"Bloom" is an active, sometimes whirling, thrilling dance performed to original music by Rufus Wainwright, arranged by Francisco J. Nunez for the live performance by his Young People's Chorus of New York City. The liturgy of the Lux Aeterna (eternal light) from the Latin Mass, two poems by Walt Whitman, "Unseen Buds" and "One's-Self I Sing", and the Emily Dickinson poem, "Hope is the thing with feathers" comprise the lyrics. Incorporating these words (the poems are printed in the program) into what seems almost a rock opera certainly changes their nature. Even Whitman's "One's-Self I Sing"- clearly an anthem to the body - was meant to be read rather than really sung. Emily Dickinson's wise New England simplicity suffers by being fragmented and shouted. The music makes of the lyrics more event than art. Still - bottom line - they serve the dance.

The men are in grey shorts, with vests that sport a deep lace fichu of sorts along the button-front, and the women wear short very pale jade empire dresses that balloon into spheres in pirouettes and tours. As the dance speeds up and becomes more ecstatic, some of the women don creamy dresses that are exaggeratedly smocked across the chest and that balloon still more emphatically. Costumes are by Rachel Roy. The chorus, which makes its appearance in the orchestra and proceeds up to the balcony while vocalizing, is clothed in a variety of random- and tie-dyed floral radiances on white blouses and shirts. Their clothes are by H. Petal and Claire Flack with children from the Hudson Guild After School Program. The dance is everywhere on stage: duets, solos, changing combinations of steps and of partners, fast on-the-move arabesques. An overheard comment: "There is so much going on!" Undeniably. One slow-moving element to note here will be repeated in "The Rite Part": a woman performs a slow somersault and her limbs seem to bloom as petals and sepals from her torso.

The work of resident lighting designer Ken Tabachnick is brilliant throughout the whole evening; for instance, he briefly picks up the chorus's costume themes on some of his projections in this dance. His work is subtle and surprising: overhead lights of peach and salmon, with subtle adjustment, can become as fiery as they once were tame and pink. He doesn't confound the audience with blinding light, and respects, rather than obscures, the dancers.

"The Rite Part" is performed to Igor Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps, interpreted, supplemented and arranged by Mitchell Lager, Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. At times it seems a strange mixture of Stravinsky, Klezmer, and Missa Luba, but it begins and ends at least with recognizable Stravinsky. The costumes, black tights and leotards with bright floral appliqués, are by Manolo. After the dance has begun, a deep male voice makes a loud intercom-like announcement to the effect that we are about to witness the ravishment of a woman who has allowed her sensual curiosity to overcome her fear. The dancing is fine anyway. And, the sensual giving and taking of ravishment is well-shared among the dancers regardless of gender. It is seductive rather than rapacious, and ultimately, the dancers become part of the set and watch as a Shila Turabassi in a short white unitard appears among them and, strongly lit from above, interprets again the torso-centered body blooming, with limbs becoming petals and sepals.

The completeness of the evening is remarkable. There is no inattention. This is a company in which nobody shrugs.
Stephen Petronio Company 'BLOOM' Pictured: Elena Demianenko and Jonathan Jaffe-foreground, Jimena Paz in back

Stephen Petronio Company
"BLOOM"
Pictured: Elena Demianenko and Jonathan Jaffe-foreground, Jimena Paz in back

Photo © & courtesy of Chris Woltmann


Stephen Petronio Company 'The Rite Part' Pictured: Shila Tirabassi

Stephen Petronio Company
"The Rite Part"
Pictured: Shila Tirabassi

Photo © & courtesy of Chris Woltmann

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