Post Pissed Off

Choreographer Stephen Petronio is on his way to Tasdance. Karen Pearlman catches up with him in New York

Stephen Petronio doesn’t want to talk about it. But he’s affable and eventually just outspoken enough that he can’t resist. He says his dances are ideas-driven and, given the velocity of those dances, his ideas must be powerful fuel. But, he says, if he talks about ideas people look for their illustration in the dances and “you can’t read kinetic information like a book—it addresses another part of the mind; ideas style the body.” At one point, he thought he was so successful that he could say anything he wanted about himself (“I’m a fag, big deal. I’m not going to shut up about it, but I’m not going to let that message consume me.”) But he discovered that, like Icarus—who could dash around the heavens in a similarly dazzling, fleeting, audacious way—he could hurt himself by getting too “hot.”

The King Is Dead, the latest Petronio project, is about the death of the masculine icon. It’s about the idea of the death of the hero for him personally, as a sign and as a social entity. The process—neurological, emotional, formal or accidental—of transforming an idea into dance is hardly mysterious. But it is a voyage of discovery. Petronio can’t—or won’t—say how he gets from idea to action, only that it is a mark of success to come to a physical conclusion.

But he will talk about physical metaphors. The King Is Dead, he says, is full of “pelvis receding,” which is the opposite of the classical thrusting male pelvis. Perched on a fire engine red bar stool in a Mexican, unselfconsciously multicultural, noisy, cheap bar in Manhattan, Petronio rolls his head down to meet his tailbone. It’s an action that reveals an abandon and conscious ease with physical danger. (Anyone else would fall off the stool or at least have to uncross their legs and put down their Margherita!)

Stephen Petronio has a soft spot in his heart for Tasdance, the first company ever to commission a work from him almost ten years ago. When he arrives in August, the Tasdance dancers will undergo endless repetition to get the idiosyncrasy of an action right. The barely perceptible glee with which Petronio admits it will be “torture” for them is replaced by a rueful grimace when he confesses that, no matter how often he shows a movement to any dancer and how diligently they practice it, fifteen per cent of the nuance will be lost in translation.

His concern with speed and virtuosity, he admits, is very American. Certainly dance aficionados from other cultures have labelled his work “very New York” because of its concern with “more, more, more—more speed, more space, more money, and more success…”

Petronio is not concerned about the international epidemic of his trademark “fluidity of shape.” He’s not possessive, though he does think that if people are going to knock particular aspects of his work they should acknowledge their source. “It’s a language,” he says of contemporary dance, “people should use it… we’re living in a postmodern culture.” And the more that people speak the language, the more people he’ll be able to “talk” to without words getting him into trouble.

RealTime issue #2 Aug-Sept 1994 pg. 6

© Karen Pearlman; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 1994