In a telephone conversation that seems to conclude in a New York minute, it’s easy to see why choreographer Stephen Petronio has been the intellectual darling of the SoHo crowd over the past 25 years. He rattles off the reasons for his own love affair with the Big Apple — “constant ongoing energy, the diversity, the information, people all around you — it’s a barrage. Plus you can get any kind of food at any hour.”
It also may be that he grew up in the East Village, where you can still “see the latest in everything.” But his success also came from two major inspirations — that prowling panther of ballet, Rudolph Nureyev, and the father of contact improvisation, Steve Paxton.
Stephen just wrapped them into his own singular style, which Pittsburghers saw a decade ago at the Pittsburgh Dance Council. So the two of us proceed to play our own private numbers game during the conversation. He quips that he has “gotten much handsomer” in the past ten years. But more than that, he says, “The seeds of the work have been there from the beginning — they just keep developing. I think they’ve gotten deeper and I have the pleasure of continuing and watching.”
As for the 25-year milestone, this quintessential New Yorker is happy to be “staying alive, keeping the company in the game” because “it’s like running an obstacle course.” Better yet, he says that Pittsburgh audience will have a sampling of some of his career highlights on the Byham Theater program this weekend.
The first is “# 3,” a favorite solo from 1986, with music by a friend, Saturday Night Live band leader Lenny Pickett, and one that Stephen will perform. And the second is “MiddleSexGorge,” a work that “crystallized the sexual nature of the AIDS crisis” when it was created in 1990. “It really became fundamental in developing the aggressive tack of the [movement] language — the push and the slipperiness of the spine,” he explains.
He also will bring his penchant for pop songs, parlaying a love for Elvis Presley into another solo, “Love me Tender,” and an admiration for Radiohead (“Creep”), into “Foreign Imports,” which Stephen created for the Scottish Ballet.
“I like to work with ballet companies,” Stephen says, Ballett Frankfurt and Lyon Opera Ballet among them. His own dancers are ballet-trained, but he “wouldn’t consider them classical dancers. In a spectrum from black to white, I think the classical dancers are more about the quick refinement of the feet, more about holding lines and shapes. My dancers are interested in moving through them.”
He notes that “what you lose in flow in a a classical company, you gain in vertical articulation,” although he likes to “mess them up and throw them off their action.” But even with his own company, he looks for “wild ass dancers who are not afraid to look awkward. And also, the technique has to be so good it’s invisible.”
Speaking of invisibility, he’ll also be presenting a new work, “Ghostown.” After 25 years of defining his movement, he wanted to bring something that seemed like it was no longer there.” Set to music by Radiohead’s lead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, the work uses a recording with 33 strings, “Popcorn Superhet Receiver,” which he calls “beautiful, haunting music” that is “quite arhythmic. It’s a kind of a disintegration, a very challenging piece.”
It’s symptomatic of Stephen’s daring dance that he collaborates on such a wide scale. “Dance is a social form primarly and it must be done with most diverse social group I can gather. I mean, we’re there to push each other as we do.”
That extends to his dancers, who he calls “spectacular — I worship the floor they dance on. They are energetic and fearless and they keep me moving forward. One of the nice things in my life is that I get to watch them every day.”
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