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Juilliard Dance

Published: April 23, 2015
Category: review

Missing  Merce's  Ambiguity  

By Rachel Straus

NEW  YORK  -­-­  The  Stephen  Petronio  Company  celebrated  its  30thanniversary  season  April  712 at  the  Joyce  Theater.  The  Newarkborn  choreographer’s  most  salient  works  draw  as  much  from club  and  fashion  culture  as  from  concert  dance,  but  as  viewed  on  April  12,  his  program  took  a backward  glance  as  well,  with  Merce  Cunningham’s  iconic  RainForest  (1968).

Petronio  recently  announced  a  fiveyear  initiative  called  Bloodlines,  whose  mission  is  to  present  a postmodern  (or  in  this  case,  a  modern)  masterwork  each  season  and  pair  it  with  a  new, complementary  piece.  Since  he  danced  for  eight  years  with  Cunningham’s  younger  dance colleague  Trisha  Brown,  it  seems  odd  that  Petronio  didn’t  choose  one  of  her  works  to  launch  the project.  Perhaps,  with  RainForest,  he  is  attempting  to  intimate  that  he  is  Cunningham’s choreographic  heir;  in  the  program  note,  he  writes  that  the  “dialogue  between  languages”  when the  Cunningham  Trust  stagers  taught  RainForest  to  his  dancers,  “resonated  in  me  profoundly.”  But more  about  that  later.

The  companion  piece  was  Petronio’s  Locomotor/Non  Locomotor,  set  to  an  original,  electronic score  by  27yearold  hiphop  artist  Clams  Casino  (Petronio’s  cousin).  Divided  into  two  explanatory sections,  Locomotor  and  Non  Locomotor,  the  latter  of  which  was  receiving  its  premiere,  is  about moving  in  space  and  then  moving  in  place.  In  the  first  section  the  dancers  become  relentless forces,  running  and  leaping  backwards  but  as  if  mechanized.  Their  repetition  and  dynamic monotony  evoke  Eadweard  Muybridge’s  serial  photographic  studies  of  horses  that  were  later transformed  in  motionpicture  projections.  Petronio  seems  to  be  saying  that  the  human  body,  in  its most  authoritative  expression,  resembles  a  machine.  It  slices,  it  throttles,  it  never  tires.

But this a very different bodily vision from Cunningham’s, for whom speed and abstraction of motion were only two of many tools he used to investigate the body. He also used meditative stillness, which is sorely missing from Petronio’s work, even in the Non Locomotor section. Narciso Rodriguez’s costumes resemble couture weight-lifting wear, as they are tight fitting, muted in color, and encase the pelvis while leaving the legs bare. Casino’s music resembles the electronic scratches and grooves one hears in the early evening hours of today’s mainstream dance clubs. Even as it builds in tempo and pulse, it remains cold, aggressive, and without emotion.

Rainforest was a welcome respite. Four decades later, it remains unforgettable, with its intermittent animal calls that thread though David Tudor’s playful electronic score (performed live), and with Andy Warhol’s wayward décor composed of helium-inflated silver pillows. Their graceful floating and meanderings, into the moving dancers and seated audience members, transformed the Joyce into a zero gravity environment.

Cunningham's RainForest

Cunningham’s RainForest

The  performance,  however,  said  more  about  Petronio’s  dance  style  than Cunningham’s.  Except for  the  wildly  expressive  and  dynamically  rich  interpretation by  Melissa  Toogood,  formerly  with  the Cunningham  Company,  the  dancers  often  approached  the  work  as  if  they  were  at  military  attention with  their  hands  clenched  by  their  sides,  something  I  never  noticed  in  the  Cunningham  Company’s performance  of  the  work.  The  playfulness  that  should  inhabit  RainForest  was  nowhere  in  sight.

Petronio’s  dancers,  all  marvelous  technicians,  appeared  dutiful,  rigorous,  and  perhaps  unaware that  Cunningham’s  dances  explore  ambiguity  as  much  as  certainty.

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