Bloodlines Project: “Diagonal,” “Trio A with Flags,” “Chair-Pillow,” “Excerpt from Goldberg Variations,” “The Courtesan and the Crone,” “Untitled Touch”
Stephen Petronio Company
New York, NY
April 2, 2017
by Martha Sherman
copyright © 2017 by Martha Sherman
Once upon a time, Trisha Brown, Yvonne Rainer, Merce Cunningham, Steve Paxton, Anna Halprin were such radicals. They changed our thinking about what constituted dance, about what movement could be considered performance, about how life and art connected. In his “Bloodlines” project, Stephen Petronio honors the artists who invented post-modern dance by re-inventing their classics, and uses his own superb dancers and sensibilities to add another layer of power to a circulatory system that continues to nourish contemporary dance today. Since 2014, Petronio has chosen classics by these masters, and has added his own new work to the shifting mix. In its current iteration, “Bloodlines” focused on the work of Rainer, Paxton, and Halprin, and offered a world premiere of his own, “Untitled Touch.” It was a splendid offering, from tip to toe.
Stephen Petronio in "The Courtesan and the Crone." Photo ©Julie Lemberger.
The dance was playful and challenging; the audience strained to identify the patterns, the dancers smoothly followed each others’ leads. When one finally called “time,” it was over, and they all scampered offstage. Three returned to the stage, (on this night: Joshua Tuason, Megan Wright, and Nicholas Sciscione,) each carrying a full-sized American flag for Petronio’s version of Rainer’s most famous work, “Trio A,” this one, the version “with Flags.” After tying the flags around their necks, the dancers stripped off their costumes, and began to move around the stage in individual dances that were connected by their athletic body shifts, waving patriotic outerwear, and sleek naked bodies in various degrees of visibility depending on the turn, the lift, the shift, the floor position. The movements -- clear and simple – were cloaked by the flags, but still fresh after these many decades.
The last of the three Rainer works was “Chair-Pillow,” even simpler and cleaner than the pieces before. The dancers, sitting in folding chairs with pillows in hand, moved the pillows in simple patterns and sequences, with an unsettling rhythmic disconnect to the throbbing beat of Ike and Tina Turner’s anthem “River Deep, Mountain High.” The dancers just did their jobs, moved their pillows the way everyday tasks are done, patterned, repeated. A few dancers grew until the stage was full (and Petronio added himself, a droll final cast member, to the mix.) The movement itself was the only meaning, dance’s cool drink of pure water in an often-muddied world.
After these grouped classics, Petronio chose two solo classics, and bravely performed the second one himself, after an excerpt from Steve Paxton’s “Goldberg Variations,” danced superbly by the evening’s lead dancer, Nicholas Sciscione. In “Variations,” Sciscione moved to Glenn Gould’s gripping recording of Bach’s piano music. The light, by Ken Tabachnick (who also lit Petronio’s premiere later in the evening,) was a soft grid, part caress, part prison for the possessed figure who twitched, swayed, gyrated, shivered in variations as differentiated as the Bach piano notes.
Sciscione’s seemingly disembodied head bobbed and shift, as his shoulders created their own quirky disconnections from a torso that danced as if it, too, were able to separate from its supporting legs. In the stately, slower movements of the music, the dancer stood, limbs lightly torquing and trembling, as muscles subtly shifted in specific ways, fragmented and animal-like. Contemporary choreographers often describe their work as investigation; this piece felt like just that, as Sciscione embodied – and Petronio explored -- Paxton’s possibilities.
Petronio’s own performance was the stylized solo by Anna Helprin, “The Courtesan and the Crone,” created in 1999 at age 79, about image and aging. Helprin, drawing from her own teachers, including Ruth St. Denis and Isadora Duncan (definitely part of the bloodline), gave Petronio character and drama in a solo that depended as much on pose, costume, and attitude as on movement. On a blood-lit stage, Petronio was a scarlet silhouette – all image, covered head to foot in a huge costume, wig, and crown headpiece that cloaked everything about the identity underneath, shifting poses in the glare. At first, a drag seductress, he shimmied out of the gold robe and glamour, stripping to the self beneath, an older male dancer, hairless but for his tiny goatee soul patch. He opened his arms as if to offer himself, then faded back into the spotlight and the simple silhouette of his own body, with a pair of 5” heels silhouetted on the floor.
That solo offered a fitting transition to his own work and artistic identity. Even after a parade of masterpieces by Judson legends, the bold stroke of his “Untitled Touch” deserved its pride of placement. A commanding work, Petronio has drawn from the lessons of the bloodlines he claims, but has also created a personal vocabulary of leans, lifts, and partnered dependencies. His troupe is so grounded in the movement that in their multiple angles and lines on stage, they seemed just on the edge of collision, but instead used inches of space to slide around and among each other. And sometimes, they touched -- just the light brush of a dancer’s fingers against another dancer’s soft white fluttering shirt.
When the full cast was onstage, these multiple lines were dense and visually demanding. In the midst of the complex group choreography, though, duets punched through, and the group receded as background for dramas of two. Of several beautiful duets, the pairing of Sciscione and Tuason was the most compelling. The two men stripped their shirts, and, bare-chested, revealed the lines of muscular bodies, and connected in touches that did not flinch. One popped off the other’s thigh, or moved head to the other’s chest; one body balanced on top of his partner's head; but these shows of power were only part of their touch – gently, Tuason’s hand brushed Sciscione’s head and back; in return, his chin and face were grazed. As their touches became simpler, more human, the light shrunk into small funnel that finally closed on this work of connections and touch.
04. (L-R): Joshua Tuason, Megan Wright, Nicholas Sciscione
in "Trio with Flags." Photo ©Julie Lemberger .
(L-R) Tess Montoya, Ernesto Breton, Jaqlin Medlock, Nicholas Sciscione in “Untitled Touch.” Photo ©Julie Lemberger .
copyright © 2017 by Martha Sherman