Stephen Petronio, Lost At Sea

All this week, Stephen Petronio’s company has been anchored at The Joyce. It’s a special occasion, too: his company celebrates its 25th year, and the star choreographer wants to party. So what’s he done? Invited hot tickets like Nico Muhly to do the score and Cindy Sherman to design the outfits for an evening length work called “I Drink In The Air Before Me.” The title comes from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” and the whole work evokes a maiden voyage gone awry. When I say something also ambiguously judgmental, like that it feels like a vivant tableaux of a shipwreck, I don’t mean that entirely in a bad way, either. Gericault would rejoice, and audiences might too. But, alas, only for awhile.

The fact is, Petronio let his collaborators steal his show. Muhly’s icy score, full of creaky pipe sounds, synthesized organs and a well-woven live wind-and-string ensemble, is remarkable. Muhly apparently met Petronio at a gym–they said this after last night’s talk-back session–and Petronio wanted to do something nautical. So Muhly created a very loosely structured score that emulates a weather pattern; a quiet interlude followed by a rapturous stormy center, which is then washed out by an iridescent choir-sung coda.

It’s a beautiful piece of work, and it’s obvious that the gauntlet Muhly threw down was a bit much for Petronio to handle. His stock-and-trade moves–darting swirls, rapid juts and jams of elbows, hips and hands–are just fine. But they can’t sustain an hour-length work like Muhly’s. You can tell he has a wider vocabulary, particularly in the rare instances when a pas de deux mingles in balletic poses. There are hints of grace and elegance elsewhere, too, and one only wishes he’d match more of it to the more tender sections of Muhly’s score. But he didn’t, and instead we get bored.

A few things keep us watching, though, like Sherman’s simple and soft, if sometimes ill-thought outfits. In one scene, the powder blue pajamas look great, but you can’t appreciate a dancer’s stallion torso or craning limbs in such suits. One guy just says the hell with it, takes his top off, and lets gawker’s gawk. Her thick navy-and-white stripe spandex pieces, in another scene, were a better choice. Now I don’t want to say that Petronio got intimidated by his guests, so I’ll just wonder out loud. Whatever the reason he got outshone, there’s no reason for it. Twenty-fears years means you’re good. You’ve built it, people want to come. Plus, he’s got more on his resume to prove his worth, all those years with Trisha Brown, collaborations with William Forsythe, and truckloads more with opera and ballet companies the world over. Now it’s his turn to sit down his dream team of collaborators, and say, Listen, I run the show.

Steph-o, if you’re listening, here’s wishing you a happy 25th, and hoping for a better party next year.

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