writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, San Francisco Bay Area edition


Stephen Petronio Dance Company
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
San Francisco, California
February 7, 2004

Merce Cunningham Dance Company
[Presented by Cal Performances]
Zellerbach Hall,
Berkeley, California
February 8, 2004

by Ann Murphy
Copyright © 2004 by Ann Murphy
published 16 February 2004

Circumstance made bookends out of Stephen Petronio and Merce Cunningham last weekend with Petronio in San Francisco and Cunningham in Berkeley. And though it may seem about as apt to compare them as to compare the poetry of Wallace Stevens and Patty Smith (or, more pertinently, Lou Reed), the two concerts have been bouncing off one another in my mind all week.

As Rita Felciano wrote last Sunday, everything that journalistically could be said has probably been said about Cunningham, but that doesn’t stop the need to talk about the work. Like reading the finest literature, each encounter with his dances pushes the receptive viewer to understand the ineffable aspect of his art a little more, and each time further along in one’s own life, that experience changes. For me the apt analogy is reading Dostoyevsky at 16 and then again a decade or two later. One experience is not necessarily truer than the other, even if the first experience, like a first real kiss, burns itself into the nerves and soul most deeply. Yet over time we can read the same novel with more wisdom or humor or irony; we even stop imagining it was written for us alone.

The point of course is that no great work is static. It seems alive and imbued with spirit, which brings us into relationship with it through a dynamic and multifaceted process that recapitulates the experience of being. Picasso’s line is exquisite not simply because it is accurate but because it seems to breathe; it reflects profoundly as opposed to literally the experience of aliveness, whether it's Guernica or a Cubist work. The best art simulates life’s complexity while essentializing it, reflecting the "really real" behind the banal, where divine linkages lurk, spectral beauty resides or horrors of monstrous scale subvert the everyday.

Cunningham goes after the metaphysical first by using movement that has classical rigor and proportionality, then by shattering the staid confines of the classical, not unlike Picasso, by thrusting those eternal values of just proportion and geometric clarity into an Einsteinian (or Zen) universe of democracy. Every point of view, every person, place, or thing is equally valid as a subject, even as they are part of a larger architecture. As Cunningham says, quoting Einstein, there are no fixed points in space. His dancers and his dances become rippling echoes of a mysterious whole that seems at once banal and sublime and which we experience through the undramatic trajectory of his dances. Cunningham gives us no Aristotelian catharsis, either, although Sounddance, which the company performed exquisitely Saturday after Interscape, comes as close to providing one as any Cunningham work, as the dancers explode through then retreat back through a swagged gold curtain amid explosive, edge-of-the-universe sound. But even absent theatrical catharsis, Cunningham often provides many little experiences of relief throughout his dances, there in the many brilliant, intimate duets in Interscape, mirroring the way a single day is filled with small bursts of release followed by renewed tension.

Petronio, although about half Cunningham’s age, is a dancemaker of a much more traditional bent, whose daring comes more from his subject matter, his exploration both consciously and unconsciously of gender, and his cutting edge pop music choices. Structurally there’s little radical in his choices, although he has developed artistic innovations based on coloration of movement (ruptured, fast, and a kind of trashed classicism) and tone (hip and often nihilistic). His movement vocabulary is a balletic interpretation of Trisha Brown’s fluid style, which steps away from Brown’s depiction of memory’s stream and into something more directly expressive. Frequently, the dance’s emotionality arises from its prickly, obstreperous speed (imagine a Forsythe ballet rolled in tar and nails). Emotionality arises also from his music choices which aren't afraid of rock lyricism or vivid expressivity. Despite cool methods in which arabesques are thrown away into space and pas de chat seem dangerous both to the dancer’s crotch and anyone close enough to be kneed, Petronio is an irascibly romantic postmodern expressionist

When he is clearest and least intellectual, he is at his most gripping, as he was in Broken Man set to Blixa Bargeld’s haunting piano music. When he tries to get brainy and preachy, as in Not Garden several years ago, where he included Hannah Arendt in a list of historic villains with genocidal killer Pol Pot, one wonders what could render an educated man so foolish. Petronio, part of the generation that found itself finding social meaning through identity politics, sees identity as an engine to drive his art. This is both a strength and a weakness, as was evident last weekend.

City of Twist, set to an often delicate but propulsive score by Laurie Anderson, made after the dance was crafted, reflects upon life in New York City post 9/11, addressing its new tragic and fearful dimension through a kind of sorrowful, polymorphous tenderness. We see dancers move from wild isolation into intense relation, despair to hope, supporting one another in upturned poses that suggest rescue and also loss, frozen experience and also enduring bonds. Against a backdrop of a city skyline, the dance abstracts tragedy but does it without an ounce of mawkish self-indulgence. Petronio’s use of the solos attests to his eloquence with soliloquy form, and he highlights the dancers gorgeous individuality—dancers as loose limbed as gumby dolls, and one more riveting than the next.

But in the premiere of Island of Misfit Toys, Petronio seemed to be at the mercy of his material. There was Poe’s poem The Raven, the series of songs he’d chosen from Lou Reed’s songbook, and a set of grotesquely beautiful dolls designed by performance artist Cindy Sherman (two downstage and a totem of fat-faced babies—suggesting psychotic Buddhas—upstage center), which lent the stage the feel of a mutant nursery. Did Petronio forget that even in cruel play places a child’s world is complex and never merely mean? I guess so, or it wasn't really a kid's world, because Petronio depicted the dancers’ childish animalism as crude and brutish, unredeemed even by anything truly nightmarish or otherworldly.

It began with a wonderful, taped reading of the gothic poem all middle school kids are made to study and rarely understand, with Petronio sitting in a chair with his back to us, as though this were his own gothic midnight musing. The work exploded from there into a demonic dance, replete with men repeatedly hauling women brutishly, frenzied turning, aggressive sexual pouncing and nasty ambushing, with neither sufficient self-consciousness nor horror to know what point Petronio was trying to make. Island, with its dancers in trendy pj’s, certainly didn’t come off as a critique of a world descending into barbarism. It was too incestuous and solipsistic for that. And if it was meant to depict what the Island of Manhattan has become since 9/11, the dance is blatantly off. Many argue that the destruction of the World Trade Center has brought a preternatural sensitivity to Manhattanites thanks to the knowledge that new catastrophe is possible any time.

But Island was ultimately creepy not because of its social portrait but because of what it seemed to indicate of Petronio’s own inner world and its unresolved feeling about gender and sexuality. It’s not the first time he seemed to be working with undigested material, and it signals to me that Petronio’s universe is a lumpy place clotted with his own tortured feelings. When those feelings are too limited by subjectivity for us to enter into them, the dance is weak; a hip, shiny shell is what remains. But when those feelings are so deeply personal yet nakedly expressed that we share the experience with him, as in Broken Man or City of Twist, the choreographer finds his strength.

In Broken Man, in his broken costume, half his suit and shirt rent as though blown off in a cataclysmic explosion, Petronio hopelessly unfurls his hand, stretches his arm desperately, gestures as though to slash his throat then dissolves into the posture of a rag doll. Who can’t feel his despair? Who can’t imagine wanting precisely such body movements to vent one’s own deep pessimism?

Cunningham is a kind of father source to the generations of postmodernists that have come after, including both Trisha Brown and Petronio. Cunningham unequivocally expresses through his dance that we are part of a cosmic realm in which the really real quiets all temporal debates. They are there, but they don't dominate. Time washes them away. But gender difference remains. Unlike Petronio, he doesn't struggle against it. His treatment of the male/female duet, for example, seems to reflect a Platonic vision of the divided soul restored through coupling. In Interscape such duets appear and reappear beautifully, and yet heterosexual paradigms don't dominate the work at all, either through movement or intent. The iconic couple easily expands to include a third, a fourth or more people, or to break into same-sex coupling, alluding to the endless morphing of relationships throughout the animate world. His is a very large and very generous view of where we sit in the universe, whereas Petronio's is very close in, very specific. Cunningham's aesthetic universe is also deeply accepting of variety—he doesn't flaunt it, he just asserts it exists with cool rationality—and that acceptance is part of what infuses his work with lyricism. It is also what makes it endure over time and seem new even after decades. If Petronio could layer his work with even half as much digested design and clear out the chaos, he would produce many more City of Twists and Broken Man and fewer Island of Misfit Toys.

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 7
16 February 2004
Copyright ©2004 by Ann Murphy




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