Dance Review: How Stephen Petronio Proved He Remains at the Forefront of Contemporary Dance

Stephen Petronio continues to be at the forefront of contemporary dance and has earned iconic status as one of the leading multi-media dance-makers of his generation. On this chilly Friday evening TITAS audiences were treated to two of his masterworks: The acclaimed 2011 work, “Underland” and this year’s “The Architecture of Loss,” an arresting collaboration with visual artist Rannva Kunoy and original music composed, produced and mixed by Valgeir Sigurdsson.

Petronio’s choreography is a kind of polyglot language with roots deep in early modern dance, and shapes that have the weight of European expressionism made anxious by the ruptures of postmodernism. He has a style all of his own, yet still within the confines of traditional choreographic manipulations, stressing the strong use of canon, repetition, rhythm, and on rare occasion  justifiable unison. He leans towards curves and sweeping limb extensions with well-placed jumps, and themes that range from literal to more abstract.

“The Architecture of Loss” begins with a simple stage design: Three life size, rectangular white canvas hanging side-by-side across a black backdrop. Three men stand, each dressed in a pair of small black shorts topped with a few feet of partially knitted yarn strategically placed on an arm, over the chest, or around the torso. Each man is bound and chiseled like stone, yet they caress the stage with liquid strength and agility, lifting their long legs in gorgeous arabesques and pushing their solar plexus up and out as if they were offering themselves to the audience and something higher. In a seamless transition they disappear and seven new people fill the stage. As the body landscape changes, so do the projections on the canvasses: a wash of soft reds then yellows and grays fade in and out. In the end, a shadow is cast over the three remaining dancers as they walk away in silence.

On a lighter note, “Underland” proves Petronio has got a keen sense of humor  resolute comfort with sexuality and a rare ability to make light of reality through his fascination with movement. From the opening screen the sexual overtones overwhelm as women clad in fishnet camisoles perform undulating hip thrusts followed by an intentionally uncomfortable four person (two men, two women) orgy (one man dressed in nothing but white briefs and an open black pleather trench coat) cleverly accompanied by Nick Cave’s “The Ship Song.” Just as Petronio has the audience on the precipice of total discomfort, he returns to more traditional non-narrative movement as the entire ensemble fills the stage with boundless dance phrases. But, alas, the sigh does not last long. The Winspear stage is stripped of the black legs and wings that hide dancer’s reality from audiences, leaving the stage itself exposed, naked.

Overall, Petronio has maintained a high standard of work. His dancers gave a very professional and disciplined performance. In all honesty, work would not appeal to everyone. Some may be moved by his work and others may just be wondering how much more there is before it’s over.