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Flash Review, 3-31: Too Pooped to Pop
In MiddleAgedGorge with Stephen Petronio

By Chris Dohse
Copyright 2005 Chris Dohse

NEW YORK -- My first encounter with Stephen Petronio's choreography happened before 1990, the date of "MiddleSexGorge," which is the oldest of the pieces on Petronio's 20th-anniversary program of repertory and one work-in-progress seen March 23 at the Joyce Theater. I remember seeing something at Dance Place in Washington, DC, in the late '80s and being riveted by dancers Jeremy Nelson and Frey Faust. There was something thrilling about the way they filled that small stage with slashing, preening, fabulous, unrepentantly homoerotic masculinity. We weren't used to that sort of thing in the provinces in those days! Something molecular and relentless about Petronio's complex spatial design simultaneously awed my dancemaking brain.

A few years later, I danced in Marta Renzi's "Vital Signs" at the Bessie ceremony at the Delacorte in Central Park. Petronio presented some of the awards that night in the chilly late-summer air, characteristically wearing nothing but a leather jock and a pair of chaps.

As I've become more familiar with his work during the past decade, I've always seen a tension in it, between its abstract, formal components (fluid, gestural, upper-periphery shape shifting, whiplashing spine and fussy, hip-thrust balletic legs) and its trendiness (art-world and alternative celebrity collaborators, fetishistic runway fashion design). It's like there are two Petronios. One makes egghead dances with compositions that are hermetically satisfying, the other feeds off and into the worst of celebrity-consumerist-commercial culture. The way these two energies intersect in the dances seems inseparable from Petronio's life, as his outrageousness gets more ink than his credentials.

So given this opportunity to evaluate him, now that my role is "he who evaluates," I find that it's hard to separate Petronio's personal charisma/hype/buzz, and the sway that it once held over me, from my respect for his dancemaking craft. Oh, sigh, how much of dance "criticism" boils down to self-congratulatory nostalgia for gladrags and better days after all.

See, I've always been a proponent of not separating an artist's psychology from his expression of it. I prefer John Giorno's unapologetic story of having sex with Keith Haring in a subway toilet to Jennifer Dunning's whitewashing of Alvin Ailey's experiences there in her biography of him. But now that Petronio's personal arc has gone from heroin chic to safely partnered with a country home (and I only know the latter because it's all he seems to talk about in his pre-show PR), he bores me, which I find throws the work into a suspicious light. Or maybe I've scrutinized it long enough to see through its flash to the pan? Or maybe I can't see the vines for the sour grapes?

I realize this process of projecting and perceiving says more about me than about him or his work. But somehow I'm disappointed by my '80s icon. As a viewer of dances, I still feel hungry and Petronio, as a maker of them, seems overfed. The premiere, "Bud," which will become part of a larger work next year, already looks tired. Rufus Wainwright's lyrics, which seem to make some listless, bitchy comment on the execrable "metrosexual" phenomenon, parse the facile, homogenous duet to caricature.

Petronio once took the gently accumulating tableaux and correspondences of Trisha Brown's work and set them spinning into haute danse. The three repertory works on the Joyce program, "MiddleSexGorge," "Lareigne" (1995) and "Prelude" (originally the entr'acte of 2000's beautiful "Strange Attractors") follow that history of what Petronio himself says in some program notes was from language invention to restriction to movement "contraptions."

The work seems to follow a trajectory from capturing an avant-garde, subversive moment to Joyce Theater staple: crowd-pleasing, sort of jazzy, sort of modern contemporary" dance. Petronio's craft still crackles. The trendiness of the older pieces might look dated, tame or stale in retrospect but it never looks like anybody else's. Still, if he's no longer going to be a naughty boy, maybe he has sadly lost some of his oomph as a dancemaker as well.

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