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Flash Review 1, 10-19: Strange Dance Attractions
Petronio's Dance Theory

By Ben Munisteri
Copyright 2000 Ben Munisteri

In chaos theory, the term "Strange Attractors" describes focal points that exist in seemingly chaotic fields. In parts of his new, three-part, evening-length dance of the same name (premiering at the Joyce Theater this week, through Sunday), I can see Stephen Petronio's inspiration in some of the ways the dancers move with each other, in and out of repeating dance phrases. Dressed in black, they make me think of subatomic particles dancing a design that is both random and fixed. But in a program note, Petronio asks, "How does one chart the magnetic pull that draws and repels two people?" He explains that the concept of Strange Attractors appeals to him both architecturally and as a metaphor for the "unpredictable ways people interact."

As one who usually finds predictability in the ways people interact, however, I wonder at Petronio's placement of the behavior of two human hearts in the context of chaos theory -- what does that say about his views on relationships? (I fantasize that I'd know only after a date with him.) After a brief, opening Prelude, Part I -- which reminds me of Cunningham-like executions of dance phrases in various casts, counterpoints, and stage positions -- doesn't have much in the way of people interacting. The accompanying music score by Michael Nyman is a like a Streisand vocal -- full of both stridency and pathos. But I don't see the dancers dancing to it -- either in rhythm, musicality, or spirit -- or much with each other. (It reminded me of the times I have watched dance on video, turned down the volume, and put different music on the CD player. I marvel at the chance timings of music and movement, but the dancers on screen can't hear the music on the stereo.) Despite the performers' beautiful technique, the movements were so repetitious as to be tough to watch after a while. One clear exception to this section's detached flavor was a brief solo for Malcolm Low, who seemed to merge the knife-like Petronio aggression and chill with his own open heart. A fabulous moment.

The final section of "Strange Attractors," Part II, is my favorite. If the preceding section was about the science of a strange attractor, perhaps this last section was a LITTLE bit more about its soul. It is made of that potent Petronio stuff that I first saw in "MiddleSex Gorge" and "Half Wrong Plus Laytext." It is an inexplicable synergy comprised of driving music (by UNKLE), slashing limbs, glimpses of lovely line, and all those powerful pairs of feet -- speedy and pointing with startling might. At one point, the visceral dynamic gave way to an adagio of crumbling bodies and sensuous gesture. Inventive duets followed resolute floor solos. His spatial patterns are clearly deliberate but hard to discern and do not reward with the spirograph kind of "ooh and "aahh" moments when we might grasp obvious designs. Here Petronio's vocabulary -- for me usually a clear mix of Trisha Brown and Michael Clarke -- adds a boxing motif. During this section, Anish Kapoor's two discs glowed metallic blue above the dancers -- their shape ambivalently either convex or concave. And Ken Tabachnick's inspired lighting design gave strange meaning to some of the dancers' more abstract tasks. In all, a satisfying and effective complement of elements.

Perhaps the reason I found Part II fulfilling is because it is when the dancers seemed most individual and human to me -- and therefore more accessible. I don't mean they were emoting or grinning or being coy. I mean that they looked more relaxed, more intense -- truly interacting now and looking each other in the eye. (Until this point their identities seemed largely blank, especially among the five women, whose similar body types blurred their individuality a bit during the first two sections.) A lovely, strong duet for Low and Ana Gonzalez suggests Petronio's interest in humanity as well as physics -- as his program note promises. Still, I must admit that the dancers were most compelling and revealing when they were bowing; their relieved, beaming faces had dropped the studied, detached post-modern countenances, and I smiled with them.

In addition to Petronio, Low, and Gonzalez, the excellent dancers included Michael Badger, Gino Grenek, Kristina Isabelle, Ashleigh Leite, Gabrielle Malone, Jimena Paz, and Todd Williams.

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