Five Questions for Stephen Petronio
Stephen Petronio’s acclaimed work “Underland” has its NY premiere this week (April 5-10) at The Joyce Theater. It was originally created for the Sydney Dance Company and received its world premiere at the Sydney Opera House in 2003. This is Petronio’s first restaging of the work since its premiere. The reconstruction was funded, in part, by the NEA American Masterpieces program.
I’m interested in how the American Masterpiece award allowed you to bring this work to the US. Can you talk a little bit about how you first came to make this piece? Underland was made in Australia. It was exciting to be given exactly what I needed to do what I’m capable of. They asked me what I wanted to do and then worked to make it happen for me. I devised a work with Nick Cave’s music and Tara Subkoff’s fashion and we were able to work with video. I had all the elements that I like to work with. I believe dance should be a conglomeration of things we have in the real world. In America, I often have to choose between set and music, or text and costumes. For this, I was given what I needed to make what I wanted. The Sydney Dance Company was twice as big as my company at the time. I had 8 people and they had 18 and the work went to the Sydney Opera House. I got to make this work and then it doesn’t get seen in America. In other countries, I get to work with some of the biggest and best companies and work on a big scale. In America, my company is small to medium sized. For various reasons, Underland didn’t get seen in NY when Sydney came here in past years. So, when the license came back up from Sydney, I grabbed it and applied to the Modern Masters program and received support to implement this work (and) so NY could see it.
How did you transition Underland into your own company? In Sydney, those dancers are hysterically, well trained and they really pushed me. They have great classical and modern technique. I got to address my interest in their use of the vertical axis and the speed of the feet and they were able to do the spherical exploration of the upper body and limbs that I love. They took it to the nth degree! In taking it back to my company I wondered how it would go and my dancers rose to it. My dancers understand my language better and they give it a different subtext. The main thing about shaving it back has to do with numbers of dancers and not a loss in quality. In Sydney, I had the assignment of making a dance for 18 dancers. Often, I’ll duplicate roles for multiple dancers to expand geometrically. I’ll set 2 dancers against 2 dancers to make a bigger picture. We don’t have understudies in my company. I learned early on that if only one person learns a role and is injured, no one knows it. So it was a simple to cut down from 3 people to on1. I think of it as a lean mean version.
Let’s talk about Nick Cave and your collaborators. How’d you get Nick on board? Sydney. Leigh Small was the ED and she made it happen. They got me by saying what would you want to do and I said if you can get Nick Cave I’ll do anything. And, they did. He allowed me free reign of his catalog and he gave us all sorts of back tracks and under tracks. With Tony [Cohen], his longtime producer, we were able to mix bridges with those source tracks ourselves. We got the guitar lines pulled out from The Weeping Song. Who gets to do that? So, we’d mix bridges leading into and out of these epic songs. Nick’s Australian and he’s very generous and he’s worked with Tony as a producer for a long time. I know his whole family was there in ’03, but I’m not sure if he’s seen it. With Ken Tabachnick, he has worked with me for a long time and he’s been everywhere. He’s the Dean of Arts at SUNY/Purchase and he’s got an eclectic mind and he’s been doing lighting for me for many years. He created the visual design with a triptych of screens for video and we devised the landscape of images that went onto those screens. Ken and Mike Daly created the visual vocabulary that filled the dance. Tara at the time was at the height of her work that involved taking vintage clothes and pulling them apart and putting them back together again. They go from very dark to very light with lots of color in between. It’s gorgeous.
You recently choreographed a musical. This was your first, right? How was that for you? Yes, “Prometheus Bound” for the American Repertory Theater. It premiered already and is running. It was directed by Diane Paulus and Serj Tankian of System of a Down composed the music. Steven Sater wrote it and he’s a genius. Diane is amazing. I got involved because it’s not on a stage. It had a similar lack of proscenium, so it’s immersive like The Donkey Show. The audience has to keep looking around to find out where the performance is and that goes right back to my roots. I’ve taken my company onto the proscenium stage and I’ve been adamant about that. But, it’s exciting to go back to an immersive experience. Steven wrote Prometheus as the first prisoner of conscience – that Zeus has imprisoned him for his beliefs – and the show is partnered with Amnesty International. So, each night they dedicate the show to a different prisoner to make people aware of the cases and to hopefully incite action and remedy something. It’s theater at its best. Plus, I had no experience working in theater. For one thing, Diane was the boss and that was interesting and fun and she’s a great collaborator. It was interesting to not have the last word on everything. My work is not narratively driven, so to watch her mind work that way was revelatory. I’m kind of allergic to that, to making narrative work, and it was great and new for me.
I have to ask you about Hampshire College. As a fellow Five College alumn, you’re a beloved poster favorite up there. How was that for you? I loved Hampshire. It was amazing for me. I went there to study medicine and discovered dance and they gave me a full scholarship and sent me to NY to study for a year. I was an improviser and when I met Steve Paxton, I was so inspired. That exploration of movement language and an improvisational aesthetic was exciting to work with in relation to the more traditional virtuosity of the Sydney dancers. I was interested in the context where you think of the world as a 360degree composition instead of a flat surface. So, merging that 3 dimensional spherical view with the 2-dimensitonality of the proscenium stage is a significant investigation for me.