Talking to Stephen Petronio about “Like Lazarus Did” at The Joyce
Stephen Petronio Company presents Like Lazarus Did at The Joyce Theater, running April 30 through May 5. The work is inspired by the mythology of resurrection, and the title refers to the biblical story of Lazarus, who was raised by Jesus four days after his death (the act that is supposed to have given Jesus god-like status). “It’s kind of a weird story,” Stephen says, “what did Lazarus think? Nobody knows what he saw when he was dead, and no one knows what he felt when he came back. There’s a leap of faith when you’re pursuing the intangible, and a relationship to suspending belief when you’re pursuing the unknown in the body…It’s that magic that keeps me interested.”
Stephen comes across as highly instinctive. On falling into the dance world in college he says: “I thought, ‘well, I’ll be a doctor,’ because the one thing we didn’t have growing up was money. I took one dance class and the thunderbolt struck. It seemed like the choice was made for me intuitively.”
He has spent the bulk of his 30 year choreographic career in Europe, and says “it was just recently that Europe collapsed” for him. “There are many cycles in a career, work goes in and out of fashion, economies shift, and America has really taken me under it’s wing in my middle career and I’m excited about that, although its not enough to sustain a company.” He was named the first artist-in-residence at The Joyce in October, which has been “a great, great asset to me and a great support emotionally. It’s always the company against the world, and to feel like we have that support has been a great feeling for all of us.” Despite the relative stability the residency provides, between leaving the European circuit and phasing out his own performance (“I’m in my mid 50s and I’m not dancing anymore, it’s not about that anymore, although my body is working at a deeper level than ever”), his career has been through some major transitions of late, but his priorities have remained more or less constant: “I make exactly what I want. My tastes are perversely complicated, and I have to be satisfied with the stage picture, which is usually much more complicated than what people want to see. I have to ride the line of what is going to sink me or not, in terms of density, and I generally love to go too far.”
The task of reconceptualizing his place in the community as a mid-career artist is far from clear, and he is just starting to think of himself in terms of lineage and leaving an imprint — “‘what does it mean to be an artist making work for 30 years? What is my presence and what effect have I had on this community?’ I didn’t ever think of that before, I just blew in and did whatever I wanted. It has to do with consistent teaching, lecturing, that kind of thing.”
On his own training and lineage (he calls himself “the bastard child of Steve Paxton and Trisha Brown”), he talks about moving “from Paxton’s 360, spherical, improvisational” world to “memorizing highly personal improvisations” with Trisha Brown as the first male in her company — “Steve was doing similar, continuous flow, snaky things with his body, so I was perfect for her.” He learned from both of his mentors “that you can develop a personal language that is intuitive and not prescribed by your logic, and you can memorize it.” His vocabulary is virtuosic, carnal, lots of rolling torsos and thrashing limbs, and his dancers are impeccably trained emoters and physical risk-takers.
On deviating from his mentors’ Judson Church roots, he acknowledges his understanding of post-modernism and Steve and Trisha’s deconstruction of language, but asserts the necessity of personal language in his own process. He talks about receiving criticism for his showmanship, and feels that his work has sometimes been misinterpreted as shallow.
“I always come from a place of somatic intuitive improvisation, but I stretch that energetic investigation out into space which makes it look maximal or superficial to some people. They are unconscious mental states that we improvise in — they are coming from a deep somatic place, but I am not afraid to construct them in an external way, because the surface is important to me. I feel that I can’t have a surface without an inside, they are part of the same continuum and I don’t want to deny one. But it comes from the body. It always comes from the body.”
Improvisation for him is about “catching unconscious material and shaping it — not about the rational mind,” and I’m curious how he facilitates that altered state for others. “It’s hard to teach a 21-year-old dancer to understand the unconscious state that leads to the energetic pathway when they are often fixated on just the mechanics and pyrotechnics of their bodies. By the time I get to that energetic illusive point with the dancers it often looks stupid and superficial and noodly, so then those studies get cut out.” He refers to this experience as an ongoing challenge in his career, and constantly negotiates what his dancers do well with his interest in deeper somatic investigations.
In one section of Like Lazarus Did he conducted a “childlike exercise about the energy between the surface of the skin and the palm of the hands which creates a certain look and feel,” and began to build work while taking the dancers with him into that state. He says that some dancers have slipped in and some haven’t yet located the sensation, but he is nonetheless pleased with what came up and considers that process to be a rich discovery.
The content of the work began with text from early American slave songs. “My work in improvisation is about escaping my conscious rational body interests and sinking into a more reflexive self to get deeper, or higher. I thought that was an interesting parallel with the function music had for that slave population that was using it. A kind of escaping the physical world.” He has worked with composer Ryan Lott (aka Son Lux) on three works in the past, and LLD’s electroacoustic score draws from diverse spiritual music and texts, filtered through Stephen’s signature lens — “I said to him, ‘everything seems so serious, can you send me something that’s just much hipper than everything else?’”
Stephen’s other major collaborator is visual/performance artist Janine Antoni. Her contribution has been deeper than just providing a still meditation counterpoint (a living sculpture that she inhabits) to his moving one: “Janine sees energy — that’s her interest in dance. She’s been asking lots of questions, she can see when it’s in my body and when it’s not in their bodies. She has been talking to me about it which is making me talk to them.”
In terms of structure, LLD “is something of an arc from a death to a rebirth; classic in a way.” His thinking about resurrection “was all getting a little too hippy,” so he began to employ more rational structural devices like accumulations and retrograde, “tools that allow revisiting, going back and forward in time.” He feels that he was “hiding behind structure in a way, or using it as a motor,” and he considered implementing elaborate set pieces to allow extreme level changes, but it ended up becoming “more about energy ascending or descending in the body.” The idea of resurrection extends also to the source of the material — he worked with reviving and reworking choreography from past pieces, and says that solos are often “written on the dancers and their particular-ness,” allowing him to see “the soul of the original dancer in the new body bringing it back. That’s always touching and beautiful.”
His multilayered interest in resurrection seems timely given this new chapter in his career, but he frames it more as a daily resurrection: “every time you walk into the studio you’re a new person, and you can’t escape your old person.” I ask him, “why this dance now?,” and he responds:
“It took me 25 years to build a language, and I began building pieces that were some kind of afterburn of that language — Ghostown, how do you build a dance that’s not there anymore? The Architecture of Loss, how do you build something that’s slipping away? So it’s not about defining and hammering a language but about removing it so you can see what’s left. My motor is very angry and sexual so to erase that, what are you left with? I wanted to be able do everything I’ve been able to do well AND the other thing I’ve been experimenting with, and resurrection, death, rebirth gave me the arena. The music came at the right time, and it felt like the right thing to do.”