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His Dance Fever Can't Be Cured

Choreographer Stephen Petronio may have initially stumbled into the field, but his steps are sure now as he finds ways to expand his art.

March 16, 1997|Paul Ben-Itzak | Paul Ben-Itzak is news editor of Dance Magazine

NEW YORK — Imagine if Woody Allen had to make a movie that wasn't about male-female relationships. Or if Chuck Norris had to make a film in which he couldn't have a fight scene.

Choreographer Stephen Petronio set such a stricture on himself two years ago. Instead of exploring the movement possibilities of isolated parts of the human body, his forte, he created a dance that examined the way a group of bodies interacting can carve up space. The resulting work, "Lareigne," is one of three on the Stephen Petronio Company's debut Los Angeles program, Friday and Saturday at UCLA's Schoenberg Hall.

"I took invention of the [individual] body away, and I was left with speed," Petronio said recently of "Lareigne," between bites of a humongous muffin at an upscale Soho coffeehouse. "That just gave me locomotion--if you just have bodies locomoting through space, then you're building space. So that was the kind of accidental discovery."

For Petronio, who grew up with little exposure to the arts, dance was an accidental discovery. The New Jersey native was taking a drama class as a student at Hampshire College, in Massachusetts, when his instructor had him enroll in dance to prepare for a role.

"I didn't know I had legs," Petronio, a 41-year-old who looks a decade younger, recalls of this moment of revelation. "It was like a major gong on the head that I had a body and didn't know anything about it. It was one of those primary physical experiences."

After college, Petronio surprised himself again, by becoming the first man to dance in post-modern pioneer Trisha Brown's company. Shortly after he arrived in New York, he met a Brown dancer who suggested he come to a group audition. "I chickened out," he says, "because I'd only been dancing four years." Ultimately, he auditioned privately, and was accepted.

Brown, who specializes in creating often esoteric, minutely articulated movement, remembers Petronio as "the ribbon man. He has no joints, and he can move sequentially with amazing alacrity."

He found Brown's style just what he was looking for. "I had this image of how I wanted to dance," he says. "It connected the looseness of improvisation with the virtuosity of ballet. When I saw Trisha that was the closest thing to the image I'd seen."

At first, it wasn't easy going. "There were no men to look at, and that was hard. I was like a bull in a china shop. I sweated, I burped and had hair everywhere. Here were these delicate, sophisticated women, and this crass New Jersey boy."

But, says Brown, Petronio was ravenous to dance. "I remember one time when Stephen asked me for a solo and in explanation, he said, 'I have art fever, Trisha,' and he does."

The solo was in "Set and Reset," one of many Brown made for him, and Petronio recalls his art fever rising. "I would go home at night and toss and turn all night because I was so excited. I was coming into my own as a dancer, and Trisha was in the middle of this great body of work."

Petronio, too, was beginning to create dances, in a basement studio space provided by Brown. "There's no training ground for contemporary choreographers," he laments. "Ballet has a system to do that. Modern dance doesn't, but it went from hand to hand with Trisha and me."

In 1986, after seven years with Brown, Petronio established his own company. A lot of his early work, he says, "was fueled by anger and kind of a scream in the face of the void. My belief about dance was that compositional devices should be as deconstructed and decomposed as possible--like a building falling apart, or a fruit rotting. I don't actually want to see the apple, I want to see the rot. I was very anti-composition in those days. I wasn't so generous to the audience."

Because of his sometimes extravagant image (shaved head, corsets for him and other male dancers), the punk rock music he sometimes employed and candid dance content (the work was sometimes openly sexual, with Petronio not afraid to show men kissing on the lips), some labeled him dance's latest bad boy.

According to Petronio, the title of a 1996 work, "Drawn That Way," which is on the Los Angeles program, is a response to that image. It's taken from the sexy cartoon character Jessica Rabbit, who said in the film "Who Framed Roger Rabbit": "I'm not bad, I'm just drawn that way."

"My persona as this bad enfant terrible was really irritating to me," says Petronio. Despite his youthful angst, he says, "I'm a very sweet, hopeful person by nature--kind of a hopeful nihilist. In a way it was a joke about my public persona, but also it was a physical joke. An image I was using was being drawn to places in space."

"Drawn That Way," set to an original score by Andy Teirstein called "Rhapsody for Boy Soprano and Strings," is lyrical where "Lareigne" is percussive, balletic where the earlier piece is modern and avant-garde.

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