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Performance Thoughts: Stephen Petronio Company RainForest

Stephen Petronio Company in Merce Cunningham's “RainForest"
Pictured: Davalois Fearon and Gino Grenek
Photo: Yi-Chun Wu
Stephen Petronio Company in Merce Cunningham's “RainForest" Pictured: Davalois Fearon and Gino Grenek Photo: Yi-Chun Wu

Stephen Petronio Company in Merce Cunningham’s “RainForest”
Pictured: Davalois Fearon and Gino Grenek
Photo: Yi-Chun Wu

Last week I visited the Joyce Theater in New York to see the Stephen Petronio Company perform Merce Cunningham’s RainForest (1968). It was a rare opportunity to see Cunningham’s choreography performed live: following his death in 2009, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company ceased to perform consistently following a two-year Legacy Tour. Dancers from the former company continue to pass on Cunningham’s choreography and technique through weekly classes at the Merce Cunningham Trust, and work with museums, institutions, and dance companies—yet performances of Cunningham’s choreography are opportunities that do not come often (The Juilliard School presented Cunningham’s BIPED this past March under guidance of the Merce Cunningham Trust).

The program opened with an homage to Cunningham. Although Petronio himself never danced with the Cunningham Company, the inspiration is evident in the rapid, complex choreography of unexpected, technically challenging movement broken by extended moments of stillness. Locomotor and Non Locomotor, works that premiered a few days before my visit, converse both with each other and with Cunningham’s own work. More closely aligned with Cunningham’s later work, of the 1990s and 2000s, both dances are at once impersonal, avoiding outward emotion, but at times incredibly sensual. The dancer’s personalities and unique styles of movement come to the fore as they perform similar movement vocabularies seemingly in isolation or in pairs. As did Cunningham, Petronio relies on communication between bodies rather than in the face. Expression and connection between the dancers is minimal other than the responses of their bodies  in the dance. The seven dancers entered and exited the stage circuitously, a choreographic structure resulting in a feeling of being witness to only one view of on ongoing movement sequence. 

Oscar Bailey, Merce Cunningham, Barbara Dilley, and Albert Reid in RainForest,  performance at State University New York at Buffalo College, Walker Art Center, Merce Cunningham Dance Company Collection, Gift of Jay F. Ecklund, the Barnett and Annalee Newman Foundation, Agnes Gund, Russell Cowles and Josine Peters, the Hayes Fund of HRK Foundation, Dorothy Lichtenstein, MAHADH Fund of HRK Foundation, Goodale Family Foundation, Marion Stroud Swingle, David Teiger, Kathleen Fluegel, Barbara G. Pine, and the T. B. Walker Acquisition Fund, 2011

Oscar Bailey, Merce Cunningham, Barbara Dilley, and Albert Reid in RainForest, performance at State University New York at Buffalo College, March 1968. Walker Art Center, Merce Cunningham Dance Company Collection

The Petronio Company worked for months with the Cunningham Trust to embody the technique, which appeared more natural to some (Gino Grenek, who danced Merce Cunningham’s role) and slightly more of an effort to others. As it typically took a few months of intensive work, or even a few years for Cunnningham’s own dancers to fully embrace the movement, it would be unfair to expect the same from dancers who have been trained differently. This unconscious response of comparison is one of the difficulties for companies who take on Cunningham’s work. There are dozens of dancers who have embodied roles throughout history—Margot Fonteyn’s Juliet, Vaslav Nijinsky‘s Faun, Suzanne Farrell as Dulcinea—that each dancer after them will forever face that comparison. Cunningham’s vision for his company involved dedication to a new form of training, molding dancers that were uniquely equipped to perform the often unnatural and formerly untaught ways of moving. Over months and years of this training, the movements looked natural, effortless. Rainforest’s original 1977 cast, is almost incomparable in that Carolyn Brown, Merce Cunningham, Barbara Lloyd, Sandra Neels, Albert Reid, Gus Solomons Jr. embodied their roles, and completely became the personas of the choreography. Cunningham created roles around and for the his company member’s individual personalities and styles of movement. He would famously become upset when a dancer left the company, for that meant re-inscribing his or her parts onto another body—one for which it was not created.

I held these concerns going into the performance, questioning how much a few months of classes in Cunningham technique could do. Petronio’s dancers quickly soothed these concerns, in the premiere works they established they could not only take on Cunningham movement, but make it their own. It is important to remember that although Cunningham created for choreography for individuals, he also valued the way other dancers interpreted the work. This “realization of the personal and imperfect””1 is what makes re-performances of the the company’s repertory so special. As the Cunningham Company of the 2000s tackled the choreographer’s repertory from the previous fifty years, the Petronio dancers used the training as an a method through which to approach the movement without being imitative.  

Joshua Tuanson in Rainforest, Joyce Theater, New York, 2015. photo: Mary Coyne

Joshua Tuason in Rainforest. Stephen Petronio Dance Company, Joyce Theater, New York, April 2015. Photo: Mary Coyne

RainForest is a signature Cunningham work—his single collaboration with Andy Warhol (at the invitation of artistic director Jasper Johns) and perhaps one of the more character-driven works in his repertoire. RainForest has been described as the closest that Cunningham would get to Martha Graham, and in its exotic, even fantastical nature, this is true. However the movement is uniquely Cunningham: although we gather glimpses of characters, there is no narrative. The mood is set—a primordial rainforest, the dancers somewhere between creature and human, but we are left with this mood. Warhol’s Silver Clouds, replacing foliage or more organic scenery, float untethered across and out from the stage. In several movements in the choreography a dancer will make running leaps into the Clouds, almost playfully sending them bouncing into the audience.

As the amused audience continued to bat the stray Silver Clouds back onto the stage (or back over each other) the Fluxus-inspired sense of play that is rarely mentioned in descriptions of the work. Warhol and Cunningham would have, of course been aware of, and embraced the unfixed nature of the props, even as the flying helium-filled clouds at times obscured the dance. The childlike joy of sending a balloon bouncing into the air, shared by the audience as a whole, was a rare moment of connection between the audience members turned participants and the dancers on stage. 

Audience members depart the theater among Andy Warhol's Silver Clouds (reproduction copies), Joyce Theater, New York. photo: Mary Coyne

Audience members depart the theater among Andy Warhol’s Silver Clouds (reproduction copies), Joyce Theater, New York. Photo: Mary Coyne

As Petronio seeks to build on this homage to Cunningham by performing works over the next few seasons from seminal postmodern dance makers, Steve Paxton, Yvonne Rainer, Anna Halprin, Lucinda Childs, and Trisha Brown (the latter of whom Petronio had studied and danced). The Bloodlines initiative seeks to both challenge his own dancers to embody the very unique styles of each of these choreographers, but also to so closely compare one’s own style with that of the formative choreographers of the past fifty years. What does it mean to re-perform their work alongside one’s own? Or to reform the work of living choreographers? These are interesting questions as we present work by contemporary and historical choreographers and artists, often side by side. I like to think that this is, in part, behind Petronio’s choice to present RainForest. In being associated with Cunningham’s time as a young dancer with the Martha Graham Company, the performances by the Petronio Company creates a choreographic mise en abyme of past, history and present.

Footnote
1 Silas Reiner (former Cunningham dancer) in conversation with Abigail Sebaly, February 14, 2013.

Trajal Harrell, Antigone Sr.

“What would have happened in 1963 if someone from the voguing ball scene in Harlem had come downtown to perform alongside the early postmoderns at Judson Church?” This is the guiding proposition of The Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church (2008-2013), a seven-part, seminal body of work by New York City-based choreographer Trajal […]

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Photo: Miana Jun

“What would have happened in 1963 if someone from the voguing ball scene in Harlem had come downtown to perform alongside the early postmoderns at Judson Church?” This is the guiding proposition of The Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church (2008-2013), a seven-part, seminal body of work by New York City-based choreographer Trajal Harrell. The piece is a response to the invisible history of 1960s voguing in Harlem that was overshadowed by the postmodern Judson school. The title, Twenty Looks, refers to both the “looks” of voguing—and its documentation in the revolutionary film Paris is Burning (1990)and the conflation of this history with that of the downtown Judson dance scene.

From September 14 to 20 at The Kitchen, Harrell presented his seven performances in succession for the first time in the U.S. In his introduction to Antigone Sr. (the second longest in the series), Harrell explained that the work was not intended to be a historical fiction or some kind of fusion of voguing and postmodern dance, but rather that the forms of movement tease each other and coexist in this space for this moment, which could not have happened in the past. Twenty Looks imagines an encounter between the Judson experimentalists, who pared down theatricality to emphasize ordinary movement, and Harlem voguers, who suggested, with their exhibitionist balls, that authenticity is itself a theatrical notion.

For Antigone Sr., which I had the good fortune of seeing while in New York last weekend, The Kitchen’s black box theater was outfitted with minimal props and staging that included several intersecting walkways that resembled a runway (and perhaps a Greek procession route), a mattress placed directly on the floor, and three white square stages on which the dancers performed. On these catwalk runways, Harrell and his four male dancers explored the spectrum of motion from frenzied flailing to precise runway striding. The sonic experience ranged from house DJ mixes to singalongs to absolute silence. And dance was equally balanced by narration in the form of theoretical musings, partial recountings of the myth of Antigone, snarky outbursts, and repetitive commands.

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Photo: Paula Court

Antigone Sr. was structured around reinscribing the relationship between audience and performers. The nearly three-hour-long (sans intermission), highly ambitious staging was introduced by the artist, who explained that the performance is “a Greek tragedy… we have to go all the way.” From there the audience was asked to stand and pledge, with hand over heart, to the house anthem of Britney Spears’ Hit Me Baby One More Time, which was recited as prose by one of Harrell’s four dance collaborators, Thibault Lac, a statuesque and regal dancer. This set the participatory tone for the rest of the evening. We were the imagined spectators of this constructed history; we were creating, adapting, and reassigning new relations between the dancers and ourselves.

Trajal_Harrel4_Photo_ Bengt Gustafsson

Photo: Bengt Gustafsson

Harrell then addressed the crowd, provoking us to define the term “realness.” In a recent interview with The Kitchen’s chief curator, Tim Griffin, Harrell explained that he was exploring authenticity, and how aspects of non-dominant cultures migrate into other more dominant cultural spaces. Reflecting on appropriation across time and art forms (e.g., Jazz into Rock ‘n’ Roll), Harrell shaped his practice around the idea of how to take advantage of and restructure this migration. The shifting of forms, replacement of ideas, and multiplicity of products got him thinking about David Hammons’ iconic Bliz-aard Ball Sale (1983), in which he sold different-sized snowballs on the streets of New York. This led Harrell to create and name the Twenty Looks series by various sizes: (XS), (S), (M)imosa, (jr) Antigone Jr., (Plus) Antigone Jr. ++, (L) Antigone Sr., and (M2M Made-to-Measure) Judson Church is Ringing in Harlem—each standalone performance successively longer and more elaborate in terms of costuming, choreography, music, and lighting.

Throughout Antigone Sr. Harrell set up a number of diametrics—a key trope in this dualistic performance: comedy and tragedy, excess and minimalism, and authenticity and appropriation. In one scene on the bed, Harrell and Lac were seated next to each other and embodying duality in their monochromatic, draped garb—one in grey and one in black. They took turns stating, in monotone voices: “We are… Beyoncé and Solange. We are… William and Henry. We are… Mary Kate and Ashley.” The performers listed countless pairs and opposites—some funny and others breaking with the binary pattern: “We are… Deleuze and Guattari. We are… unhappy.”

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Photo: Whitney Browne

In another bed scene, we were told the fateful myth (read: soap opera) of Antigone, recounted with immediacy in a first-person narrative. We learned that Antigone was unwittingly born of the incestuous union of Oedipus and his mother. After Oedipus learned of this tragedy, he blinded and exiled himself from Thebes. Both brothers of Antigone quarreled over the rule of the city, and were killed; the younger was condemned a traitor, to be left unburied. Convinced of the injustice of the command, Antigone buried her brother in secret, and for this, was executed.

The details of this myth were not acted out in this performance, but rather, overlapping forms, migration of shape, and the inevitability of death were themes throughout Harrell’s performance. The lyrics and statements, “When I die,” “murder she wrote,” and “I am safe from life, I’m already dead” indicate such preoccupations. As Harrell is singing, Lac crawls through the audience onto our chairs, tying blue thread from Harrell’s hand to those of individuals in the crowd. The thread is better associated with the myth of Ariadne than that of Antigone, but the notions of interconnectedness and impermanence ran strong, and the thread was a stunning yet minimal visual prop.

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Photo: Paula Court

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Photo: Lars Persson

The highlight of the three-hour performance was the fashion show parody, which was separated into two sections: “The King’s Speech” and “Mother of the House.” Each of the dancers strutted out from the back curtain, wearing an absurd combination of clothing—leather jacket as cape, glittering headdresses, 1970s knit blanket as shawl, and pantless ensembles, while Harrell called out the names of the major fashion houses—Comme des Garçons, Yamamoto, and Hermes. Instead of directly quoting the voguers at the infamous Harlem balls with their sharp, competitive, and angular movements (vogue was a form of non-violent gang warfare between drag houses or families), the performers were elegant and sleek. In the second part, the dancers posed as women and Harrell took a seat in the audience, wittily commenting on the archetypes of females that strutted out: avant-garde Asian, African American with full derriere, etc. The voguing tradition is a performance of archetypal social and gender identities through fashion, and movement, practiced primarily by African-American and Latino gays, transvestites, and transsexuals.

The fashion show led to the crescendo of a dance party with performers free-styling, Harrell riling up the crowd, and at one point, plucking an audience member from the front row and, with him, leading a prayer that we release our inhibitions and dance. Perhaps this part was improvised, or Harrell just wanted us to assume so. Just as reluctant New Yorkers were finally brought to their feet and joined the party, the strobe lights slowly dimmed, the blaring music waned, and we were quickly taking our seats. In the final moments of Antigone Sr., the house was brought to complete blinding darkness and except for the barely perceptible movements of the dancers on stage. Antigone Sr. took the audience to extremes and sharply retreated to minimalism; it was exuberant and ethereal, sad and funny, and ultimately an authentic experience. At a vogue ball, a “look” (as in the title, Twenty Looks) is a chance to embody a dream, and that is just what happened—we explored icon-making, ultimately becoming part of a new history.

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Photo: Paula Court

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