Q&A: Choreographer Stephen Petronio

Photo: Sarah Silver

Choreographer Stephen Petronio on his innovative style, dancing with Trisha Brown and collaborating with contemporary composers.

Dallas — Stephen Petronio’s raw energy and adventurous concepts are what keep viewers coming back for more. For the past 25 he has built a body of work with some of the most talented and provocative composers, visual artists and fashion designers in the world, including Rufus Wainwright, Cindy Sherman and Rachel Roy.

The Stephen Petronio Company will make its first Dallas appearance at the Winspear Opera House on Friday as part of the TITAS dance series. The evening’s program includes excerpts from Underland (2011) and The Architecture of Loss (2012).

Petronio received a BA from Hampshire College where he began dancing in 1974. Initially inspired by the dancing of Rudolf Nureyev and Steve Paxton, Petronio became the first male dancer of the Trisha Brown Company (1979 to 1986).

Formed in 1984, the Stephen Petronio Company has performed in 26 countries throughout the world. The company’s repertoire has been set on The Scottish Ballet, Norrdans in Sweden, Dance Works Rotterdam, National Dance Company Wales, X Factor Dance Company in Edinburgh, Ballet National de Marseille, Ballet de Lorraine, and London Contemporary Dance Theater.

TheaterJones asks Stephen Petronio about working with Trisha Brown, the company’s broad appeal, his musical inclinations and the inspiration for his memoir.

TheaterJones: Tell me about the book you are writing, Stories In My Skin: Notes from a Life in Motion?

Stephen Petronio: It’s a memoir that goes from early childhood to the present. And I really love writing it. I was working on a piece called Ghost Town a couple of years ago and I spent many sleepless nights just writing down childhood memories. And I realized it was quite easy for me to paint a picture that already existed in words and in my memories. So, I began posting little blurbs of it on Facebook and people really responded to it.

I have been an artist for long time and a lot of people look at abstract work and don’t know what to say, but with these stories the feedback was immense and instantaneous. The book is in the pre-complete form right now and I’m pretty happy with it.

Did you read other dancers memoirs for inspiration?

I had read Carolyn Brown’smemoir before I began writing, but I’ve read many other memoirs. I am a real fan of the memoir form of writing. I was particularly excited about reading the tennis player Andre Agassi’s memoir. The comparisons are very clear between an athlete and a dancer. A lot of Agassi’s writing about pain was very similar to the writing I was doing about what a dancer goes through. What I liked about his book was that I don’t really care about tennis, but I couldn’t put his book down. That made me hopeful because my fear is that the only people who will want to read my memoir is other dancers and choreographers. I am hoping it will have a boarder appeal.

What makes your work so relatable to audiences?

That’s a really hard question for me to answer about myself because I just make the work. I am a pretty social person and I really like to collaborate with other people. So, working with interesting music, costumes and visual design I think helps bring different kinds of people to performances. Some people come for the music, some for the fashion and some for the visual art and if they don’t know dance maybe they will get interested in dance. I think that’s possibly part of the appeal.

Photo: Julie Lemberger

How did your time with the Trisha Brown Company shape you as a dancer?

It was a very formative experience for me. To be 21 years old and working with one of the great masters of postmodern dance it made me think anything was possible. To be that young and naive and be watching a master at the height of her power it kind of got all the obstacles out of my way. Her movement is unbelievable. I was coming from working with Steve Paxton during college and his contact work was very much about flow and my personal vocabulary is very much about continuous flow and that matched easily with Trisha’s movement. So, it was kind of a natural pairing.

What motivated you to start the Stephen Petronio Company?

Well, I started dancing late when I was in college and I never thought I would be a dancer. I always thought I would be someone who made things with movement, so I was choreographing even before I met Trisha. I am a very family-oriented person. I love a social situation and I can be quite lazy on my own so, having a social agenda where I can show up and people expect something of me is a good structure for me. I also come from a big family so I know how to function in a group like that. So, a company seemed like a natural way to go.

What qualities do you look for in your dancers?

Crazy, amazingly virtuosic technicians whose technique is so good that it’s invisible. I don’t like to see that their technicians. The audience should be bowled over by them and that does require a certain amount of skill, but these people are good enough to be dancing about something bigger than themselves. And that’s what I like to see. I love to see that kind of fearless confidence going to crazy amount of places as well as places we all know and love in dance. You know the arabesques and the lines that you come to expect in a show. I’m not afraid of those things, but it’s the crazier more disjointed stuff combined with these lines that I find very interesting. So, they got to be willing to look ridiculous and not be afraid of that.

Is the modern dance arena more competitive today than it was 20 years ago?

I think it is. It’s definitely more fractured. In Carolyn Brown’s book you’ll read that Merce [Cunningham], up into his 50s, was driving the tour bus around and the dancers were in the supermarket shoplifting dinner so, it was definitely tough then. You know there was probably less people earlier on, but there was less structure. Today, there is more structure and more people so it’s kind of hard to say. It’s always tough and 65 percent of my time is trying to figure out how to pay for everything.

What is the hardest part of maintaining your own dance company?

We’re here to make work. We all start for one reason and that’s to investigate something new. And to pay for that is very challenging because it’s really not a product and therefore hard to sell it. And the market is small and the pay is little. It’s really a rough industry. Dance is one of the only industries where there isn’t a physical product to take home with you. So, the financial responsibilities are pretty enormous.

It’s also hard to ask people for money. You have to become very comfortable asking people to donate money, and that took me a long time to get comfortable with.

“The Architecture of Loss.” Photo: Julie Lemberger

Your company will be performing excerpts from Underland (2011) and The Architecture of Loss (2012). Why these two pieces?

Well, Underland is one of my favorite works. I love Nick Cave’s music because it’s got this kind of gothic rock edge that is perfect for me. It’s a whole evening piece and I didn’t want to show just that for my first appearance in Dallas. The Architecture of Loss is much gentler. The music is an Icelandic composer named Valgeir Sigurdsson whose work is just so beautiful, delicate and sad. And Nick’s is sometimes quite mean and abrasive so, I thought they would go quite well together.

Your musicality is uncanny. Did you play an instrument growing up?

I played guitar a little bit, but I didn’t advance very far. I don’t have any classical skills musically speaking. What I am is a very instinctual person and I have a great sense of intuition. And my sense of music is really innate. I really like to work with music that is more in the popular or hard rock arena because I feel like I understand it really well on a cellular level. It speaks to me and inspires me and it’s not the usual stuff you see people dance to. Nick Cave to me is one of the greatest artists of our time and to be able to put my language up against his is really quite an honor.

What would you like the audience to take away from your performance?

I would like the audience to be affected by our interest and our excitement for movement. I would like the audience to remain open to being disorientated. And I would like them to be interested in the other artists I have worked with. I would like to turn them on to artists that mean a lot to me.

This Q&A was originally posted on TheaterJones.com.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s