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Stephen Petronio's Dance Art

Modern dance master Petronio talks to Dazed about his work as New York SPC launch silent auction on Andy Warhol and Louise Bourgeois art

Dance maverick Stephen Petronio is known for his groundbreaking performances, which don’t shy away from topics as diverse as political activism, conflicting emotions and sexuality. Throughout his career, the New York-based artistic director and choreaographer has worked with musicians including Rufus Wainwright, Michael Nyman and James Lavelle, while also securing firm work relationships with artists such as Anish Kapoor and Cindy Sherman and designer Benjamin Cho. Celebrating the 25th anniversary of Stephen Petronio Company, Petronio has just finished a weeklong stint at New York’s Joyce Theatre, presenting some of his hallmark performances such as “Foreign Import”, “MiddleSexGorge”, as well as a world premiere of “Ghostown”. The anniversary coincides with the ART for SPC event on May 18 – a company-supporting silent auction of over 40 artists including Andy Warhol and Louise Bourgeois, presided over by Petronio’s long-time friend and collaborator, Cindy Sherman.

Dazed Digital: Can you recall the moment when you first got interested in dance?
Stephen Petronio: I had no interest, training or exposure to contemporary dance, but I took an improvisation class my 1st semester at Hampshire College in Amherst Ma. I was pre-med, and at the suggestion of a friend I took the class to relax and she thought I might take to it. In one of the classes I looked down at my body and it was one of those legendary thunderbolt moments. Suddenly I realized I had a body and I knew nothing about it. It was shock and awe and I became hooked right there.

DD: What do you think are the key traits that any good dancer needs to have?
Stephen Petronio: Technique so strong that it’s invisible, an adventurous and fearless disposition, the willingness to look ridiculous at times and a masochistic streak!

DD: How do you think your own style has developed over the years?
Stephen Petronio: The Petronio language developed rather quickly in the beginning, influenced by several great artists (Cuningham, Trisha Brown, Steve Paxton) and a lifetime of wild-assed dancers associated with the company. It has always been about a continuum of fluid energy rolling through the body and outward into space, and a strong belief in the pleasures of invention and accident. In the early 90's I put my foot down hard on the pedal of sexuality in the movement. I have since gone on to explore different aspects of behaviour always with an underlying obsession with formality and architectural play. The construction of a dance can make a viewer feel a certain way, no matter if the "physical content" does or not.

DD: This year marks the 25th anniversary of your company. Can you tell us more about the three performances you have planned especially for the event?
Stephen Petronio: I am doing something old, something borrowed and something new.
The old part is a solo of mime from 1986 based on images of public icons (speakers, politicians) that use their voice in public as their primary tool. It is all about the upper body as my feet don't move from "4th" position, where I am rooted to the floor. It’s also a company work that is kind of my sexual anthem – “MiddleSexGorge” from 1990. The costumes are by H.Petal and the music is a wire score mixed especially for this dance about power, control and the claiming of a sexualized physical language that has become a kind of hallmark for me. I was involved with political activism at the time of that play, drawing attention to the AIDS epidemic that the NY health Department was in fearful denial about.
The borrowed element is “Foreign Import” (2007) with costumes by Benjamin Cho. This work was let to me by the Scottish Ballet, who I choreographed it for. It is set to Radiohed track CREEP. Finally, the new part is a performance called “Ghostown”, which is also a world premiere. The costumes were designed by Jillian Lewis and we used Johnny Greenwood's score for 34 String Instruments titled “Popcorn Superhet Receiver” as music. It's about concealing and revealing information, shards of physical dramas buried in a brooding field of motion.

DD: The 25th anniversary also coincides with the ART for SPC auction planned for the 18th of May. How important is the idea of collaboration to what you do?
Stephen Petronio: The work I have made over the years is conceived as a social form that needs to have a real connection to the world at large and other art genres such as music, visual art , fashion and text. Movement rules, but these forms are so powerful in tandem. I have made works with different collaborators over the years that have had a huge impact on the nature of my work. Several works with painter Donald Baechler, sculptor Anish Kapoor ad three works with Cindy Sherman that I am very proud of. She is a consummate collaborator. She is the Chair of the committee for Art for SPC and has given her lead work related to our 1st collaboration together in 1993 called The King is Dead. The piece is stunning.

DD: What is it exactly about Sherman's work that attracts you so much?
Stephen Petronio: Cindy is incredibly provocative and has a fearsome sense of humor. I love these traits in an artist. She often uses her own body as her pallet, transforming her slight and unassuming frame into monoliths of iconic art. Our mission is the same. We both employ our bodies in in physical transformation, each in our own ways. I just work in real time. I read her photographs as performances, though I have been unable to tempt her on to the live stage. Her performances are caught in time and are made for that single frame. I understand her on an innate level and it has been one of the joys of my career to work with her and to get to know her over the years.

DD: What are your plans for the upcoming year?
Stephen Petronio: I am currently working on a Jeff Buckley project for Dancers Responding to Aids ground breaking in July, then off to Wales to make a work for a company there called Diversions. In the early October we will come to London to the Barbican/Dance Umbrella, with last year’s SPC work "I Drink the Air Before Me". Nico Muhly and his band will be playing live. I’m really looking forward to it.

ART for SPC will be held at Milk Studios in Chelsea, New York on May 18, 2010.
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