American Dance Platform: Stephen Petronio Company & Martha Graham Dance Company

Stephen Petronio Company. Pictured L to R: Megan Wright, Elijah Laurant, and Bria Bacon. Photo by Sarah Silver.

The third and final American Dance Platform showcase at the Joyce Theatre highlighted modern dance and more specifically modern dance created in New York City.  The Stephen Petronio Company, which was founded in 1984, began the performance with a double bill that perfectly highlighted the company’s mission to present both original and masterworks that represent a highly curated, avant-garde aesthetic.

During its 2014-15 season, the company incorporated the Bloodlines project into its work. It focused on preserving and presenting a lineage of American postmodern dance masters, including the likes of Merce Cunningham, Trisha Brown and Yvonne Rainer.  To date, the company has restaged eight works, including Steve Paxton’s 1986 Excerpt from Goldberg Variations set to the eponymous score by Bach and performed by Glenn Gould.  The piece was part of Bloodlines during Petronio’s 2016-17 season, and it opened the evening’s showcase.

Excerpt from Goldberg Variations was based on Paxton’s improvisational movement in response to the music, and he has admitted to performing it differently each time, essentially only becoming a fixed choreography when filmed.  One wonders what recording inspired the solo performed at the platform by Petronio company dancer Nicholas Sciscione, who made the oddly elegant and graceful flow of jerky movement entirely his own.

Stephen Petronio Company. Pictured L to R: Nicholas Sciscione, Elijah Laurant, Ernesto Breton, and Megan Wright. Photo by Sarah Silver.
Stephen Petronio Company. Pictured L to R: Nicholas Sciscione, Elijah Laurant, Ernesto Breton, and Megan Wright. Photo by Sarah Silver.

The choreography seems a natural fit for Sciscione’s body, although there was a brief moment, as he moved low to the ground, when he seemed to miscalculate slightly, hiting the floor with his shoulder with force.  The move seems a little too quick and aggressive to be part of the choreography, but if it was a mistake, Sciscione recovered so perfectly that one was almost forced to believe it was done with intent.

The second piece of the evening was Steven Petronio’s 2018 choreography Hardness 10.  The title is a reference to the classification of the diamond as the hardest gem.  Petronio makes the argument that “we think about diamonds in relationship to women.  I am looking a lot at the strength of the women in my company right now in response to what’s happening in the world… They are the most precious thing that I could put forward right now.  Instead of assigning the women value through gifting them things and owning them, we look at their real power.”

The complexity of the ideas that Petronio espouses in this piece seems only approachable through abstract movement, which he does with verve.  The piece’s male and female dancers are equal in the role they play and the strength of the movement that they perform, at times moving entirely in unison and at others in opposition or in collaboration.

The dancer’s unitards with large bold text, designed by Patricia Field, add messages of “Look, don’t touch” and “He’s the boss” that clearly reference the Me Too Movement and a need for women’s empowerment.  However, nuance of theme and movement still seem lost in a piece that screams strength and precision but without context or variation.

The second half of the showcase presented an ensemble in no need of introduction: the Martha Graham Dance Company.  In a producing and presenting ethos similar to that of Stephen Petronio, the Graham Company “is embracing a new programming vision that showcases masterpieces by Graham alongside newly commissioned works by contemporary artists.”

Martha Graham Dance Company in in Pontus Lidberg’s Woodland. Photo by Brigid Pierce.
Martha Graham Dance Company in in Pontus Lidberg’s Woodland. Photo by Brigid Pierce.

One such contemporary choreographer, Pontus Lidberg, Artistic Director of the Danish Dance Theatre, opened Graham’s showcase with his choreography Woodland, a magical journey into the woods.  In what feels like a homage to fairytales, a young woman gets lost in the woods, a place where everything is alive and mysterious, inviting but scary.  The duality of safety versus danger, comfort versus discomfort, comes completely alive in the choreography and costuming, complete with 50’s style school girl outfits and whimsical and surreal animal masks.  

The piece premiered in 2016 at the Library of Congress, and it is clearly a work of contemporary choreography. However, the influence of Irving Fine’s mid-century composition Notturno for Strings and Harp and the period dress, likely softened some of those contemporary edges, infusing the movement with tenderness and tenuity that is not so common in modern dance being made today.

The showcase wraps up with excerpts from Martha Graham’s legendary work Chronicle, created in December 1936, after she refused an invitation to perform at the ’36 Berlin Olympics in protest of the Nazi regime.  The all-female work is an exercise is power and fury and harnessing them in the movement to send a clear and indelible message. Tremendously empowering, the work eradicates the image of female movement as supple, alluring and frail.  The rigidity and angularity of the movement show a force that will not bend or break under distress. If still surprising today, it’s not hard to understand how it could shock in the 30’s, while also inspiring a shift in dance aesthetic.

Reviewed on 7th of January at the Joyce Theatre

Read the review of the first and second evenings!