If, like me, you have been waiting and waiting for the Stephen Petronio Company to appear at the American Dance Festival, wait no more. They are here, for one more night at the DPAC. It’s a dangerous thing to say so early in the festival, but this one’s a standout. For any modern dance fan who loves balletic style, the Stephen Petronio Company offers an ecstatic experience.
Underland, the single, 60-minute work on the program, is both all a person can handle and not nearly enough. From the opening minute, Underland puts you at the brink of sensory overload. Commissioned by the Sydney Dance Company in 2003, it is set to music and songs by Nick Cave — music that strips away all the tougher, protective layers of your skin, leaving you utterly susceptible to its bluesy power. (The greatest thing about the blues is that it lets you suffer and moan angst-free, without neurotic fuss.) The three tall video panels (video by Mike Daly) that form the backdrop pulse with imagery, sometimes showing different pictures in each panel. None of them are pretty, although some are beautiful in an awesome-power-of-nature kind of way. Many are militaristic, or show some danger or destruction. After they’ve begun, a wan light stage right reveals Petronio writhing down a ramp, taking us to Underland.
Once he’s down the ramp, he and it disappear as the light evens out over the stage. It stays fairly even throughout, shadowy at the edges, but changes color with the emotional changes in the songs. There is plenty of light to see the glorious musculature of the dancers (well revealed by Tara Subkoff’s costumes), yet it is filtered enough to maintain the sense that they move through an under-world. Oh, how they move!; with their straight backs, open chests, extended arms, and high-lifted legs rising from beautifully pointed feet.
Ballet with the blues — it grabs your loins (wait until you see some of these dancers shake a tail feather with their fine legs up in angled arabesque). Modern dance that flicks its hand at the weight of gravity and the pull of earth — it squeezes your heart until it swells tears into your eyes. Nothing is random here — all actions are precise and pre-determined in a symphony of decisiveness. The dancers draw in air with great powerful strokes of arm and leg, sculpting themselves again and again in the parade of instants. One definition of sculpture is an object that activates the space around it, and in that sense, these dancers make of themselves sculptures — sculptures in the most temporary of installations. They are completely in control, yet they abandon themselves to the passion of the music.
There is sort of a storyline running through Underland, not exactly a narrative, but the great question of whether there is another world for us besides this earthly one is explored, with songster and dancer offering a definitive, and, at least at the time, believable answer at the work’s close, with the final trio of dances: "The Mercy Seat," "Prelude to Death," and "Death is Not the End." You can think about all that later. While you are in Underland, give yourself over to the pushing, pulsing, spiraling action. Every single image in the video swells or pushes or flies outward; every dance sequence does the same. The forces of destruction and creation are equally balanced, pulsing together along the same trajectory, with creation always a step ahead. This work is alive: exultant, suffering, and magnificent.
The Stephen Petronio Company will repeat Underland June 16. See our sidebar for details.