Stephen Petronio’s working-class Italian family — his father was a truck driver in Nutley — refused to let him attend Antioch College because it had a reputation as an extremely liberal college. Instead Petronio landed a scholarship to Hampshire College, now recognized as one of the most liberal colleges in the nation, but then so young that its reputation had not spread. At the famously “no grades” institution, Petronio started out taking pre-med classes, but encountered a dance class and discovered a career.
In the nearly 25 years since he founded his company, Petronio has brought his innovative work to as many countries, and won prestigious grants and awards, including New York’s “Bessie” and a Guggenheim fellowship. His company, arguably the most provocative and exciting troupe scheduled for this area this season, will be presented by Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts at New Brunswick’s State Theater on Tuesday, September 23. Meanwhile Mason Gross students are learning Petronio’s duet “Bud,” to be presented at a concert series on the campus at the New Theater from Thursday through Sunday, December 4 to 7.
Petronio’s Italian heritage, with its emphasis on abundance, affects his choreography, he says. Just as his biggest fear is not to have enough food in the house for unexpected guests, he says he prepares his work like a smorgasbord: “There are always at least two things going on at once.” He is known for wide-ranging collaborations with fashion designers and composers. For instance, the September 23 program features “This is the Story of a Girl in a World,” with music by Antony, Lou Reed, and Nico Muhly, and costumes by Tony Cohen. “Beauty and the Brut,” with a commissioned score by art-rock band Fischerspooner, has costumes by Benjamin Cho. Rufus Wainwright wrote the score for “Bloom,” which has costumes by Rachel Roy. All of the company’s lighting is by long-time collaborator Ken Tabachnick (currently general manager of the New York City Ballet).
You’d think that arriving late to the world of dance would put Petronio at a disadvantage as a choreographer, but the opposite is true. Had he grown up taking lessons in Nutley, he would have learned standard jazz, ballet, and tap moves, whereas originality is highly prized in contemporary dance. “I stumbled into movement and learned to forge a personal vocabulary very, very quickly,” says Petronio in a telephone interview. Most dancers learn the standard technical moves first and then figure out their own original movement later. “I did it backward. I explored my own idiosyncratic movement at the initiation of my career, and then my challenge was to learn to do it efficiently.”
His Hampshire College teacher, Francia McClellan (now Tara Stepenberg), was trained in ballet, Limon Technique, and Laban movement analysis, and she did spatial sensory explorations and compositional improvisations. “Things happened in cornfields. She blew my mind quite open,” he says. “I was having my first psychic and kinesthetic discoveries.”
The equation worked in reverse as well, because trained dancers delighted in his originality. “I was always excited to experience Stephen’s work,” says Stepenberg. “Because of his innate talent — gifts of overall embodied awareness, great extensions, and gorgeous feet — and willingness to be involved, he was asked to perform in dancework very early in his dance life.”
Next at Hampshire he encountered Steve Paxton, the pioneer of Contact Improvisation, a way of sequencing movement through space, and soon he was spending more and more time in the dance studio and less and less time in the chemistry labs. “At Hampshire he was indeed encouraged to discover and develop his unique movement expressive life,” says Stepenberg.
After graduation in 1978 he headed for New York, where he landed a prestigious seven-year gig as the first male dancer in the troupe of Trisha Brown, one of the most influential post-modern choreographers. He started his own company in 1984 and went full-time working on his own choreography two years later. Described by critic Deborah Jowitt as “the Master of Melt,” Petronio says that, for him, “it’s not about shape creating meaning, it’s about energy creating shape.”
On the State Theater program Petronio will show two works choreographed this year. One of them, “The Story of a Girl in the World,” explores gender issues, and, according to critical descriptions, it speaks in milder tones than the strident dialogues of his youth. In the late 1980s Petronio he joined the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), promoted the politics of gay social and health issues, and was frequently arrested for his participation in demonstrations of civil disobedience. For four years, starting in 1988, he and British choreographer Michael Clark were a personal and professional pair. They attracted lots of attention dancing together, wearing upside down corsets. He told an interviewer about his fascination with the stiffness of the corset, “because, if the goal of the body was to be as free and virtuosic as possible, then to put it into something constricting is really quite interesting.”
In contrast, his “The Story of a Girl in a World” was inspired by images of women. “It’s really about gender, about women-ness, the construct of women,” says Petronio, who made the piece while watching Hillary Clinton run for president. The first section of the five-part suite concerns a young boy who wants to grow up to become a girl. The second, ‘Bird Girl,’ is “about transformation and — we will just leave it at that,” says Petronio. The third refers to Candy Darling, one of Andy Warhol’s transsexual stars and one of the first famous transsexuals.
The fourth part of the suite, a duet danced to silence, is based on three dozen still images of famous dancers — from Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham to Josephine Baker, Karen Finley, and, of course, Trisha Brown. “The point is to use the still image, to invoke the still images by inhabiting the shapes,” he says. “A man and a woman standing next to each other in a particular state of undress go through them one at a time, like A to Z. When they get to Z, we improvised backwards with those shapes and made a little dance.” He advises dance aficionados not to go crazy trying to figure out which is which and who is who, because the images aren’t necessarily used consecutively, but he does promise that Graham’s famous “Letter to the World” pose and Baker’s Parisian strut will be recognizable.
The last section of “Girl in a World” incorporates some of the shapes of the early parts, and one observer compares it to “a Sicilian funeral.” It is, Petronio says, “kind of classical, quite an abstract piece, the essence of the female. I don’t think it is about one thing, but about a celebration. Think of it as five panels hanging on a wall.”
After finishing that suite and several others, Petronio wanted to work on something longer, something with just one beginning, middle, and end, instead of having to think up those components for each section. The Fischerspooner band was accustomed to working in short forms and he nearly flummoxed them by insisting on a 25-minute piece of music. They stumbled on the idea of using a story about a young French girl on a beach who gets picked up by a brutish American. That worked, because the storyline occupies the first 15 minutes and generated narrative music, without a lot of rhythmic drive. Petronio says “‘Beauty and the Brut’ stopped me from what I usually do, and — guess what — she gives in eventually.”
“Bloom,” set to commissioned music by Rufus Wainwright two years ago, is the third work on the program. The piece exudes optimism. “For young people, who are blooming and are really, really innocent about the ways of the world, they really need to be nurtured and given a sense of hope,” Wainwright told a New York Times interviewer. Wainwright’s music is sung by a youth choir, and the dancers’ movement underlines that vision. Wainwright says he wanted “to illustrate the fragile love that exists when someone is approaching adulthood.”
“Bloom” followed a darkly aggressive, sexually provocative period in Petronio’s choreography; he had just turned 50. “When I met Rufus, I wanted to do something lighter, more luminescent, with him. That is the mood I needed to see and the world I wanted,” says Petronio.
Petronio now lives in his hometown of Nutley and feels he has arrived at a new place in his life. Instead of being the “enfant terrible,” he says: “I am happy to be an adult — sober, strong, and recently married.” He and his long-time partner flew out to San Diego for the marriage ceremony.
If Petronio came late to the study of traditional dance, he was born a performer, a performer ready to follow his instincts, no matter how the audience reacts. He tells about how his grandfather took him along on visits to the neighborhood pub. “He would put me up on the bar and say, ‘Dance. People will laugh at you. Just pick up the money and run.’ That was his idea for me and I think I must have taken it seriously.”
Stephen Petronio Company, Tuesday, September 23, 8 p.m., State Theater, 15 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Modern dances “This Is the Story of a Girl in a World,” “Beauty and the Brut,” and “Bloom” features music, visual art, and fashion. $20 to $40. 732-246-7469. www.StateTheatreNJ.org.