Petronio_photo-Jason_Andrew

Stephen Petronio (left) and artist Janine Antoni (right) set the scene as the audience takes their seats for “Like Lazarus Did” the new performance by Stephen Petronio Company (photograph by the author for Hyperallergic)

Stephen Petronio has been a creative force in the dance world for nearly 30 years. The most compelling aspect of Petronio’s career, and most intriguing for me, is his desire to collaborate, inviting composers, musicians, and visual artists to take on an idea and expand it within and beyond the dance.

For his current season at the Joyce, Petronio offers “Like Lazarus Did,” and with it heavy ideas of reincarnation and resurrection. His collaborators include composer Son Lux performing live with members of yMusic and The Young People’s Chorus of New York City, artist Janine Antoni, whose primary tool for sculpture has always been her own body, lighting by Ken Tabachnick, and costumes by H. Petal and Tara Subkoff.

I haven’t seen enough Petornio to say that I’m an expert. I approached the work as one obsessed with cross-disciplinary collaboration and with high expectations for the roles various art forms can play within a single production.

“Lazarus’ resurrection, the phoenix rising, and cycles of reincarnation are compelling ideas,” Petronio offers in his program notes, but getting across such heroic concepts can be a challenge even for the seasoned Petorino.

This isn’t Petronio’s first foray into the subject matter of death. Nearly 10 years ago his company presented “The King is Dead (Part I)” featuring stage design by Cindy Sherman, including slide projections showing mummified body parts with costumes by Manolo. A press release asserted that the dance concerns “the symbolic death of the male figure.”

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Nicholas Sciscione in “Like Lazarus Did (LDD 4/30)” (photograph courtesy Julieta Cervantes)

Drawing on the past to move forward, Petronio sets the scene for Lazarus himself. As the audience enters the theater we see him, lying on the stage, the velvet curtain raised just slightly. He is in a suit, wearing his trademark thick-rimed glasses, his bare feet exposed and painted gold, his arms folded on his chest. Hovering in a meditative state opposite of him above the audience is the performance artist and sculptor Janine Antoni, who lies quietly in a helicopter stretcher she’s garlanded with transparent casts of her own body parts. The idea came to her after looking at Petronio’s oeuvre and feeling his work is “so much about motion and exuberance, [she] thought stillness would be an interesting thing to offer.” She is there when we arrive and remains there when we leave. It’s an ominous presence, a “living set” that the choreographer would like us to see as a counterpoint to the “hysteria” he creates on stage, but it is difficult to experience once the dancing begins.

A New Orleans style funeral processional, complete with umbrellaed musicians and members of the Young People’s Chorus, file through the aisles of the audience dressed in black. “I wanna die like Larazus did,” are the words they sing to further introduce the performance. They are the words taken from unpublished American slave songs offered to Petronio by composer Son Lux, the inspiration for the dance. “These spiritually elevated songs sung by the most oppressed of people,” explains Petronio, “offered me a new key to getting out of the body through music. They became our inspiration and point of departure in making this performance.”

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Living set by Janine Antoni in “Like Lazarus Did (LDD 4/30)” (photograph courtesy Paul Ramirez Jonasin)

The choir takes their place in the balcony, as they have so many times before — I wished this time Petronio would have found a way to integrate them on stage, but choreographing their mass to assemble and reassemble wasn’t a challenge he decided to take on. Three tight pillars of light focus down on three trios of dancers dressed in loose white shirts. Their movement is slow as they each take turns one after the next in a repeated sequence that’s reminiscent of tossing and turning during a deep REM sleep. The sequence lengthens and increases in frequency. The chorus repeats “Alleluia,” and we are lost in the duration.

“These are my father’s children,” the choir sings, “each one my father’s child.”

One would expect with such a rich and narrative theme that even the most abstract approach would offer slight assimilation between movement and text, a call and response to the choir, or an acknowledgement of Ms. Antoni suspended in her meditating cage, but Petronio will have none of that. His dancers stick with their combinations and phrasings that build continuously with each theatrical shift—from subtle to extreme, celestial light to terrestrial flogging, white to earthly umbers.

“Done with this troubled world at last,” the choir proclaims when fog floats in for no other reason than to further dramatize Petronio’s sweat-covered cast, which shifts routinely from full company to solos, then trios and duets.

“No one but Jesus heard me,” sings the choir. It was hard to hear such things and not see it ripple through the movement across the stage.

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Scene from “Like Lazarus Did (LDD 4/30)” (photograph courtesy David Rosenberg)

There are vivid moments of full choreographic clarity where dancers hone and harness the power within Petronio’s skillful steps. We witness the root of Petronio’s stated choreographic interest as his dancers “slip into heightened, intuitive states.” A scene featuring a ferocious Davalois Fearon leaping over, sliding under, around and pushing through a male entourage is one of these; we forget about the heavy themes of death and rebirth and just watch Petronio work his executive skills, moving his athletes across the stage. Petronio doesn’t seem to be “getting out of the body” but rather digging into it and savoring its sweat.

Never once do the dancers look at each other, neither to recognize their place on stage nor to acknowledge their humanity.  There is never a moment of there you are and here I am. Abstraction has cast its spell. There was one point when I thought it was possible. A moment, like a scene from the Tower of Babel, when Petronio’s entire cast frantically gestures in a failed attempt to communicate, but this too slips seamlessly into the contour of the piece. In another moment, an amazing quartet of Petronio’s male dancers push and pull off each other with leaps and spins that are more explosive than emotive.

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Pictured L-R: Nicholas Sciscione, Joshua Tuason, Davalois Fearon, Joshua Green in “Like Lazarus Did (LDD 4/30)” (photograph courtesy Julieta Cervantes)

The costuming of each section never alludes to anything narrative. What little the dancers are wearing tips the scale — quite predictable at this point in Petronio’s career — again and again toward the toned muscles of the movement at the expense of advancing a heroic plot. Costuming would have been the simplest artistic choice that independently could have brought us back to the songs of the oppressed, the very inspiration for Lazarus.”

In one of the more stunning sections, Petronio sets up a long diagonal for the company to travel and only then, for a fleeting minute, one could interpret this as a spiritual crossing over to the “other side.” Then a rope drops from the sky. The very tall Joshua Tuason undulates and shifts while gripping the rope high above his shoulders. Just as we were attempting to make sense of it the stage goes dark, revealing Nicholas Sciscione who stumbles like a defeated boxer, hands in fits in a pool of light. Sciscione closes Lazarus” with a riveting solo that morphs from fetal to full extensions. He knots and unties his nearly naked body, arms trapped by the weight of his muscled mass only to be pried free then tramped again, his struggle ongoing as the stage goes dark.

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Joshua Green in “Like Lazarus Did (LDD 4/30)” (photograph courtesy Julieta Cervantes)

The greatest strength of this work is the tension between narrative and abstraction. When you think about it, it’s interesting how different these two elements appeal to the intelligence, how differently they communicate a meaning. Petronio, while I worship his artistry and champion his collaborative force, ventures into the realm of narrative with his Lazarus,” and leaves us with pure dance.

The Stephen Petronio Company’s “Like Lazarus Did” continues at the Joyce Theater (175 Eighth Ave, Chelsea, Manhattan) through May 5.

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Jason Andrew

Jason Andrew is an independent scholar, curator, and producer. Specializing in the field of Postwar American Art, Mr. Andrew is currently the manager and curator of the estate of Abstract Expressionist...