Stephen Petronio, SF

Written by:
David E. Moreno
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I Drink the Air Before Me

Stephen Petronio Company
Novellus Theater at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco
March 4 and 5, 2011

“I drink the air before me,
and return, Or ere your pulse twice beat…”
—Ariel, “The Tempest”

For 25 years, Stephen Petronio has been captivating the dance scene in New York, and the rest of the world. Yet even with San Francisco’s vibrant dance community, it has taken nearly that long for his name to be broadly recognized here on the Left Coast. This is both a sad commentary on dance in America, that someone this well-established is still not broadly known, as it is a credit to San Francisco Performances’ Ruth Felt, who first introduced the Bay Area to the Stephen Petronio Company in 1995. Since then, the company has returned frequently for residencies, contributing to the community as well as inspiring it.

To celebrate this 25th anniversary, Petronio created a new 60-minute nonstop piece, taking his title from Shakespeare’s The Tempest” and his inspiration from “storms, both environmental and internal, and the whirling, unpredictable, threatening and thrilling forces of nature that overwhelm us.” Known for his collaborations—including with Laurie Anderson, Rufus Wainwright, and visual artists Cindy Sherman and Anish Kapoor—Petronio commissioned the young superstar composer Nico Muhly—who has already produced three film scores, conducted “Einstein on the Beach,” and performed with many other contemporaries including Bjork—to score an acoustic/electronic landscape for thunderstorms to gather in.

The 12-part score begins and ends with a liturgical chorus, and is filled with Koyaanisqatsi”-like, Philip Glass-inspired drama: movement, repetition, and counter-juxtaposition. However, unlike Glass, this score features a wider range of instrumentation and variegation, beginning as the audience is finding their seats, filling the theater like an impending storm before the piece begins. As is true with anything of this duration, there are times when the score is both tedious and hypnotic, and because it is such an integral part of the choreography, it is challenging to determine when the choreography itself lags or if it’s the score itself that momentarily lacks luster. Even so, the dancers are on its every beat and dramatic trajectory with astonishing accuracy and ease.

Within this continuous score there are three non-narrative movements, distinguished mostly through costume changes: dancers begin in Adam Kimmel’s black raincoats, switch to grey jersey dresses with torn hems and grey/blue pajamas—a la medical scrubs, and finish in form-fitting, black-and-white striped outfits. The nuances between these movements are subtle as dancers move through layers of seemingly unrelated movement that is both sharply fluid and diversely unified. Pelvises thrust in and out of explosive jetés and rotating arabesques as different configurations of dancers break suddenly into solos, pas de deux, or small groupings seamlessly.

Within this brewing storm a unique power begins to arise—a funnel cloud of its own. Out of the flowing spectacle guest artist Reed Luplau mesmerizes as he dashes across the stage, barely touching the ground, or is whirled, spun, hurled, or somersaulted through space by various partners. While the entire company does a brilliant job with timing and phrasing, Luplau manages to float above the others, not only with his radiant precision and technique, but also from the pure joy he shows for what he’s doing. This is something the rest of the company lacks, especially the gifted and long-time members Shila Tirabassi and Amanda Wells, whose stoic, been-there-done-that expressions never alter throughout the entire hour, making their dancing come off more as work than pleasure.

Luplau wins the audience over because he is in love. He enjoys every moment, every gesture, every challenge, and is emotionally connected to each. Luplau indeed drinks the air before him. He is Petronio’s Ariel from “The Tempest” and brings with him a fresh momentum and trajectory for Petronio’s ever-evolving career.

Check out this (albeit a bit cheesy) video clip of Perth native Luplau winning one of Australia’s major dance competitions to get of taste of his combination of speed, Chinese acrobatics, and ballet talent:

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