Stephen Petronio Company
Mimi Ohio Theatre at Playhouse Square
November 12, 2022
By Steve Sucato
Call it a blessing in disguise that Stephen Petronio Company’s Cleveland debut was postponed in 2020 because of the global pandemic. Otherwise, the audience at Playhouse Square’s Mimi Ohio Theatre on Saturday night would not have experienced the company’s most spellbinding work of the evening, 2022’s New New Prayer for Now.
Presented by DANCECleveland, the mixed repertory program of dance works by company founder Stephen Petronio was a full-course meal complete with appetizers in his choreographic style that infuses contemporary approaches to vintage modern/postmodern dance motifs.
A former dancer with 20th-century modern dance icon Trisha Brown’s dance company, Petronio’s works have the look of choreographers Merce Cunningham, Michael Clark, and Brown’s in their formal presentation of dance technique but are very much Petronio’s in their inclusion of a plethora of seemingly random, familiar, and often quirky movement gestures.
The program began with the first of the two appetizers (in length only) set to songs sung by Elvis Presley that led off each half of the program. Are You Lonesome Tonight (2020/2021) featured dancers Ryan Pliss and Nicholas Sciscione costumed in pajamas and moving about the stage in rigid lines, wiggles, and shimmies before coming together in partnered leans, holds, and lifts. The brief but potent relationship duet served as a tasty prelude to the dancing to come.
2019’s American Landscapes came next danced by the full company of eight dancers. Petronio’s response to what he refers to as “the absurdity of the world in 2019,” the piece was performed to a slideshow backdrop of portraits of America by New York artist Robert Longo projected onto a video screen triptych. Petronio, a contemporary of Longo’s, saw the portraits as a shared experience of a time in America meaningful to both. And within his choreography for the work, Petronio added his own imagery from his past including references to the muscle arm flex of Rosie the Riveter, various boxing stances, and dancers marching about to protest images.
Danced to original music by Jim Jarmusch and Jozef Van Wissem that Petronio called “the merging of two contrasting voices, one sweet and hopeful and the other searing, twisted and industrial,” the piece began with the hopeful. To the sound of Zen string music, the dancers occupied the stage like an eloquent blackboard-filling math equation forming the angles, lines, and tangents of an ordered dance universe. Their bodies reconfigured the equation with every step and synchronous pause to regard one another.
As a shift in Longo’s projected portraits went from America the beautiful to America the dutiful, we saw images of mushroom clouds, fighter jets, and war. The work’s soundtrack matched this shift ditching serenity for strident rock guitar riffs as the dancers one by one began to slump to the stage floor as if the victims of conflict.
Of Longo’s portraits used in American Landscapes, the recurring image of the American flag, first waving proudly, then tattered, and finally brought physically into the work wrapped around dancer Jaqlin Medlock, was the most lasting as a metaphor for America at present.
The program’s second half opened with the solo work Love Me Tender (1993/2021) to the Elvis song of the same name. In it, Sciscione costumed in everything but the ball gag, bondage regalia, gave us a wonderfully tender plea for a fringe kind of love. The solo work was followed by 2007’s Creep, a trio danced to an acoustic version of the Radiohead song of the same name. The work, as did the song’s lyrics, tapped into that universal feeling of not being worthy of another — a creep among angels. Dancers Larissa Asebedo and Tess Montoya in white flowing costumes were every bit the angelic figures of the song to Pliss’s “creep,” who moved between them like an opposing magnet, and to whom Asebedo and Montoya gave no regard.
Saving the best for last, Petronio’s New New Prayer for Now (2022) opened on three dancers prostrate in individual spotlights on the stage floor as Monstah Black’s searing version of the Simon & Garfunkel classic “Bridge Over Troubled Water” began in earnest.
The full company dance work had a desperate prayer-like reverence to it with religious imagery interwoven in the dancer’s movements including prayer hands and kneeling with bowed heads. Costumed in designer Marine Penvern’s futuristic monastic black garments adorned with ropes, they moved with grace and fluidity through the most contemporary-looking of Petronio’s choreographic works on the program.
As the work progressed the soundtrack and Black’s version of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” began to take on a club dance vibe with the partnering of the dancers sprinkled with bridge-like lifts of one dancer spanning two and the pace of the dancing intensifying.
With adroit performances by Petronio Company’s dancers in fresh choreography, New New Prayer for Now was a glorious capper to a fine area debut by the New York-based company.
Next up on DANCECleveland’s 65th Anniversary season is Alonzo King LINES Ballet on Saturday, March 11, 2023, at Playhouse Square’s Mimi Ohio Theatre. Visit dancecleveland.org for info and tickets.