Stephen Petronio has literally just flown in from Korea the morning I talk with him and he apologises in advance in case he doesn’t make sense. But Petronio not only makes sense, he is as articulate as ever.
The 45 year-old, who was once the enfant terrible of the New York dance scene, has made a career out of confounding and thrilling his audiences.
But for those who know where to look, sense is never far below the surface. His spectacular but abstract dance always holds a rhythm, a thread of meaning. This has never been more evident than in Gotham Suite, a trilogy of work that was written in the aftermath of the attack on the Twin Towers.
City Of Twist, a series of portraits written for each of the dancers in his company, is the most heartfelt of the pieces.
I started it before 9/11 but the bulk of the work was made post-9/11. So it was made with that awareness, with anger, fear, loathing and love of New York. I became very possessive of my life in New York when it was threatened. I got hysterical and began making work. But the work is not really about 9/11, it’s about New York. I just got very attached to my life there and all my friends. I got very defensive about the playground that I grew up in and I wanted to make work with those people at that time, Petronio explains.
But this was more than a memorial piece. It began with a search for a new language and coincided with Petronio’s realisation that he had to find ways of going beyond his own signature style.
I wanted to make something that was a little more intimate than I had been making in the past -“ the big structural fireworks that I had become known for. I found myself asking: -˜Is that what I am going to be doing for the rest of my life?’ I realised intimacy was one thing that I avoided on stage and that I very rarely put one quiet thing on stage by itself. So I began doing that as portraits for my dancers and then 9/11 happened and the portraits became archetypal New York characters blended with the soul of the dancer that I was creating for, he says.
The work became a necessary obsession and the result surprised even Petronio.
The only way to get through these days was to make steps -“ which is what I do, compulsively and obsessively. So that’s what we did and when it premiered in New York it became very popular. It was a very emotional premiere. I didn’t really talk about what it was about because I didn’t really know -“ I was just finishing making it. But there were lots of tears in the audience, Petronio recalls.
I have never made a dance like that and nor have I ever wanted to make a dance like that. I’m kind of anti that kind of performance, he adds, still seeming a little in awe of the audience response to this work.
The other two pieces in Gotham Suite have a somewhat different pitch. The solo Broken Man, danced by Petronio himself, maintains the elegiac tone of City Of Twist but is about a personal rediscovery of the body rather than a sense of the body in the urban environment. It is in Island Of Misfit Toys that Petronio’s sense of the absurd emerges. This piece was written about a year after 9/11 and reflects the change and the readjustment of New York life.
About a year later that melancholic spell had worn off. We stopped offering seats on the subway, we stopped holding the door for each other, we just got on with our business. But that really did go on for a long time -“ everyone was so caring, it was crazy. I was asking myself what would go with City Of Twist and I started to think of the reasons I moved to New York in the first place and all the devious, dark, greedy and illicit stuff that I love about New York and that a lot of people love about New York -“ the ego gone wild.
So I made a little series of dances based on the darker side. It’s like a Gothic cartoon based on the darker side of things, Petronio explains.
He asked Lou Reid -“ his music is sweet as pie and his lyrics are insidious and crazy -“ to write the music and photographer Cindy Sherman to provide the scenic. The result is a quintessential New Yorker’s New York.
Petronio admits to being nervous about the debut of the work in Australia. He was last in Australia two years ago to create and direct Underland, a piece for the Sydney Dance Company. And it’s that piece’s runaway success that has him worried. He realises that local audiences now have high expectations.
But if the acclaim from other international seasons is any indicator, Sydney audiences are unlikely to be disappointed.
Gotham Suite plays the Sydney Theatre 5-15 October. Bookings: 9250 1999.