Just as Nick Cave knows the difference between speaking and singing and how to use both musically, Stephen Petronio knows the difference between walking and dancing and how to use both theatrically.

Cave’s singing is all about the simplest inflections and Petronio’s choreography feeds on the small gesture and the background vignette. Of course both allow themselves rhetorical explosions, both set these details in almost symphonic structures and neither artist’s work is undemanding. But in the end it is in the simplicity and directness of their address that they are most affecting.

Petronio’s Underland, a show he wrote for and with the Sydney Dance Company utilising the music of Cave, premiered last night at the Sydney Opera House. When I spoke with Petronio earlier this week he said that the piece reflected his period of interest in post-apocalyptic survival. Having seen the show I appreciate the seriousness of the tag-line. His vision of these times pursues a fearless emotional logic but reveals a poetic centre.

The openly gay 46-year-old Petronio hails from New York where he has been one of the key figures in contemporary dance for the last decade. He comes from a traditional Italo-American blue-collar family and discovered dance late in life while at college. But from the revelation of that first improv class, dance has been his main focus.

He won acclaim last year for City Of Twist, a piece he created in response to September 11 with music by Laurie Anderson. Certainly the resonances of the various terrors of our times are present in his work but for Petronio the biggest difference in his life pre- and post-September 11 is about people.

I just became much more interested in people and the stories that are in each body, he told me.

The play of individual and community is a key part of the choreographic language of Underland. One of the striking things about the piece is the fluid way Petronio handles the movement of large groups of dancers on, off and across the bare stage. But what is equally striking is how these large masses of bodies can suddenly open up to reveal the simple movement of one or two dancers.

Petronio’s working method is hard on dancers.

Dancers really spend their lives training to be right and that’s what makes a good dancer, and then I take that person who’s extremely good at being right and I ask them to be disoriented. My process of working is about disorienting them and seeing what happens. So, totally smooth? No, but exciting, yes, he says.

I feel that the intuitive unconscious response to a situation is far more interesting than the fascist dictating of something. I find those accidents bring up some kind of drama that’s much more genuine but just as dramatic as a fascist display of the same idea, he says.

You’re a little mystery to me every time I come around -¦ sail your boat around me and burn your bridges down, Nick Cave sings in The Ship Song. These lines seem to sum up the concerns of Underland: the mystery of our separateness, the invitation that we issue one another to come closer, and ultimately our desire to burn with intimacy.

Sail your boat around me, burn your bridges down. We make a little history, baby, every time you come around.

Underland continues at the Sydney Opera House until 14 June.

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