Performance Thoughts: Stephen Petronio Company <i>RainForest</i>
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Performance Thoughts: Stephen Petronio Company RainForest

Stephen Petronio Company in Merce Cunningham's “RainForest" Pictured: Davalois Fearon and Gino Grenek Photo: Yi-Chun Wu
Stephen Petronio Company in Merce Cunningham’s “RainForest”
Pictured: Davalois Fearon and Gino Grenek
Photo: Yi-Chun Wu

Last week I visited the Joyce Theater in New York to see the Stephen Petronio Company perform Merce Cunningham’s RainForest (1968). It was a rare opportunity to see Cunningham’s choreography performed live: following his death in 2009, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company ceased to perform consistently following a two-year Legacy Tour. Dancers from the former company continue to pass on Cunningham’s choreography and technique through weekly classes at the Merce Cunningham Trust, and work with museums, institutions, and dance companies—yet performances of Cunningham’s choreography are opportunities that do not come often (The Juilliard School presented Cunningham’s BIPED this past March under guidance of the Merce Cunningham Trust).

The program opened with an homage to Cunningham. Although Petronio himself never danced with the Cunningham Company, the inspiration is evident in the rapid, complex choreography of unexpected, technically challenging movement broken by extended moments of stillness. Locomotor and Non Locomotor, works that premiered a few days before my visit, converse both with each other and with Cunningham’s own work. More closely aligned with Cunningham’s later work, of the 1990s and 2000s, both dances are at once impersonal, avoiding outward emotion, but at times incredibly sensual. The dancer’s personalities and unique styles of movement come to the fore as they perform similar movement vocabularies seemingly in isolation or in pairs. As did Cunningham, Petronio relies on communication between bodies rather than in the face. Expression and connection between the dancers is minimal other than the responses of their bodies  in the dance. The seven dancers entered and exited the stage circuitously, a choreographic structure resulting in a feeling of being witness to only one view of on ongoing movement sequence. 

Oscar Bailey, Merce Cunningham, Barbara Dilley, and Albert Reid in RainForest,  performance at State University New York at Buffalo College, Walker Art Center, Merce Cunningham Dance Company Collection, Gift of Jay F. Ecklund, the Barnett and Annalee Newman Foundation, Agnes Gund, Russell Cowles and Josine Peters, the Hayes Fund of HRK Foundation, Dorothy Lichtenstein, MAHADH Fund of HRK Foundation, Goodale Family Foundation, Marion Stroud Swingle, David Teiger, Kathleen Fluegel, Barbara G. Pine, and the T. B. Walker Acquisition Fund, 2011
Oscar Bailey, Merce Cunningham, Barbara Dilley, and Albert Reid in RainForest, performance at State University New York at Buffalo College, March 1968. Walker Art Center, Merce Cunningham Dance Company Collection

The Petronio Company worked for months with the Cunningham Trust to embody the technique, which appeared more natural to some (Gino Grenek, who danced Merce Cunningham’s role) and slightly more of an effort to others. As it typically took a few months of intensive work, or even a few years for Cunnningham’s own dancers to fully embrace the movement, it would be unfair to expect the same from dancers who have been trained differently. This unconscious response of comparison is one of the difficulties for companies who take on Cunningham’s work. There are dozens of dancers who have embodied roles throughout history—Margot Fonteyn’s Juliet, Vaslav Nijinsky‘s Faun, Suzanne Farrell as Dulcinea—that each dancer after them will forever face that comparison. Cunningham’s vision for his company involved dedication to a new form of training, molding dancers that were uniquely equipped to perform the often unnatural and formerly untaught ways of moving. Over months and years of this training, the movements looked natural, effortless. Rainforest’s original 1977 cast, is almost incomparable in that Carolyn Brown, Merce Cunningham, Barbara Lloyd, Sandra Neels, Albert Reid, Gus Solomons Jr. embodied their roles, and completely became the personas of the choreography. Cunningham created roles around and for the his company member’s individual personalities and styles of movement. He would famously become upset when a dancer left the company, for that meant re-inscribing his or her parts onto another body—one for which it was not created.

I held these concerns going into the performance, questioning how much a few months of classes in Cunningham technique could do. Petronio’s dancers quickly soothed these concerns, in the premiere works they established they could not only take on Cunningham movement, but make it their own. It is important to remember that although Cunningham created for choreography for individuals, he also valued the way other dancers interpreted the work. This “realization of the personal and imperfect””1 is what makes re-performances of the the company’s repertory so special. As the Cunningham Company of the 2000s tackled the choreographer’s repertory from the previous fifty years, the Petronio dancers used the training as an a method through which to approach the movement without being imitative.  

Joshua Tuanson in Rainforest, Joyce Theater, New York, 2015. photo: Mary Coyne
Joshua Tuason in Rainforest. Stephen Petronio Dance Company, Joyce Theater, New York, April 2015. Photo: Mary Coyne

RainForest is a signature Cunningham work—his single collaboration with Andy Warhol (at the invitation of artistic director Jasper Johns) and perhaps one of the more character-driven works in his repertoire. RainForest has been described as the closest that Cunningham would get to Martha Graham, and in its exotic, even fantastical nature, this is true. However the movement is uniquely Cunningham: although we gather glimpses of characters, there is no narrative. The mood is set—a primordial rainforest, the dancers somewhere between creature and human, but we are left with this mood. Warhol’s Silver Clouds, replacing foliage or more organic scenery, float untethered across and out from the stage. In several movements in the choreography a dancer will make running leaps into the Clouds, almost playfully sending them bouncing into the audience.

As the amused audience continued to bat the stray Silver Clouds back onto the stage (or back over each other) the Fluxus-inspired sense of play that is rarely mentioned in descriptions of the work. Warhol and Cunningham would have, of course been aware of, and embraced the unfixed nature of the props, even as the flying helium-filled clouds at times obscured the dance. The childlike joy of sending a balloon bouncing into the air, shared by the audience as a whole, was a rare moment of connection between the audience members turned participants and the dancers on stage. 

Audience members depart the theater among Andy Warhol's Silver Clouds (reproduction copies), Joyce Theater, New York. photo: Mary Coyne
Audience members depart the theater among Andy Warhol’s Silver Clouds (reproduction copies), Joyce Theater, New York. Photo: Mary Coyne

As Petronio seeks to build on this homage to Cunningham by performing works over the next few seasons from seminal postmodern dance makers, Steve Paxton, Yvonne Rainer, Anna Halprin, Lucinda Childs, and Trisha Brown (the latter of whom Petronio had studied and danced). The Bloodlines initiative seeks to both challenge his own dancers to embody the very unique styles of each of these choreographers, but also to so closely compare one’s own style with that of the formative choreographers of the past fifty years. What does it mean to re-perform their work alongside one’s own? Or to reform the work of living choreographers? These are interesting questions as we present work by contemporary and historical choreographers and artists, often side by side. I like to think that this is, in part, behind Petronio’s choice to present RainForest. In being associated with Cunningham’s time as a young dancer with the Martha Graham Company, the performances by the Petronio Company creates a choreographic mise en abyme of past, history and present.

1 Silas Reiner (former Cunningham dancer) in conversation with Abigail Sebaly, February 14, 2013.

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