(with photos and an audio file link near the end)
What might you have left to say after twenty-five years of saying it? Certainly not what you had to say when you were newly staging your message and assembling your vision through the limbs of your dancers.
Stephen Petronio, a man of accomplishment and years had something to say last night at Manhattan’s Joyce Theater in the world premier of I Drink the Air Before Me, a collaboration with the startling twenty-something, Nico Muhly.
From Mr. Petronio’s program notes:
This work marks the onset of the 25th anniversary of Stephen Petronio Company. Instead of looking back on our achievements like photographs of old friends, I have chosen to look to the future with a new work. I wanted to give a dance that spoke of riding the awesome and unpredictable forces of now and I hope you will receive our presentation in that spirit of adventure and pleasure.
I should say that because I always attend modern dance performances with skepticism and mostly because C appreciates them, I am surprised when what I experience is worthwhile. On this night, Stephen Petronio made three winning choices: Nico Muhly, a stream-of-consciousness pre-game show, and a great twist on The Tempest.
Nico Muhly is a young man at the start of what may be a brilliant musical career. Seated at the piano and electronic keyboard, he directed a powerful compact of bass, trombone, flute, viola and bassoon. His music was radiant, rich and complex and effortlessly fascinating. Never heavy, it seemed to propel the dancers through their expected signature Petroniosities (head rolls, one-footed double bounces, shoulder slouches and swooping Pete Townshendian arm flings). Good enough to make me want to hear it all again, even without the dance component, it provided the energetic infusion that Stephen Petronio hoped for on this anniversary. Less fortunately, the two choral compositions, delivered by the Young People’s Chorus of New York City were vague and forgettable, and the fact that Nico Muhly was wearing, toga-style, what seemed to be a faded black bed sheet from a Columbia dorm room was odd. Also, I was mesmerized by the precision of his snippy-comique conducting (like a man making bird head shadow puppets in sign language. Not exactly the fluid arsis/thesis Gregorian chant chironomy in which I was trained, but entirely appropriate and providing an entertaining background choreography.) When my mind drifted during the choral sections, I was wondering what Nico Muhly’s music will be like when it is informed by something other than what I am guessing has been a relatively painless life. If his music is already this gorgeous, it should be magnificent once he has been slapped around by a few years of living and loving and losing all the things that Stephen Petronio and his seasoned troupe have lived, loved and lost. I think Nico ought to go downtown and have an insulting dalliance with some vile cigar-chomping Prince Albertal leather daddy . For starters. Wouldn’t want to see him not take that trip down the Ulanga River with the unshaven Bogart.
As we were taking our seats, and during the half hour before the actual performance began, Stephen Petronio, disguised in wellies, oil skin slicker, beard and wild wig under a mariner’s cap, mumbled (with amplification) the thoughts of an old salt as he spy-glassed the arrivals and seatings of the ticketed. When we had a chance to speak with him afterwards, we asked him about what could have been a contrivance but turned out to be a perfect introduction to the evening. He was on the auto-pilot of his best instincts, choosing snippets that widely included both Somewhere over the rainbow and a Procol Harem line, I won’t be your man at all if I can’t be your salty dog as he pulleyed a rope trajectory over our heads, perfectly marking his scanning of the horizon and his climbing up into the crow’s nest to find the next 25 years. We were definitely in tow when the music started.
His disguise by Cindy Sherman had evolved into something more sinister and Tom Waitsian since Hannah Whitaker made this photo for the New York Magazine review.
It is significant that he chose words of Ariel rather than Prospero for the title of his production. The Tempest is usually invoked at a time of retirement. Prospero closes his tattered book, but Ariel is fast-forwarded into an unimaginable freedom. In I Drink the Air Before Me, Stephen Petronio and Nico Muhly are both part Prospero and part Ariel with a promise of more to come. My husband will always secure us passage on their voyages, and it’s funny how either I am outgrowing my seasickness or they are becoming better Ahabs.
Here are C and Stephen Petronio.
Go here, and you will find, down the page a bit, an audio file of some of Nico Muhly's music from this production.