On April 30, Newark-born choreographer Stephen Petronio threw a New Orleans-style funeral procession at the Joyce Theater, holding the proscenium premiere of his latest evening-length piece, Like Lazarus Did (LLD 4/30). The site-specific work began with live music outside led by composer Son Lux and the Young People’s Chorus of New York City; when the audience arrived inside, they found Petronio lying on his back onstage, as if dead — but he is soon resurrected in what we called “sixty minutes of bold and beautiful movement” that delves into “birth, death, and rebirth and heaven and hell.” Petronio will be presenting another edition of LLD (6/29) on June 29 at St. Paul’s Chapel as part of the free River to River Festival. As he prepared for the one-time-only site-specific event, Petronio answered some questions about LLD and his long, distinguished career.
twi-ny: In October 2010, you performed “Man Walking Down the Side of a Building” as part of a Whitney tribute to Trisha Brown, who recently announced her retirement from creating new pieces. You were the first male member of her company. What is your favorite memory from those years?
Stephen Petronio: Opening night at BAM performing Set and Reset. The excitement in the theater was palpable and I was to have my first solo in TB’s work towards the end of this work. The moment arrived and I could see the top of Laurie Anderson’s spiky hair in the orchestra pit. She lifted the bow of her violin, and when she brought it across the strings she sent me out into a wildly adrenalized state that became a defining moment in my dancing career.
twi-ny: Last June, the company performed a one-night-only edition of LLD at the Ukrainian National Home in the East Village, and then you presented an extended run at the Joyce. How has it evolved since that initial performance?
Stephen Petronio: That edition was focused on the relationship between the men in the company as my dancers and me as their director. Who is breathing life into who? Since that rendition was intimate, with the audience on all sides, the dancing was more like a series of actions to be caught by the viewer as it passed by them. On the Joyce’s proscenium it’s more likely that action transposes into image, so what ended up on that stage was considered with a “long view” in mind. They are uniquely different experiences.
twi-ny: Each edition of LLD will have site-specific elements. What adaptations are being made for the June 29 River to River show at St. Paul’s Chapel?
Stephen Petronio: Well, St. Paul’s is a multisided venue, like the ballroom of the first edition, but it has a marble aisle down the center of the dancing arena, so I’m considering “fractured compositions” as opposed to the frontal perspective of the Joyce, whole elements broken down and set into the space with shifting orientation.
twi-ny: The show begins with you lying as if dead on the stage, then rising up. Might that be a stranger experience in a church?
Stephen Petronio: Yes, the chapel aspect is large. Last night I dreamed that after a performance in the chapel an archbishop figure took me into the sacristy to discuss my motivations!
twi-ny: Wow. You often use eclectic music in your work; for example, in Underland, you used the songs of Nick Cave, and other collaborators have included Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, the British punk band Wire, and art rockers Fischerspooner. For LLD, you’re back with Son Lux [Ryan Lott], who you previously worked with on Tragic Love and Singing Light. What is it about Ryan and his music that merges so well with your choreographic language?
Stephen Petronio: Ryan and I have some weird connection. We understand each other quickly on some elemental level. I am drawn to him because I like what he does that’s not dance oriented. I always want him to write music that he would write for his own purposes and not some idea of a “dance score.” At the same time he is moved by dance — he is married to a dancer-choreographer [Jennifer McQuiston Lott], so he gets the whole picture of how dance and music can join forces.
twi-ny: Next year will mark the thirtieth anniversary of the Stephen Petronio Company. How would you characterize the first three decades, and what can we expect in the next three?
Stephen Petronio: I am blown away that it’s been thirty years. I’m very proud of the body of work and amazing artists that have marked my life over these years.