Originally commissioned for the Sydney Dance Company in 2003, Stephen Petronio’s Underland is at last making its New York premiere this week at the Joyce, running April 5-10. The hour-long piece is set to songs by Australian musician Nick Cave, who has been telling epic tales of exquisitely choreographed sex, violence, and madness since the 1970s, first with his band the Birthday Party, then with the Bad Seeds and its raucous spinoff, Grinderman. Among the songs Petronio chose for Underland are such Cave classics as “Stagger Lee,” “Wild World,” “The Mercy Seat,” “The Weeping Song,” and his cover of Bob Dylan’s “Death Is Not the End,” not your usual fare for contemporary dance with their graphic depictions of murder and execution. “He said, ‘Well, bartender, it’s plain to see / I’m that bad motherf$%ker called Stagger Lee’ / Mr. Stagger Lee / Barkeep said, ‘Yeah, I’ve heard your name down the way / And I kick motherf$%king asses like you every day’ / Mr. Stagger Lee / Well, those were the last words that the barkeep said / ’Cause Stag put four holes in his motherf%$king head,” Cave sings in his version of the old Stagger Lee tale, from his spectacular 1996 album, Murder Ballads. No, Petronio does not do a literal interpretation with props, instead letting his powerfully muscled company display his own unique visual language, melding with Cave’s rather colorful words and intense music. Underland features projected images by lighting designer Ken Tabachnick and video artist Mike Daly, costumes by Tara Subkoff/Imitation of Christ, and soundscape by Paul Healy and is performed by Julian De Leon, Gino Grenek, Barrington Hinds, Tara Lorenzen, Natalie Mackessy, Emily Stone, Shila Tirabassi, Joshua Tuason, and Amanda Wells, with guest dancers Davalois Fearon and Reed Luplau.
Update: “This is the way art can be made,” Stephen Petronio said in a Dance Chat following the April 6 performance of Underland at the Joyce. The New York City–based choreographer was explaining the freedom — both creative and financial — he was given by the Sydney Dance Company when they commissioned the piece back in 2003. As soon as Sydney’s exclusive option ran out, Petronio snapped it back up for his own company, who was itching to perform the evening-length work, and their enthusiasm is evident in their energetic performance. Underland begins with Reed Luplau, who was brought over from Sydney, climbing down a rope ladder, making his way into the dark, demonic world of Nick Cave, his movement doubled on a three-screen video projection. Petronio then introduces the audience to Cave’s morbid sense of humor and deep voice with Julian De Leon and Shila Tirahassi dancing to a recording of Cave reading the “Mah Sanctum” section from his 1989 novel, And the Ass Saw the Angel, followed by seven Cave songs linked together by his producer, Tony Cohen, using the music’s original source material. Petronio does not literally depict the scenes of sex and violence in Cave’s lyrics, instead concentrating on the overall feel, creating an evocative, powerful mood built around vertical movement. Tara Subkoff’s costumes go from torn black tops to bright-red tutus to military fatigues as the dancers journey through such Cave ditties as “Wild World,” “The Carny,” and “The Weeping Song,” including beautiful solos by Gino Grenek, Amanda Wells, and Tirahassi and a playfully erotic quartet (Grenek, Tirahassi, Joshua Tuason, and Wells) coming to the front of the stage for “The Ship Song.” Underland — which has been pared down from eighteen dancers in Sydney to eleven here in New York, resulting in a fabulous fury of comings and goings — ends appropriately with the full company performing to “The Mercy Seat,” about an execution, and Cave’s interpretation of Bob Dylan’s “Death Is Not the End,” but instead of getting lost in the darkness, Petronio celebrates the light as an enchanting whiteness takes over. Underland is a fast-paced, illuminating night of music and dance that takes audiences into places they might not usually venture but will be glad they did.