The only thing frosty about Trisha Brown’s Glacial Decoy is the costuming. The gauzy, white, pleated ankle-length gowns are, in stillness, architectural, in movement a contradiction. The frocks fan out and float with every extension, lift and spin, enhancing the illusion of a body buoyed, suspended, soft. In the hands of Stephen Petronio’s expert and muscular troupe, Glacial is electric, heated and charged – the movement originating from a tightly-coiled inner circuitry.
A former member of Brown’s troupe, Petronio staged Glacial as the second effort in his “Bloodlines” project, a series honoring his key influences, which kicked off last spring with the performance of Merce Cunningham’s RainForest. Dating from 1979, Glacial put together two postmodern heavyweights, Brown and artist Robert Rauschenberg – who designed the sets and the costumes – for the first time. Brown’s first work for a proscenium stage, Glacial features Rauschenberg’s oversized black and white photographs of rusted vehicles, flat tires and flapping laundry alternating in sequence across the upstage backdrop. These abandoned, solitary scenes however, sacrilegious as it is to say, take a back seat to the costumes which amplify the movement as no photograph can.
Created on five women, Glacial begins with two dancers swirling in and out of the wings, never beginning, never ending, never reaching the center of the stage. The infinite is here. Their limbs look like dead weights swinging pendulously away from their center. Brown’s calculations are precision personified. The two bodies, so far apart, so individually busy – you can hear them breathing – create their own hypnotic rhythm: near, far, away, here, there, woosh they vanish into the wings, swish they’re back again.
Eventually all five dancers (Davalois Fearon, Cori Kresge, Jaqlin Medlock, Tess Montoya, Emily Stone) populate the stage, and there are small, infinitesimal moments of contact. Brown’s choreography is peppered with a poignant wit: one moment the reverence of high church – sometimes the hands join as if in prayer – the next the bodies toss it all away with casual indifference. A limb tossed so recklessly, only a dancer could negotiate the inertia, the weight shifts, as the body tries to shed itself as if to say “You can have it. What do I care?” The leg as hammer throw. Brown lets multiple connotations hang in the balance. The shimmies and shakes are part of the vernacular of informal dance, while the flying limbs, the barely-reigned-in abandonment borders on the violent. These contrasts, more than once on Tuesday night, made the audience laugh. For all its postmodern rigor and reverence, Glacial doesn’t require intellectualizing to be entertaining or pleasing to the eye. Brown’s constructions, for all their shifts and sways, are, in the end, perfectly proportioned, like those of a master architect. The end result is a work of such exquisite, understated beauty, we’re in danger of taking it for granted.
Petronio placed his world premiere, Big Daddy (Deluxe), a fully fleshed out version of a solo he premiered in 2014, in the middle of the program. Drawing on memories of growing up in New Jersey with a strapping father, Petronio reads his memories from behind a podium while the dancing carries on. Petronio has already written a book, a memoir published in 2014, but dance is how his audience knows him, dance is how he has communicated for decades, and as an artist the impulse to publicly salute a towering figure of one’s life is a common, nearly irresistible cathartic urge.
Petronio’s writing is lucid, flows easily and is often cinematic, which divides the attention span: listen or watch? As he describes the nuclear family and his parents’ loving relationship, two couples take center stage. One pair executes sensual lifts, the other pair holds a loving embrace; one swiftly moves and the other follows, then anticipates another swift move, like a good ballroom duo, or any solid, loving couple. This is one of the few snapshot moments of easily digestible synchronization between text and movement. Big Daddy (Deluxe) isn’t difficult to digest, and Petronio is fairly literal in choreographic representations of the text, but listening to the text takes precedent to absorbing the movement, and the mental flow from verbal audio to visual has a slight delay. Towards the end he sits on the stage and reads for several minutes about his father’s decline, and there is no dancing. It feels like a cross between a literary reading and a memorial service and it makes one wonder how public this work needed to be. You forget there was any dancing. Is it indulgent? Yes, but he’s not the first nor the last artist to be called so. Petronio’s writing is good enough to distract from the dancing, but as a whole package of this length (not long but long enough) it falls short on the larger stage.
MiddleSexGorge, dating from 1990, is Petronio’s response to living in New York during the AIDS crisis, and participating in acts of civil disobedience with ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power).
Set to a rhythmically addictive score by British post-punk band Wire, MiddleSexGorge pulsates and throbs. The central tune, a remix of “Ambitious,” has a propulsive beat, heavy breathing and wild vocal howls. The choreography has a lean brutality to it. Machine-like bodies stretch, clench and knot themselves. There are power plays and role reversals of the conventional gender stereotypes (men wear wasps, thongs, and the occasional pair of floral pants). The hip gyrations, head snaps and swivels and sometimes complicated mass of tangled bodies leave no question as to the fact that sex is a central theme of the work, but its direct relationship to the politics of power or the AIDS crisis is less visible. Nevertheless, it remains an exceptional vehicle for his company, with Davalois Fearon and Cori Kresge giving particularly chiseled performances on Tuesday night (and not just in MiddleSex). Shown on the same bill as Glacial, Brown’s influence on Petronio – particularly in the pendulous limbs – is patently and marvellously apparent.