INTERVIEW: Stephen Petronio to celebrate Cunningham centennial

Photo: Stephen Petronio Company dancers will revive two works from the 1970s and present a world premiere at NYU Skirball. Photo courtesy of Sarah Silver / Provided by Everyman Agency with permission.


Merce Cunningham was one of the most influential choreographers of the 20th century, and 2019 marks the centennial of his birth. To celebrate the dance-maker, Stephen Petronio Company will mount Cunningham’s Tread (1970) as part of the company’s Bloodlines performances April 11-13 at NYU Skirball in Manhattan.

In many ways, Cunningham’s piece is a combination of what made the choreographer so beloved. First off, the costumes are based on his own designs, and the décor, consisting of 10 industrial fans blowing at the audience, is inspired by Bruce Nauman’s original ideas. Add in Christian Wolff’s music performed by Composers Inside Electronics, and Stephen Petronio Company will be time traveling to the early 1970s.

Joining Tread is another 1970 piece, Coverage, by Rudy Perez, who was part of the Judson Dance Theater scene. The Museum of Modern Art recently fêted Judson for its artistic contributions, and now audiences can relive one of its highlighted dances.

The new work from Petronio is called American Landscapes, which employs the compositional talents of lute player Jozef Van Wissem and filmmaker Jim Jarmusch.

Recently Hollywood Soapbox exchanged emails with Petronio about the upcoming performances. Questions and answers have been slightly edited for style.

What considerations went into the programming for these performances? Why group these pieces together?

Continuing my fascination with works from the 1970s, their ability to catch the artistic concerns of that moment in dance history and juxtaposing them with mine was my primary interest. I also enjoyed the idea of working with Rudy Perez’s aesthetic of a more performative aesthetic as juxtaposed to the Cunningham and my own style, which are quite dancerly. I also had a real interest in putting Cunningham’s collaboration with visual artist Bruce Nauman alongside my collaboration with visual artist Robert Longo. The interdisciplinary collaborative approach is something that I relish.

Are you still inspired and influenced by the dancers of the Judson Dance Theater era?

Judson Dance Theater changed the terrain of dance in America, and that will resonate for years to come. For me to reexamine these works is like reading great works of literature again, and they impact you in different ways at different points in your life. These artists continue to do so for me.

What can audiences expect from American Landscapes, a world premiere?

Images by Robert Longo, music by Jozef Van Wissem and Jim Jarmusch alongside my choreography that are a rumination and series of impressions of the world that we are inhabiting in America at the current moment.

What do you think American Landscapes says about the United States in 2019?

The United States is a painfully beautiful and disturbingly complex place to make art in and to live in. In dancing, I always try to find a way to move forward.

The Stephen Petronio Company has accomplished so much since its founding in 1984. What’s on the horizon? What future goals do you have for the company?

To keep dance vital in our culture at large, and to continue to find support and space for the current and next generations of critical artistic thinkers that make life in America an inspiration. 

By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com

Stephen Petronio Company will present Bloodlines April 11-13 at NYU Skirball in Manhattan. Click here for more information and tickets.

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at Time.com, among other publications. E-mail him at john@hollywoodsoapbox.com

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