Group fizzles during phenomenal dance season

By Ben Labe

After being blown away by the Pittsburgh Dance Council’s presentations of Rioult and Pilobolus last semester… The Stephen Petronio


Choreographed by Stephen


Jan. 22

Byham Theater

Grade: B-

After being blown away by the Pittsburgh Dance Council’s presentations of Rioult and Pilobolus last semester, I must admit that I had high hopes for the Stephen Petronio Company’s visit to the Byham Theater last Saturday night. However, those hopes were quickly dashed as I watched the performance unfold.

Petronio’s choreography was adequate. His dancers were talented, and each of his pieces had beautiful moments. Yet each one failed to captivate or to elevate my interest beyond the level of basic technical appreciation.

The show consisted of five pieces, ranging from a solo that Petronio first choreographed in 1986 to an ensemble piece that premiered only last year. The pieces offered a terrific range of music and a thorough introduction to Petronio’s repertoire.

Petronio choreographed the first piece, called “#3,” in the confines of a claustrophobic Manhattan apartment where he lived during the earlier part of his career. Not to be undone by the small space, he decided that his feet would stay stationary. The piece became an interesting experiment in restriction. The music, by Lenny Pickett, was bluesy and rhythmic. Although Petronio’s movements were unique, the dance was too slow to develop and, like most of the pieces that night, it left me wondering when it would finish.

The second piece, choreographed in 1990, was “MiddleSexGorge.” Petronio had been deeply involved in trying to raise awareness in New York City of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. Evidently, the piece was an attempt to tackle that subject. Yet it could have been about anything — there was little within the piece to signal any meaning at all. The music was irritating and repetitive, the piece was underdeveloped thematically, the partnering seemed uncomfortable and contrived and the costumes were distracting.

Two of the men wore white corsets and white tights covered in pink roses, and the other three simply wore black corsets and thongs. The costumes were distracting not because of the dancers’ nudity, but because their significance within the dance was indecipherable.

The two best pieces were in the second act — unfortunately, they were also the shortest. “Love Me Tender” and “Foreign Import” were clean and refreshing. The first, a solo performed to the famous Elvis Presley song, was fluid and balletic. Meanwhile, interspersed moments of percussive chugs complemented the music and the dancing in a way that was truly unpredictable.

“Foreign Import,” which showcased two female dancers in billowing white costumes contrasted by a strong, domineering male, was elegant and picturesque. The dance was set to an acoustic version of Radiohead’s “Creep” also helped its appeal.

The lighting for these pieces was similarly more intriguing than at other times. Featuring fading green and purple backdrops, the lights framed the dancers in a subdued atmosphere that complemented the long, controlled extensions and linear suspensions of the choreography. The rest of the pieces were set off only by white. The design was technically competent — it added dimension to the dancers and to the stage — but again it failed to grab me.

By the final piece, “Ghostown,” I was ready for Petronio to make a complete comeback. But instead of resembling the previous two pieces, this one was a lot like “MiddleSexGorge” — long, tiresome and containing an inscrutable message. It tried to create the mood of a ghost town — presumably to fit its title — but whether or not the piece succeeded is arguable.

Following the performance, I lingered in the audience to hear a question-and-answer session with the choreographer. I was struck by some of the eloquent compliments that the audience members paid to Petronio’s work. One woman told him that “Ghostown” was like watching “[Salvador] Dali’s ‘Melting Clocks’ in motion.” I only wished I could agree. It is possible that that audience member saw something that I didn’t — by its nature, dance is one of the most ambiguous forms of art. Perhaps there were also some people at Pilobolus and Rioult who were not as awestruck as I was.

The Stephen Petronio Company will return to the northeast in New York City  at the Joyce Theater on April 5-10.