In August 2014, Stephen Petronio and his company announced the commencement of a five-year project called Bloodlines, which aims to honor and preserve the work of American Postmodern Dance pioneers. Petronio plans to pay homage to those choreographers who influenced and inspired him by presenting their dances alongside his own. The first installment of Bloodlines is coming to the Joyce Theater April 7th with Merce Cunningham’s RainForest (1968) and the premiere of Stephen Petronio’s Locomotor/Non Locomotor. Next, Petronio plans to put Trisha Brown’s Glacial Decoy (1979) in conversation with his own work, with many other groundbreaking reconstructions to come.
Back in August, I had the immense pleasure of speaking with Mr. Petronio about the intentions behind Bloodlines, his relationships with his predecessors, and his vision for the future of the Petronio Company and modern dance.
Nicole Cerutti: What inspired you to start this project?
Stephen Petronio: A couple years back I decided that I was going to ask Steve Paxton to do a piece of his because he’s been a big influence in my life and he was one of the first men I saw dancing when I was a young student in college. In many ways he had an enormous influence on my early training and I kind of feel like that was buried in my discussions about my work and I really wanted to bring it to the forefront. I thought what a great idea to ask him and what an honor for me and a way to pay homage to him. So I did Intravenous Lecture and in the process I thought, “this is the first time I’ve let somebody else’s work into my company.”
Then it was a combination of things: first Pina [Bausch] went, then Merce [Cunningham] passed, and then Trisha [Brown] became too sick to work. One of the things that hit me was that as a single-vision choreographer that’s what happens— you make a bunch of work and you leave some dances behind and then its over. If you’re lucky you leave some dances behind and if you decide don’t want to you won’t. But I thought, “well is that all there is?” So I began to think about ways that I want to approach the next part of my career and Merce and Trisha and the Judson [Dance Theater] were major influences on me. The Judson [performances were] the first dance I saw. It’s always been very primary in my thinking and I thought that it would be really fantastic to curate a project where my language is in conversation with these people who’ve influenced me enormously.
NC: This season marks your company’s 30th anniversary. Can you expand on how this is the right time to begin Bloodlines?
SP: I wanted to do it at a time when there are still people that danced with these masters and that I am still able to work with. They will all be teaching us—former Cunningham dancers involved with the Merce Cunniujngham Trust will be teaching us RainForest and Trisha’s dancers will be teaching us Glacial Decoy and whatever works we choose. But part of the interest is to have one dancer from each of those companies in the works wherever we can so that a Cunningham dancer is on stage with a Petronio dancer or a Brown dancer or a Lucinda Childs dancer. That way there’s a real conversation between the languages.
If I was a musician, at this stage in my career we’d be playing together and we’d be performing together. In dance everything is so separate and were all trying to either carve our own identity or fighting for the same resources and pissing each other off. So it seems like it would be great to change that vibe. I mean I’m a collaborator by nature. [Dance] is social by nature. I’m already in conversation with these languages in the ether, why not do it on stage?
The other thing is I feel like I’ve been doing this for 30 years and I think that touring with my work alone means there’s not enough employment for the incredibly skilled dancers that I have. I feel like the resources that we need are much larger than I can garner myself and it’s going to take a bigger social structure for me to keep these brilliant dancers dancing. So that’s my call.
NC: One thing I’ve experienced and considered is how there’s a fine line between recreating and reconstructing. Are you adding your own artistry at all and if so how?
SP: Well first I just want to say very clearly that every year I’ll be making new work. I’m hoping this will allow me to get out of the market-driven creative cycle because I’ll be displaying other peoples work as well. So that’s an important aspect of the process for me: to get out of the capitalist conveyor belt of making dances just driven by the market. When I started my career there was no market involved, and that changes over the course of your life.
I really want to pay homage to Merce, specifically. I’ve chosen choreographers that I have a real relationship with aesthetically and my dancers are really technically skilled. The Cunningham Foundation knows my dancers so it’s a natural match. The Trisha Brown Company is a natural match because that’s where I came from. I think Lucinda will be an interesting challenge. Of course, all my dancers are ballet trained so it will be fine (and there will be one dancer from each company) but I do believe that my dancers have my language, which gives them a certain skill that will make this different from other companies. The first work I’ve chosen is RainForest and then from Trisha will be Glacial Decoy. Both are works that have completely informed my aesthetic as a young thinker. In fact, Glacial Decoy was a work that was being made when I walked into Trisha’s company and it was only for women so I sat and watched it for about 3 years in every theater, in every rehearsal. I became kind of the rehearsal person for that work because I was the only one who wasn’t on stage. And so it totally got into my subconscious and I plan to honor it as clearly as I can. The idea is not to put my stamp on their work but to give it a true, honest, and lively interpretation. I think we’re the first modern dance company to get these works. Ballet companies can get them if they’re interested because they have the resources to do that. So I plan to do it the way that only a modern [dance] sensibility can do it.
NC: What do you think of Cunningham’s decision to end the Cunningham Company after his passing? Now there isn’t a specific company to perform his work such as Balanchine or Martha Graham had.
SP: I think that it’s a primary choice for him and it’s a beautiful thing that he decided to honor the temporal nature of the work. It’s very much in keeping with his understanding. And in that decision, it gives me a kind of permission to go ahead with this project because it’s one moment in time. It’s not the Cunningham Company, it’s just one moment in time. I think the Trust is allowing the work to live in a different way without the single-mindedness that the Cunningham Company had under Merce’s direction. With him not there, I think it makes sense that it opened up more.
Personally, I see what’s happening with other companies with a single-vision author that’s no longer there and for me, if I leave one or two dance behind at the end of my life I’d be happy for people to perform them. But what I’d really like to see is a research center for collaboration between movement research, visual design, and music research. It would be a bigger deal for me if I could leave a legacy of a laboratory or an organization. So that’s what I’m working on and that’s what the next stage of Bloodlines would do.
NC: How do you think Trisha Brown feels about her work being performed within this structure and context?
SP: It’s very hard to say. I’ve known Trisha my entire performing life. I met her when I was 21 so I know her but she’s not in a position to express her opinion… I find that incredibly heartbreaking and sad. I know she supported my work her entire life and from the minute I started making work she was there to support me. For a very long time she gave me access to the basement of her building for a small amount of money to help me get started and she encouraged me in a way that really broke rules. I would say that in the 70s it was really competitive. You know, your mentor wasn’t supposed to be supporting you really. There wasn’t a lot of that which I saw. But Trisha just did it and so I owe a lot to her. How she might feel about it? I think if I personally tried to dance Glacial Decoy she might be pissed. But as long as it’s for the women I think she’ll be fine.
NC: I Love the idea of the family tree. Can you elaborate on the sense of responsibility you feel to continue these legacies?
SP: It’s pretty monumental, frankly. I can hardly believe I’m in a position to do this but I kind of feel like if I don’t do it, I’m not sure who will. I’ve been training forever to do this. I’ve been around since 1978 and I’ve been following the works of Merce, Trisha, Lucinda, and Steve and these are part of my essential DNA. I know these people very well. I feel like I’m part of the first generation of people who came out of them and I’m standing here with a company. So I feel like it’s a great responsibility but we’re prepared. And we are very eager to take it on. I was a little concerned that my dancers might have some problems with it but everybody is really interested and they understand I’d be creating continually during the process so that’s not going to go away. And then they’re going to get to see where I come from and where this part of the dance world has come from so it gives them the opportunity to really stretch. We all feel very respectful. But it’s massive. I cannot believe I’m going to an open RainForest in April. It’s so exciting to me. In a way I’m a collector: I love visual art and I love things, and dance is my life. So to have [RainForest] in my repertory for a couple years is mind-boggling.
NC: I think it’s really exciting to see the dialogue you’re creating. What more do you think we can do to continue the conversation as dance makers performers and viewers?
SP: Typically, to intellectually understand the genesis of these great masters is important. And part of the Bloodlines project will be to teach the very independent techniques alongside each other when we are in the city or on tour. I’ve said this before, but this is not about blending the lines this is about having them distinctly alongside each other. We’re really going to be focusing on the intellectual and physical understanding of the distinct nature of each of the languages.
I think the biggest thing we can do as a younger generation of dancers is to really know what it is. Merce Cunningham and John [Cage] changed the face of how we think about art. And Trisha has influenced thousands of dancers with her technique. It’s important to understand what it is because it’s in your body in some level whether you know it or not. When Cunningham created a grid in space and then Paxton made a sphere in space: these are now assumptions people make without understanding what they are. To go back to understand what they actually are is a really important thing as an informed dancer.
Don’t miss the inaugural performances of Bloodlines from April 7th-12th at the Joyce Theater. Additionally, the Stephen Petronio Company celebrates its 30th anniversary with a Gala on Wed., April 8th and opens the floor up for a post-performance discussion with the director/choreographer on Thursday, April 9th. Tickets are available for all of the above here.