Stephen Petronio Company presented two works at Irvine Barclay Theater last Wednesday night: excerpts from his 2011 work Underland, with music by Nick Cave, and his new work, The Architecture of Loss. Both were clear permutations of the same style. Exaggerated lines were fleetingly composed of limbs slicing through and screwing into or away from Space’s infinite surfaces. There was a strewn quality of ballet-vomit that, judging from the dancers’ inscrutable anti-stage presence presence, left a rather metallic taste in their mouths. Petronio’s polyrhythms gave my eyes plenty to eat while my ears rested on sustained ambient drones; in contrast, where there were lyrics (Underland), dancers seemed to pluck specific words from the air and highlight them in physical interpretation before bouncing off into the spiraling world of Mr. P’s thrown-up choreography. In both works there was this disaffected, offhand walk: I’ll call it the Williamsburg walk, after the gentrified Brooklyn neighborhood known for its throngs of hipsters and their definitive sidewalk swagger. Apart from noteworthy duets in both works, and a trio and lush saloony quartet (in which the dancers reminded me of medieval tarts) in Underland, the dancers seemed to be separated by at least four feet in all directions at all times, occupying some massive grid rather than a stage. Isolationism and aloofness reigned (Williamsburg, again) as bodies were joined only by the invisible thread of choreography seen pulsing across the space.
Hipster-swag aside, coolness oozed through Petronio’s work, emanating from those places whence coolness typically comes–music and fashion. Alongside revered Australian rocker Nick Cave’s score for Underland were costumes by Tara Subkoff. Architecture featured music by Icelandic composer Valgeir Sigurðsson, with costumes by Guðrun & Guðrun from the Faroe Islands. The costumes for both pieces shared an aesthetic unique to Petronio himself. Men and women wore briefs or pants and flowing tops that were sometimes backless, sometimes chestless, sometimes capelike. It was a pleasure to see a variety of textures in the fabrics, as dance costumes are so frequently victimized by the world of spandex. As for their design, the looks were neither runway-appropriate nor ready-to-wear: they were garments specifically suited to the dances, the dancers, and the worlds they inhabited.
These worlds were essential to Petronio’s works. According to my program notes, both pieces had been abstracted from some envisioned place. I perceived Underland to be a portmanteau of “Underworld” and “Wonderland,” inviting grotesque fascination, while Petronio’s impetus for The Architecture of Loss was “a place constructed on the notion of disappearing, receding, and falling apart.” It was a meditation on dance itself, this intangible, unpreservable art form. I found Architecture to be softer than Underland, with less dancers onstage at the same time. Interactions between the dancers seemed private, almost to the extent that I became annoyed with Petronio for making a voyeur of me. As if his work, which had succeeded in drawing a full house, was now saying “go away; don’t look.” Backs were turned to the audience; an air of solemnity took hold. Standing figures counterpointed moving ones. Three large, looming panels of white portrayed softly shifting colors of light from the back of the stage. The colors took the forms of roses, blobs of jelly, or Rorschach blots. Their shape and sequence, like the fragile choreography, was mutable.
The most compelling part of Architecture was a stunning duet between Jaqlin Medlock and Joshua Green. It began with Medlock standing, baring her ribs to the mezzanine, her legs splayed wide, her puffed-up chest courageously contradicting the vulnerability conveyed by her thrown-back head and neck. As the pas de deux continued, the two became a single animal with four legs and two heads, seeming to share one center of gravity. Finally, though, Medlock was left in a heap on the floor. Sitting there, her body seemed somehow uncontained, as if at any moment her insides might spill from her skin. The rest of the choreography was mostly forgettable, though split-second images of the work stuck with me. A feathered dress. The trajectory of a turn. Perhaps that was part of Petronio’s intention. Perhaps he succeeded in creating something not even memory could firmly grasp. The work was over before I knew it; suddenly the curtain just fell, and people were applauding. I looked at my watch, unsure of how 30 minutes had passed.
While Architecture left more of an impression of humanity, the excerpts of Underland, with its many costume changes and the driving pulse of its music, transformed the dancers from humans into mannequins, marionettes, robots, and army men. Watching it was like opening a toy box from the 1970s. Or, since the work was utterly contemporary and technically good, perhaps a better reference would be that it was like admiring beautifully made objects through a retro filter on an Instagram photo. In other words, it felt cool, and I’ll admit it gave me that excited cool-feeling jolt, too, just watching. Removed from the din of New York City and no longer vying with hipsters for a seat on the L train, I don’t hold the affectations of Cool against anyone. Rather, I applaud Petronio for his meticulous attention to production details, for collaborating with artists across disciplines and the world, and for presenting his own, clearly intellectualized version of ballet-swag.