Spring is the season when the least mystical of New Yorkers find themselves praying for some kind of natural and personal resurrection, rolling the boulder away to emerge from the cave of winter. Last week, there was no need to look further than the Joyce Theater, where the Stephen Petronio Company was fully committed to the concept of miracle-making, in the timely premiere of LIKE LAZARUS DID. Inspired by the text of early American slave songs, Petronio collaborated with the composer Son Lux, who in turn crafted a hip, electronic score drawing on diverse spiritual resources. The result was a dance work in which the lyrics and music, singers and musicians, drew nearly as much focus as the choreography. Creating such a diverse spectacle for the eye and ear was to Petronio’s advantage as the interest of his choreography ebbed and flowed.
Should I look among the living
Should I look among the dead
If I’m searching for you?
So read the prayer card offered up to the audience upon ushering into the house. The opening image of the pre-show figured embodied this question with a nicely juxtaposed visual: a “live set” of dislocated body parts, created by the visual artist Janine Antoni, floated above the orchestra right seats while Petronio himself was lying supine in a suit, perpendicular to the artwork. Living, check. Dead, check. Where else to search? Enter The Young People’s Chorus of New York City singing in a processional led by Son Lux on guitar, with C. J. Camerieri and Rob Moose on brass and strings; delighting all with the sweet voices of youth and vigor as they spirited through the audience.
Once the chorus settled in the balcony, the first dance consisted of three trios working in canon, arms leading the body in and out, forward and back, twisting and unfurling. Dancers clothed simply in burial whites, advanced and receded in a seemingly perpetual cycle of replacement, setting up a concept of renewal. The grace of this opening wave and the subtlety of the dancers’ performances eventually crashed on the sands of biblical struggle as the groups dispersed and one man emerged, costume changed to black.
My father’s son
In a clear tussle with the lyrics, this solo tumbled into a quick men’s section that brought a plague of intense activity, full of sharp kicks and jumps. Interestingly, the dancers remained closed off from one another, swarming the stage while eschewing eye contact, preferring instead to dance simultaneous solos in close proximity.
I’ve born so many children
This trend of isolation and onslaught continued, ramping up with a duet between two women, one of Amazonian stature and the other Pygmy. Re-entering in new wine colored costumes that were full of fabric frills in the front and bare in the back, save trunks, the uniform costumes did nothing to dispel their disconnection. Rather than partners in a time of despair, they were individual nomads on epic movement journeys that picked up the allegro where the men left off. The company’s beautifully toned legs were never part of the mystery.
Done with this struggled world
As more dancers poured forth, appearing and disappearing, they remained singular visions with flesh crosses to bear and escape. It was disconcerting to watch them fly past one another, high-energy apparitions, continuing the battle alone. It was also unclear whether the apathy the dancers had on their faces and for each other was intentional, since there is an attitude to Petronio’s signature style that often reads as standoffish. This feeling of emotional stalemate made it a good time to check in with the musicians and singers. Keeping with the theme, Son Lux’s voice sounded as if it was filtered through a major distortion effect marooning him on his own island. Was this all part of a larger effect or just a coincidence of affectation? A new and welcome crisis came during a scantily clad pas de quatre, as three men plied one fearless woman. The narrative lyrics faded away and a heavier beat rode under a much cooler and more abstract instrumental section. Though her body moved as violently directed, it was apparent her soul remained intact, rising above the circumstances.
Don’t be weary
When the chorus returned, the company began a pilgrimage diagonally across the stage. The woman from the pas de quartre returned to the living in a pale version of the ruffled costume men and women wore alike. Partnering and floor work abounded, no longer rationed commodities, as a giant silk dropped from the rafters. Backside to the audience and clinging to the fabric like a lifeline, a solo of massive hip gyrations and body rolls hypnotized. But instead of being lifted up and away, the scene ended with the dancer’s feet firmly planted in the ground.
Done with this troubled world at last
Another surprise came in the final full company section–another costume change. Materializing as a group in black and gold dresses for the women and red skirts for the men. This eleventh hour Eastern influence did nothing to illuminate an uneven work that seemed to be conceptually bound to a Western parable and history of strife. Samsara or resurrection? Are they just two sides of the same coin? Turns out raising the dead can be a tricky and philosophically confounding business. And this was not the finale.
Hush now baby, don’t you cry
Contorted and writhing in just a dance belt, LLD ended with a powerful and grotesque solo in an attempt to close the loop between life, death, and rebirth. The lights refocused on Antoni’s disembodied artwork as they faded onstage. Life in all of its difficult glory, check. Death and its strange pull, check. This left the audience with the last task on the prayer card, to go off in search of their own redemption and renewal in the May night.