I was mesmerized by the coherence of the shifting patterns, their ideas so clearly presented, even though the work by no means provided more than a suggestion of a story.
Like Lazarus Did (LLD 11/15), performed by the Stephen Petronio Company. Presented by World Music/Crash Arts at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, MA through Nov 17.
By Iris Fanger
Stephen Petronio was the first male dancer with Trisha Brown’s company, back in the mid-1970s, so it’s no wonder he learned his early lessons as a choreographer from her. One of Brown’s iconic pieces was called “Accumulation,” in which she started with one gesture, adding a second, a third and more, gradually building the phrase into a complex, fascinating structure of dance.
Although he has long since left his mentor behind (he has been leading his own troupe for thirty years), Petronio still makes works in that manner, beginning with a gesture or an ordinary walk or a tiny jump, finally culminating in swift, thrashing locomotion that propels his ten stunning dancers into every part of the stage. He takes time out for freezes and melts, giving the audience and the performers time to catch their collective breath and to impress the stage picture in the mind’s eye. As a choreographer, he has total command of structure. Even if the dance has no set story line or subject, there’s never a sense that the measures are just piled together helter skelter until the music ends.
Petronio’s most recent work, “Like Lazarus Did (LLD 11/15),” which is having its local premiere this weekend at the ICA, is about death and resurrection. The work begins as the audience members file in to take their seats. Petronio, dressed in a dark suit and bare feet, is lying stretched out on the stage in a pool of light, as if ready to meet his maker. When the spotlight fades, a darkish fog discloses nine dancers, organized into pods of three, walking forward towards the audience and fading back, with gentle gestures of arms circling their heads, or palms held forward as if to display the stigmata. They are dressed in filmy white short tunics that suggest shrouds: the costume design is credited to H. Petal and Tara Subkoff. Later the dancers will appear and re-appear in various changes of costume, including near nudity.
Son Lux’s score combines songs of the black American slaves with what sounds like whispers and booming percussion. The opening lyric of the piece — “I want to die like Lazarus did” — accompanies the first glimpse of the dancers. Seventy-five minutes later, Nicholas Sciscione performs an astonishing solo, the climax of the work. He starts in a recreation of the cycle of life, when a baby learns to roll over, lift himself up, and find his balance, and finally, stands upright. It’s as if a beacon of hope was turned on, not unlike the peace of mind found by those who believe that death is not the final ending.
In between, the members of the troupe have come and gone on stage in various configurations and changing moods. Lyrics such as a reoccurring “Hallelujah” and “These are my father’s children” might motivate the images but not slavishly so. One part was choreographed for three men manipulating a woman, Davalois Fearon, hoisting her up on their shoulders or around their bodies, hardly ever allowing her to touch her feet on the ground, yet their attitudes were free of suggestions of aggression or fear. Since there was no scenery other than an effective lighting design by Ken Tabachnick, it came as a surprise when two thick white cords dropped down from above, to be grasped by Joshua Tuason for a senuous solo, complete with lascivious, swinging hips, performed with his back to the audience.
I’ve come late to this particular choreographer’s work. I am a victim of geography — he is based in New York and when his company performs here it is only for a weekend at a time. I was mesmerized by the coherence of the shifting patterns, their ideas so clearly presented, even though the work by no means provided more than a suggestion of a story. I’m glad to be finally a guest at Petronio’s party, to revel in his inventiveness in transforming the familiar, his inspiring leadership for his troupe and his pushing the boundaries of contemporary dance without discarding its qualities of rhythm, patterns, and grace.
Iris Fanger is a theater and dance critic based in Boston. She has written reviews and feature articles for the Boston Herald, Boston Phoenix, Christian Science Monitor, New York Times, and Patriot Ledger as well as for Dance Magazine and Dancing Times (London).
Former director of the Harvard Summer Dance Center, 1977-1995, she has taught at Lesley Graduate School and Tufts University, as well as Harvard and M.I.T. She received the 2005 Dance Champion Award from the Boston Dance Alliance and in 2008, the Outstanding Career Achievement Award from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Tufts. She lectures widely on dance and theater history.