To kick off my first review as part of this website, I thought I should acknowledge a few things. First, part of my reasoning in writing reviews is to help me process what I’m seeing out there. Moving to New York has been like a second graduate school for me, with so many opportunities to learn from deep and accomplished artists, and writing about these experiences is a great way for me to solidify the lessons I’m learning from my unbeknownst teachers. Second, I’m really picky. Especially if I’ve paid a lot of money to see a show. Third, I’m sure I approach pieces with a desire to hone what it is that I’m interested in making. Given that basic selfishness, I will try to review with what I perceive as that artist’s goals, not my own. Ok, here goes…
“I Drink the Air Before Me”, choreography by Stephen Petronio, music by Nico Muhly
My expectations for this piece were very high. A number of dance artists that I deeply admire had long tenures with the Stephen Petronio Company, so I was eager to see the work firsthand. (It’s kind of embarrassing how little dance I see these days…ah, motherhood. Anyway…) And composer Nico Muhly has a brilliant reputation as a young superstar in the classical music (etc.) world. New York Magazine says: “Impish Über-talent Nico Muhly, known to some as Philip Glass’s protégée, to others as the guy who helps make Björk, Rufus Wainwright, and Antony sound better, and to most as one of the next great hopes for the future of classical music…” –Rebecca Milzoff, 8.22.08. Plus, it’s just plain fun to go to The Joyce!
Seated in the front row, I read the program notes which described the piece’s inspiration as “storms, both environmental and internal, and the whirling, unpredictable, threatening and thrilling forces of nature that overwhelm us.” Fantastic! I’m certainly feeling overwhelmed these days. This subject matter seemed very salient and I settled in to see how these artists would treat it.
Hmm. The large cast of 11 dancers were already on stage warming up in sweat pants, something that seems in vogue these days. There were two curious figures walking around in outlandish costumes (one of them Petronio in a wacky ship’s captain get-up, the other Ori Flomin in a yellow rain slicker and hat). There was a sail-like triangle stretched across the lower right corner of the stage, partially blocking the view of the warmer uppers. The two costumed figures strung a long rope around a scaffolding and up into the balcony in a long (long!) diagonal line. It was funny and weird and curious. I noted to my companion that I hoped there would be a good reason for the exposed warm up. I couldn’t imagine a theater like the Joyce not having ample warm up space somewhere… The dancers dispersed. The sail came down. The lights adjusted. The cap’n climbed the scaffolding and accumulatively spoke a long sentence that I didn’t quite catch in a sardonic tone. And then the music began.
What a gorgeous, gorgeous score! So sonorous, variegated…savvy but fully immersed. I found myself drawn to the platform of musicians upstage left–bassoon, trombone, bass, viola and flute–and to the composer himself seated at the piano upstage right. The eight arcing sections evoked storms indeed, with all their surprising, erratic but somehow organized dynamic changes of gaining breeze, undulating pressure, surging and faltering air, knock-you-down gusts, gentle lulls and strong press of rain. Such a richly realized effort–bravo!
Oh, yeah…the dance. Or should I say, the dancers. They were amazing technicians, all of them. Spanning a wide range of ages and experiences (one young man looked like he was about 12), they each embodied the movement with command and verve. However, I sensed a disunity in their overall maturity level as performers. Some of the newer company members seemed removed or blase, while the more senior members–especially Michael Badger–displayed more depth of artistry within the movement. Though I did find the performances of newcomers Barrington Hinds and Tara Lorenzen particularly satisfying.
The movement throughout the piece was both taut and loose, stretched and fluid (albeit the kind of fluidity that comes from holding your thumb over the opening of a waterspout). There were exciting, explosive moments with long (long!) scissoring legs and snaking torso spirals. But as the piece progressed, I perceived a sameness to the phrases and began craving some variety. I found most of the partnering rather stilted and over-prepared, often missing that slippery, organic connection that I value so much in great contact work across genres. Still, it was exciting to watch these powerhouses come together…I think their partnering prowess came from the fact that they can do anything they want with their bodies. Jerks. But (aside from a subtly powerful duet between Badger and…oh shoot, I can’t remember the other man–Julian De Leon?) I would have appreciated more connection in these encounters. In fact, the company lacked an overall sense of community in my eyes, as if they were just dancing in isolated parallel. Thankfully, the individuals were strong enough to carry that burden, but for me it translated into a lessened personal connection to the piece.
Choreographically, there was much layering in and out of various groupings to a chaotic and, yes, stormy effect. But in general I found the dance spatially diffuse and lacking sufficient centers of gravity to draw my eye and deliver the substance of the expression. It seemed self-conscious. It seemed gimmicky. It seemed disconnected from the rich inspiration stated in the program, and even from Muhly’s glorious storm being conjured upstage. It felt like that one-sided conversation with an over-caffeinated friend: slightly pushy, ahead of the topic, unfocused (“I can lift my legs! I can swing my torso around! I can do ballet! Or I don’t have to! I’m dancing up a storm!”). I suppose storms, or our responses to them, can encompass these qualities, but I felt that Muhly’s exploration of this was much more expansive and thorough…more true…while Petronio’s seemed cursory and flippant.
I haven’t mentioned the costumes. I almost don’t want to because they, too, seemed like an overwrought construct rather than a natural outgrowth of, and servant to, the intent. Nautical themes prevailed: at times the dancers wore pea coats, at others stripey shirts or striated long johns. For me, the costuming contributed to the dance’s sense of caricature and self awareness. Fine qualities, but not (in my opinion) juxtaposed with such sensitive and powerful intentions as those communicated in the music and poetic program notes.
The final section epitomized this asymmetry. In the program, Petronio discussed the text on which the section was built–a liturgical blessing of a bell upon installation into its tower–and included a special card laying forth this beautiful text:
“Whensoever these bells shall sound/May they drive away the malign influence/Of the assailing spirits/The horror of their apparitions/The rush of whirlwinds/The stroke of lightning/The harm of thunder/The disasters of storms/The spirits of the tempest/And all evil acts that spring/From the mind of men”
Had I skipped over this part of the program I might have been satisfied with the dance’s outward show of storminess, the leggy swirly virtuosity, the strange, erratic disconnects. But primed with such urgent and upward-facing language, I expected and longed for a moving navigation of life closer to the heart of a dangerous storm, and not just on its wild edges. The dancers in this concluding section seemed exhausted, as well they no doubt were, steeling themselves to repeat that same showy phrase AGAIN. There were reprisals of original themes. There were continued layerings of duets and trios against solos. There were lots of entrances and exits. Rather than this finale being, as Petronio stated, “an invocation of a sort, a beacon in search of a state of calm and hope”, it seemed like merely a subdued restatement of more of the same.
All in all “I Drink the Air Before Me” felt like a missed opportunity to connect with deeply human themes of turbulence, survival and the beauty of endurance. But, while it appeared that Petronio made himself busy describing an amazing storm, Muhly was in there stirring one up.
[NOTE: I just read a preview by Susan Reiter of The New York Press, and here Petronio seems to be inspired by the physical and visual patterns inherent in weather rather than the more human elements expressed in the program notes. Ok, I get that. Perhaps the stated inspiration of overwhelming internal as well as environmental weather led me to expect and crave something different. I would probably have felt some of the same disconnects in many of the choices made, but perhaps would have more willingly received the piece’s crystallized exterior rather than trying to crack into it for something deeper that just wasn’t there. Although I’m pretty sure the music would still have led me to that deeper place, creating the aforementioned disconcerting sense of disunity.]
[[Sorry for this long (long!) review…]]