With his shaved head, pearl studs piercing the tops of his ears, and a black tattoo that says “nunc scio quid sit amor,” Latin for “Now I know what love is,” running up his left forearm, Stephen Petronio comes across just as sleek, sexy, and idiosyncratic in person as his dances do onstage. This year he became the first choreographer commissioned by Flushing’s Queens Theatre in the Park (QTP). He spent March living and rehearsing in Morelia, Mexico, a small, conservative town four hours out of Mexico City in the state of Michoacán that’s home to A-Quo Danza Contemporánea. On August 7, A-Quo performs at QTP, closing its program with Petronio’s La Presa (That Which Is Hunted). The next day, A-Quo repeats the bill at “Lincoln Center Out of Doors.”
Now 46, Petronio started performing with the Trisha Brown Company in 1979 and established his own troupe in 1984. His choreography, which he says “has always been about speed, facility, and agility,” has attracted commissions from companies in France, Germany, and the Netherlands.
The collaboration, QTP’s first international commission, is a risk-taking venture, akin to an arranged marriage in bringing together disparate parties and expecting a harmonious, fruitful outcome. “It’s a gamble,” Petronio says with a smile.
Claudia Norman, the project’s coordinator and a Mexican native who lived in Mexico City for 23 years before moving to New York, began planning in October 2000. QTP secured $70,000 to pay the fees and travel for A-Quo, Petronio, and composer Carlo Nicolau. Among the funders are the Department of Cultural Affairs’ Cultural Challenge Program and the U.S. Mexico Fund, a partnership between the Rockefeller Foundation and Mexico’s Bancomer.
“The goal of the project,” says Norman, “is to establish a mechanism of exchange for the artists to enrich their artistic languages, and to encourage American presenters to commission international work.” Norman selected Petronio “because he uses a language that is new for Mexican choreographers and audiences. I felt it was important that the new generation of dancers and choreographers meet other movement languages. [QTP chose] Nicolau because Petronio’s language has elements Nicolau uses in original compositions—suspense, fire, persecution—and so he could have the experience of working in a bi-national dance collaboration.”
As he left for Mexico, Petronio was warned: “Shake your shoes before putting them on. Scorpions like to hide in shoes.” The advice was key.
“It was a long travel day,” recalls Petronio of his arrival in Morelia. “I was super jet-lagged. I had all these bags [of groceries] breaking. I was exhausted. I come in, take off all my clothes. Naked on the bed, feet up, I open my book and just happen to look up. It was like the Alfred Hitchcock zoom-in: boom!—a scorpion above the door frame. I immediately got up on the bed and called Bernardo [Torres, A-Quo’s co-director].” Torres took care of the intruder, scouring the room for others. “What they weren’t telling me at the time,” says Petronio, “is that they know scorpions come in pairs.”
Petronio survived the rest of the residency arachnid-free. Like his uninvited guest, the choreographer enjoys company: “I’m a very social person. I like change. I like strangers and am very attracted to all things Latin. I speak Spanish. I have a lot going on [in New York], and I love my company. On the other hand, I’ve learned that companies like A-Quo can bring out qualities you didn’t know you had.”
A-Quo, which recently won a Mexican national choreographic competition, is a nine-dancer troupe. Four of the performers have never been to New York, and this was Petronio’s first project with a Latin American company. “It could have been a horrible experience,” he admits, back in Manhattan rehearsing his own troupe at Joyce Soho. “It wasn’t. We all wanted very badly for it to work, and it did. The gambling aspect of it is great. They could have easily bought a piece that was already made.”
Letting Petronio create a work was far riskier: What if the dancers couldn’t do his idiosyncratic, limb-stretching, back-rippling movement? Or muster the speed he demands? “With A-Quo it’s more ‘How can I write legibly on a dancer who doesn’t really understand my language?’ ” the choreographer explains. La Presa uses his high-octane, sensual vocabulary, but it’s flavored with raw energy, the tangible excitement the Mexicans bring to his steps. This fall, if the Mexican government provides relocation money, A-Quo member Erick Montes will join Petronio’s troupe as an apprentice.
A-Quo’s camaraderie intrigued Petronio: “You get to this attitude at a certain point where you don’t want to get involved. You want to just go and do the thing. They’re not your dancers. Just drop me off at the hotel and leave me alone. But those guys, I loved them. They were like a little family, a little commune. They have an identity in their culture that’s so different from a dancer’s identity here. They’re special, weird people who use their bodies and they’re all cooking and eating together and stretching. Most [Morelians] don’t know what the hell they are or what they do.” Presented in Morelia at the end of Petronio’s residence, La Presa had a packed theater cheering.
Can the project inspire American presenters to book more international troupes? One pioneer in the process, Dance Theater Workshop, spent close to $250,000 last year promoting contemporary dance in countries like Vietnam, Slovakia, and Bulgaria, through its Suitcase Fund.
But other countries’ funding sources sometimes lose interest in the new, as Manhasset-born choreographer William Forsythe recently discovered. For almost two decades Forsythe, director of Ballett Frankfurt, has shaped the company into a globally respected powerhouse of contemporary ballet. The Times recently reported that his troupe receives “the equivalent of $5.7 million a year in grants from the city government,” and recounted the recent threat to his job when a group of politicians moved to oust the experimental dance maker in favor of a more classical, story-ballet ensemble.
In 1987 Forsythe commissioned Petronio to make a piece in Frankfurt, an experience Petronio remembers as partially “a nightmare,” in sharp contrast to his Morelia residency. “I had a lot more people—20 dancers—and less time: three weeks to make a 50-minute piece. [The dancers] were all in love with Billy Forsythe. In those days it was like, ‘Why do we have to have Stephen Petronio come and make a dance?’ Forsythe hadn’t commissioned many choreographers, and he was off at the Paris Opera Ballet. In Mexico, I was treated like a god.”
While Frankfurt’s push to remove Forsythe has subsided, the threat indicates the tenuousness of international collaboration, and the interwoven nature of politics and art. What did Petronio make of the situation?
“For years Billy had something few people had. I understand that he is not being ousted, so I’m relieved. I love Billy. He’s a genius. Leave people who know about art to decide what should be seen in those theaters, not [politicians]. I don’t know where the pressure was coming from, but I imagine they wanted a more classical company. ‘Get bent!’ is what I’d say. Billy is the best thing to happen to Frankfurt since banking.”
For performance information, call Queens Theatre in the Park at 718-760-0064 or Lincoln Center Out of Doors at 212-875-5108.