Ever since Stephen Petronio formed his own company in 1984, he has choreographed as if working on shifting ground. His dancers sketch an erect stance just often enough to underline how frequently they’re canting, twisting, or rocketing at an angle, their limbs at cross-purposes. A forthright move may splinter into a fusillade of little impulses, as if the performers were cracking to pieces inside their silky skins.
His company’s season at the Joyce last week reaffirmed that dialogue between stability and instability, but with a softened sensuality. The six black-clad people in his 2000 Prelude maintain their shoulder-to-shoulder chain so that even when some melt or collapse, they are cushioned, caught. In its companion piece from the same year, Strange Attractors Part II, you see a city grid form, dissolve, and re-form as dancers fall out of lines and into duets and intricate bouts of big slashing, punching movement.
In a 1986 solo, Petronio wore a suit and tie, and gestures and facial expressions passed over him and disintegrated in spasms. In his moving new Broken Man, he wears a shirt backward, and a jacket—covering only his right arm—is harnessed to his body, and he’s subtly melting, hardly moving from one spot. Meditative, full of pauses, the solo suggests a man checking his own state of being. Even when Blixa Bargeld’s haunted piano chords build into a fuller texture and Petronio expands his gestures, Broken Man queries the possibility of wholeness.
As does his marvelous new City of Twist. Begun before 9-11 but influenced by it, the piece honors the individuality of his heroic dancers. In quirky costumes by Tara Subkoff of Imitation of Christ (who also dressed the solo), they dance alone and together in a landscape compounded by Ken Tabachnick’s splendid lighting, which includes shadowy projections of Venetian blinds, fire escapes, and a skyline, and by Laurie Anderson’s rich score; uncannily, the instruments (viola, cello, bass guitar, keyboards, and percussion—heard on tape) make you think of voices rising from concrete and bouncing off buildings.
In his opening solo, Gerald Casel, wearing an oversized black silk jacket, is delicate in his precision and daring, while Jimena Paz, replacing him, seems to wind herself into figure eights and S shapes, and Gino Grenek is faster, somehow hardier. Shila Tirabassi breaks into little walks on tiptoe. We keep learning about them and about Ashley Leite, Thang Dao, and Amanda Wells, as they whirl—or are whirled —through the choreography. In their curious individual outfits, their bare, oiled legs flecked with glitter, they fall into embraces, assist one another, make gestures that hint at emotions. But always they dance, as if their lives depended on it, as if even while connections sever and structures spin apart, this world’s fragments carry the DNA of wholeness.
Angelin Prejlocaj, whose France-based company played the BAM Harvey last week, has reconfigured several ballet classics. His Romeo and Juliet took place in a futuristic fascist state run by the Capulets. His Spectre of the Rose turned a young girl’s dream of a flower spirit into something odder and more violent. His Les Noces transformed a marriage rite of old Russia into a wrangle between men, women, and life-size bride dolls. Last year, he attacked the Stravinsky-Nijinsky masterwork Rite of Spring, with results both engrossing and problematic. One flaw is that Prejlocaj gives no hint that a woman will be chosen to dance herself to death. Iffy, too, is the flippant opening in which the six women in the piece deliberately pull down their underpants, dance briefly while hobbled by them, and then kick them off toward the six men watching from fake grass hillocks—beginning Stravinsky’s terrifying ritual with audience laughter and prurient curiosity.
In fact, his stripped-naked sacrificial victim (a superb performance by Isabelle Arnaud opening night) rises after her exhausting dance and before the music ends, then falls, simply winded. It’s as if Prejlocaj conceived her as a scapegoat through which the group purges its guilt for all the crazed sex everyone’s been having. But this too comes as a surprise in a work that ritualizes violence, in which women are seen as initiators of sexual games and both the prey and the nurturers of men. That said, Prejlocaj uses the music with great sensitivity and weaves powerfully choreographed passages for squads of men and women, juxtaposed with scenes in which people obsessively fondle their own bodies and probe one another’s in rough and randy couplings on the movable hills.
His other 2001 work, Helikopter, is cooler: violent in a different way. In Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Helikopter Quartet, playing on tape, the strings of the Arditti Quartet ride stridently above and within a relentless din of engine noise, whirling propellers, and voices counting. The six dancers seem to carry Holger Förterer’s video projections with them (a sensor hung overhead detects heat and motion and feeds the information to the projector, which provides the desired pattern). When Nagisa Shirai steps on the horizontal bars of light that have streaked across the floor, she causes those she impinges on to dissolve into clouds and race away. At one point, the performers give the dizzying illusion of being in the center of small black-and-white propeller-like patterns wherever they go. Prejlocaj’s movement is bold and refers at times to a classical base, but the unexpected ways in which the dancers coordinate their wheeling arm gestures with their steps, or turn in new directions, grip you, even amid all the distraction (and even though the movement is always delivered at the same level—with deliberate rhythms and a forthright attack). The flying patterns, circles, group tangles, and couple dances enliven the space, stirring up the video designs like gusts of wind. At some point, Helikopter starts running backward; I thought Shirai might actually be retrograding her phrase. In a relieving silence the dancing looked suddenly dazzling; the din in my ears had been dulling my sight.
Only a writer of haiku should review the spare pieces that the maverick Nancy Zendora has been making since the late 1970s. In the glow of the Joyce Soho, you contemplate them as you would a flower arrangement that alters subtly. Yet they are ineluctably human. In The Voice of Light, Zendora enters a dim zone marked by a small illuminated pyramid. Against silence and intermittent sounds—a bird, a shakuhachi, the sea—she pits a harsh, dry scream. Inhales it. Her few simple actions grow large in the emptiness.
Places of Dark Writing/2 Dreams: Marie Baker-Lee and Juan Merchan, in ingeniously constructed black clothes, seem to listen to the space and each other. Lean and bearded, Merchan looks like an El Greco; lizard-like he cocks his head. Occasionally they touch, but more often you feel their souls pulling at one another. Sensitively, intimately, as if aware of small, fresh wounds. In Stone Piece, five dancers enter with rocks on their heads, and how they use them or consider others’ becomes a matter of unspoken questions and suspicions. In both these works, every movement and change of mood blooms surprisingly, memorably—the way the plucked strings of Sang-Won Park’s kayagum split the air.