Stephen Petronio is the incredible collapsing man. During the 1980s, when he was dancing in Trisha Brown’s company and starting to show his own choreography, his limbs snaked silkily or lashed the air while small incremental topplings and realignments took place in his torso. The disasters of this new century have brought out the emotion that was always implicit in his movement. The fine line between control and the loss of it, between stability and imbalance, between order and anarchy is not neutral territory.
Shown with two brilliant 2002 works—the solo Broken Man and City of Twist—The Island of Misfit Toys suggests what might exist behind the dark streets and closed shops of Ben Katchor’s city. The stage is framed by two Cindy Sherman sculptures that sprawl off its edges: an immense baby doll with a cutaway face and a supine, equally huge body sprouting two smaller heads with gaping mouths. At the back is a totem pole of doll faces that gleam and disappear like erratic traffic signals. Ken Tabachnik’s subtle lighting shows us a society of . . . what? Stringless puppets? Rag dolls? The eight superb dancers stagger stiffly; they reappear boneless. But the toy image is, I think, a metaphor for city dwellers as irrational and damaged children on a rampage they don’t fully understand. Dressed by Tara Subkoff/Imitation of Christ in kiddie-print pajamas (the men) and very short little-girl dresses (the women), with rouged cheeks and lips, the performers are buffeted by unseen winds that sneak around corners and into their brains.
As the piece begins, Petronio, wearing a deconstructed jacket and pants, sits on a chair with his back to us, lazily smoking, like a toy running down or as if sinking into a drug haze. Staggering, limping, missing connections, engaging in cruel-sad collaborations, the others are perhaps his dream, but early on they carry him offstage. His presence and certain pauses and entrances are linked to Poe’s “The Raven” (wryly tweaked—I don’t believe Poe ever wrote “dickless liar”), read in a strong no-nonsense way by Willem Dafoe as part of Lou Reed’s score. The music enhances the sense of wild, dislocated energy. In this collage of Reed’s compositions, diverse vocals well up beneath fiercely amplified virtuosity (like Reed’s “Metal Machine Music”): the McGarrigle sisters singing “I’m a little balloon,” Antony closing the piece with his high, sweet “Perfect Day,” and more.
It’s a strangely fascinating world of wilting, jittering ballerina dolls, of people who badly need help trying to help one another, often at a demonic pace; cabrioles and leaps slice the air like scissors. Limping and staggering reach virtuosic proportions. When not dancing like crazy—or while dancing like crazy—they do other curious things. Gino Grenek and Elena Demianenko hoist Thang Dao horizontally and turn him slowly like a roast on a spit. Equally blank-faced, Amanda Wells and Ashleigh Leite kiss and then shove like two little girls (“You’re my friend. You’re not my friend”). Leite and Gerald Casel embark on a clumsy tap dance and when their duet is done, wave bye-bye. The other frenetic, dissolving, somehow valiant people looking for who knows what are Jimena Paz and Shila Tirabassi. The piece is a marvel; I’m torn between wanting to pull the covers over my head and wishing I could heal the world.
Compared to Petronio’s whirling nightmare, Jonathan Burrows and Matteo Fargion’s Both Sitting Duet is a paean to stability and comfort. Two middle-aged men sitting on chairs for 98 percent of 45 silent minutes, moving their arms, heads, and torsos—how fascinating can that be? Very very. Fargion, a composer, and Burrows, who danced with the Royal Ballet and British vanguardist Rosemary Butcher before striking out on his highly original path, take me back to the 1960s and 1970s. As in some works then, the blend of everyday behavior and ingenious lunacy is delicious.
The men enter and sit on chairs. On the floor in front of them are scores. They lean forward from time to time to consult these or to turn pages, but they know the patterns and perform them as a non-speaking conversation that blooms with questions, new ideas, contrapuntal debates. A mundane move like brushing their pant legs becomes a rhythmic obsession. Simple gestures transform through repetition. Clap hands over ears. Bend down and flick something off a shoe. Look around.
The piece is elegantly constructed. Bursts of force—the men swing their arms furiously—contrast with delicate moves—perhaps screwing an imaginary light bulb. There are brief games: One shoots his arms up; the other copies. The arms drop. They pause. Up go the arms again. Standing becomes a feature, as does counting fingers. We can admire the differences in the men’s personal styles: the dancer and the musician as musician-dancers. Silent rests add to the beguiling dailiness. Burrows and Fargion watch each other not only to synchronize their cues; they watch each other as do people engaged together in any pleasurable pursuit. “Are you ready to go on?” they seem to ask. “That was good.” “Yes.” “Shall we do it again?” Please do.