Stephen Petronio and Vicky Shick both danced in Trisha Brown’s company—he from 1979 to 1986, she from 1980 to 1986. In their very different mature styles, as in Brown’s, movement pursues a complex path through the dancers’ bodies. But whereas the flow of Brown’s choreography suggests currents swirling in shifting directions, Shick’s fluid phrases linger longer at small, imagined obstacles, and Petronio’s choreography rushes along like a torrent smacking against the concrete walls of a twisty canal.
Petronio celebrated the 20th anniversary of his troupe with a retrospective of key pieces marking five-year intervals: MiddleSexGorge (1990), Lareigne (1995), Prelude (2000), and the new duet bud, part of Bloom (upcoming in 2006). My two decades of writing about his work track not only his development but my perception of physical crisis as a shaping factor in his choreography. In 1985, I thought of his style as built “on the principle of the barely controlled collapse.” In 1990, I wrote that “his marvelous dancers perform as if gearing up for an unknowable apocalypse.” In 1992, I found it reassuring to watch people “who are clearly flying apart, and at the same time holding it all together.” In 1995, I used the words “death-defying.” His dances seem to have scared the hell out of me; sensuality, risk, and uneasiness unite at levels of speed and density that render the performers heroes in a ricocheting world.
Only the immediately post-9-11 Prelude allows melting. Facing us in a line, eight dancers never travel from Ken Tabachnick’s window of light, but clinging to one another, rise and sink softly into individual poses suggesting despair and succor—as if a frieze of a battle’s aftermath had roiled into life. Lareigne, on the other hand, begins with a long solo, in which Gino Grenek, dancing fabulously to David Linton’s fierce score, leaps and whips his arms and legs around in a storm of contrary ventures. Lareigne stays almost numbingly at a boil, rarely dropping to a simmer, except for moments when individuals solo through a grove of motionless others as if this were a fevered chess game.
But, God, the beauty of the dancers, the ease of their intensity! In bud, Grenek and Thang Dao wear red trunks and black half-jackets secured across their torsos with black bindings (by Tara Subkoff/Imitation of Christ) and perform to music by Rufus Wainwright, Ravel’s Bolero seeping through his foggy vocals. Although they plant their feet wide apart, swing each other into the air, and thrust their limbs about like gladiators, the men aren’t inimical. Dao, fallen, hauls himself up by clinging to Grenek; as the lights fade, Grenek is hanging on Dao. And in MiddleSexGorge, with its provocative costumes by H. Petal and its sexy use of the pelvis, what’s thrilling is not only the way Petronio skeins his patterns but the ardor of Gerald Casel, Elena Demianenko, Ashleigh Leite, Jimena Paz, Shila Tirabassi, Amanda Wells, Dao, Grenek, and Petronio as they band to lift now one, now another high, or kite into solos and duets.
The beauty Shick creates is far gentler and more reticent, but there’s an enigmatic power to it. Her Repair is a collaboration involving sculptor Barbara Kilpatrick, composer Elise Kermani, and two extraordinary performers: the choreographer and Jodi Melnick. In some elusive way, the relationship between the two women refers to performance. One of Kilpatrick’s pieces is a freestanding, full-skirted gown, white and translucent. As the dance begins, Melnick is behind it, her face and arms uplifted, her mouth open, like a diva dreaming a triumph. Strings of little lights drape the dress, and when one or the other woman points tiny light mics at trigger spots, sounds are emitted: crickets here, Chopin piano there. Two white plastic sculptures at the back resemble halves of a pulled-open theater curtain, and Shick and Melnick sometimes dance in front of these in rectangles of light (by Carol Mullins).
Kermani—playing her electronic score live and, once, rubbing her mic’d hand around water-filled goblets—sensitively shapes the pensive yet charged atmosphere. When the dancers touch or move close together, their world seems to shrink to each other’s bodies. At other times, they slot their quietly voluptuous gestures into the air as if putting mysterious things in order—opening curtains, shaking out sheets (yet nothing so specific). Sometimes the two dance as equals, but Shick often guides, supports, or assists Melnick with a certain firmness—brushing off Melnick’s black dress while the latter holds one hand over her heart as if to feel its beat, shining a flashlight into Melnick’s open mouth, helping her off with an overskirt festooned with lights (just wearing this skirt causes Melnick to emit pleased little yelps). In one magical moment Shick sits with her back to Melnick while Adolphe Adam’s music for Giselle, subtly altered, rises up in the score, and Melnick mimes the heroine’s mad scene in a beautifully muted way.
Throughout Repair (re: pair?) Melnick uses her face as elegantly as she does her body; a glance out of the corners of her eyes, a half-smile, a stare in our direction draw us in and make us suspect tensions underlying apparently simple events. Who are these two women? They could be sisters, mother and daughter . . . And what strange drama exists between them? The images still haunt me.