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It’s like Halloween. Come as your favorite hero or villain. That’s more or less the directive Stephen Petronio gave former members of his dance company for the DancemOpolitan performances he curated at one of New York’s funkiest spaces, Joe’s Pub. The full title of the show is Villains and Heroes, The 100 most influential people who (n)ever lived.
You’d expect choreographers who worked with Petronio as dancers to have absorbed something of his fast, high-wheeling style. And they have. In his extremely smart introduction, he gives a better description of his movement priorities than I could, proudly refers to the “tribe Petronius,” and refers to his group as a boot camp for choreographers. Those with works on view tonight—Gerald Casel, Jeremy Nelson, Ashleigh Leite, Ori Flomin, Jimena Paz, Todd Williams, and Ellis Wood—he identifies as “my heroes and my villains.”
What the choreographers have come up with isn’t probably the piece they’d like to be remembered by, but almost all the works are clever and full of juicy movement. I don’t think Casel has any specific idol or non-idol in mind. Or maybe he thinks of the boundary between the two as porous. He wends his way through the tables to the tiny cabaret stage disbursing dollar bills to spectators, then makes sure to collect them again before he finishes nimbly jabbing and dodging around in a post hip-hop style to Missy Elliott singing “Mommy.”
Leite moves in a style that refers to Petronio’s in the sense of “dance till you drop” power and energy. If Leite—whipping her legs around and lashing the air— sees herself as Wonder Woman in her It’s No Wonder (to music by The Flaming Lips), it’s not just because she’s tireless mover; she’s also a new mother, and her occasional pauses to glance worriedly offstage suggest that she’s got something beside her dance chops to pay attention to. In Nelson’s Bridge of Fools, the choreographer and Francis A. Stansky also stop occasionally, but their glances are wary. With their fake mustaches, long capes, and tee shirts with taped-on logos, they’re unlikely heroes. They certainly convinced me that two superguys aren’t necessarily better than one. As they softly sprint and lunge, they seem connected by an invisible bond—cowering side by side, getting snagged on each other.
Bridge of Fools is one of three duets on the program. If Ori Flomin is channeling the never-was-alive, his model could be Boris Karloff or Lon Chaney. While Amanda Wells in her pretty blue dress presses against the back wall as if trying to escape the faceless figure in black (Flomin) who rises from being a dark heap on the floor to pen her in with a lift of his leg and manipulate her as if she were a rag doll. Dazed, she dances side by side with the creep, doing his steps. But help is on the way. Toward the end of her ordeal, she looks up, a voice in Kylie Minogue’s score says “faster than a speeding bullet,” and in short order, she’s kissing a superman action figure while her oppressor sinks down into a puddle again.
Williams’s Stand Beside Her is considerable more opaque than this. While Jennifer Horner moves stiffly around, another person, invisible under a fluffy, diaphanous, white burka, thrashes and whirls beside her to Middle Eastern songs with a strong nonsense component (I think I heard “burka, burka, burka blue Barbie,” but I could be wrong). Anyway, Horner uncovers her companion, who turns out to be Williams, and helps re-clothe him. John Wayne’s voice, from Face the Flag, intones patriotic thoughts. Williams ends up garbed like Combat Ken and just as stiff. Horner pulls down his pants back down and stares. Nope, nothing there. I decide this piece is a heartfelt satire or maybe an anti-government statement or a thought about women in Islam or a putdown of American consumerism or. . . .
B & C [Before and Consequence], the only piece on the program in which words dance more than people do, introduces two women, Pascal Wettstein and choreographer Paz, sitting at a table. They have cups to deal with, but this tea party is a bizarre interrogation. Speaking with exaggerated clarity, they utter formulaic questions, like the one beginning, “Do you swear that your testimony is. . .?” But they are both questioners and those being questioned, and the rhythms and repetitions blur the distinction between the two roles. “Can you be more subjunctive?” one of them asks, and a do-or-die grammar quiz conflates the nerve-wracking with the absurd. Paz does dance—rhythmically, twistily—while Jolie Holland’s recorded voice sings “Give me that old-fashioned morphine” and Wettstein reflectively dumps more and more sugar into her tea.
As a title, Maculate Conception tells us quite a lot about Wood’s view of a major New Testament event. Duels’ fist-thrusting version of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” accompanies a snakepit of six powerful women in black, plus Wood. They grab space so passionately that you imagine one or two hurtling off the stage into the laps of those spectators nearest the stage. If this is the birth of Jesus, he’s a woman, and a sexy one at that.
Petronio himself makes an unannounced appearance in a pool of light, performing his 1986 solo #3. In a piece like this, he’s inimitable. His hands claw as they reach up. He wriggles almost cautiously, caresses his body, touches his face, totters. He’s looking up even as he’s caving in. I’ve always thought that the essence of this work was a kind of ardent decomposition. In the context of this program, he might be giving birth.