Theater archives

Stephen Petronio and Joe Goode Venture on High Seas


You wouldn’t expect Stephen Petronio to host his own new evening-long work, but, hey, it’s the 25th anniversary of his company, the wind is up, and change may be in the air. He preps us for the voyage that I Drink the Air Before Me turns out to be by roaming the stage and the theater wearing the deconstructed togs of a sea captain (fakey gray beard and all) designed for him by Cindy Sherman. The musicians who play Nico Muhly’s score are assembled on a metal upper “deck,” the piano that Muhly will play sits on a lower one, and a sail, hanging from a metal light tower, covers half the stage. With a helper in a slicker, Petronio pulls down ropes that slant from the ceiling to form a V; he also drills a dancer in the hornpipe, carries a woman draped over his shoulder to a seat in the first row, and grabs another, saying, “But first, a kiss!” As he hauls in the sail and climbs the tower to the crow’s nest, he’s muttering, “I won’t be your man at all, if I can’t be your salty dog.”

But once this ship has embarked, he lets it run itself—and run it does. On very stormy seas and with strong winds. The title comes from a line of Ariel’s in Shakespeare’s The Tempest: “I drink the air before me, and return/Or ere your pulse twice beat.” And speed and tempest (without and within) have shaped this thrilling work. I’ve often thought of Petronio’s dancers as whipping through movement as if on the edge of unknown disaster, but never have they seemed so warm and so alive to changes in the weather. As always, they fling their limbs around—sometimes in unlikely coordinations; they spin and leap and beat their feet together in the air. But there’s an increased awareness and sensuousness to everything they do.

Muhly’s score provides a wonderfully variegated climate for them. Just imagine for a second what an ensemble consisting of bassoon, bass, trombone, piano, viola, and flute (plus a little electronic help) can do in the way of suggesting—in highly musical ways—growling thunder, alarms, lashing winds, and calming seas. The Young People’s Chorus of New York City appears twice to sing, and although it’s hard to understand the words, I hear “the spirits of the tempest” and “to the ends of the world” in their final song, when some singers ring handbells that chime the conclusion of the trip.

Amanda Wells begins the work, trailing a long black cloak behind her. While two men in black raincoats roll windily on the floor behind her, she stretches her long limbs and arches her back extravagantly, canting herself into slightly off-kilter positions. Slow and confident, she might presage the gathering storm, but her movements recur fleetingly elsewhere in the piece.

There are moments of calm throughout. Jonathan Jaffe sits down to stare out at the audience (then stand on his head) shortly before Michael Badger explodes into a tantrum of movement (the trombone quacks in sympathy). The others on stage freeze to watch Badger, then flurry to re-group and freeze again. In a calculated pause, Barrington Hinds grasps Tara Lorenzen’s hands and leans her dangerously far out to peer over the edge of the stage and the imagined waves below.

In I Drink the Air Before Me, Petronio, more than usual, makes us aware of themes and how movements reappear in different guises or echo one another. There’s cohesiveness and definition amid the lavish physicality and ongoing high energy. Many of the brief duets—Wells and Shila Tirabassi, Hinds and Mandy Kirschner, Lorenzen and, as I remember, Julian De Leon—involve holding hands in various ways through rapid, twisty maneuvers that sometimes suggest ambitious ballroom dancing running amok. The performers come and go as if blown onto the stage, as if the floor were tilting; they struggle against gale-force emotions—and survive through the act of dancing. The first half of the piece ends with Gino Grenek (returning to the company as a guest artist) in a solo that emphasizes his uncanny muscular fluidity and sense of phrasing. It’s an ordeal about attempted mastery, I think, and he ends it by jumping off the stage into darkness.

When the piece resumes after intermission, the dancers have new costumes. Gone are the men’s gray shirts and pants and the women’s grey union suits, cut off at the hips so that where the legs might be are four little shirttails. Now all the terrific performers (including Davalois Fearon and company newcomer Joshua Tuason) sport different black-and-white striped outfits (costumes by Adam Kimmel). And the music and the dancing seem more festive. The performers cover more ground—leaping, hopping, spinning, running—breaking in and out of unison, falling into quartets. Kirschner collapses downstage, and the others cluster briefly to gaze down at her. But that’s just a temporary reminder that danger is always in the air. Tirabassi steadies herself in a solo, and the piece calms down in a pealing of small, bright bells.

San Francisco choreographer Joe Goode decided long ago that he wanted to tell stories, and that speaking and singing would be necessary for the kinds of stories he wanted to tell. No movement for its own sake, no miming could convey the social issues that mattered to him and the personal issues that he, as a gay man, had had to face.

This doesn’t mean that all his dance theater works are sober; some flip their messages into the mix lightly. Goode opens an abridged version of his 1996 Maverick Strain, standing in one of the Joyce’s unused boxes, wearing a Stetson and wailing a cowboy song of his own devising. But this buckaroo is singing to a lover to “stay put, stay here with me” and “whyd’ya hafta keep on hatin’ and killin’?” Maverick Strain is a deconstruction of Arthur Miller’s screenplay for The Misfits, the 1961 movie starring Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, and Montgomery Clift. The rest of Goode’s cast comes whooping down the aisles, firing guns and indulging in rhythmic vocal play that alludes to vulnerability and seduction (perhaps also alluding to, but hardly invoking, Monroe).

Throughout the piece, Goode rings changes on toughness and fragility. Jessica Swanson, dressed as a dancehall girl in one of Wendy Sparks’s modified Wild West costumes, is rougher-tongued than any cowhand (Thelma Ritter tarted up?) when doling out advice to the demure newcomer (Patricia West). Two guys (Goode and Alexander Zendzian) arrive and pull up chairs to banter; after a while, the men and women exchange roles and repeat their cliché movie-westerns dialogue. Now it’s the men who fake-swoon in their chairs and the women who sprawl and leer. Provoked to the breaking point, Andrew Ward pulls a gun and fires, but then collapses, wailing “Pa, I shot a man!” Beth Custer’s music is tailored to every mood change, stopping and starting in order to punctuate gestures and underscore dramatic points.

The choreography focuses on couples. Sometimes brawls turn into same-sex love dances, but whatever the gender-play, someone is sure to be upended, legs split apart over a partner’s shoulder. Goode’s interest in—and reliance on—this move is curious. Either it’s just comfortable, an old shoe that he doesn’t want to toss out, or it has some personal significance to him.

The hero of Goode’s 2008 Wonderboy is a sensitive adolescent—so timorous, so overwhelmed by beauty, so fearful of his own desires that he’s afraid to venture out. He’s extremely eloquent (Goode’s own text is laced with words by Sam Shepard, Thom Gunn, Christopher Isherwood, and Krishnamurti). “I’m just sticks and paper. . .a fabrication,” he sings toward the end. But he’s much more than that. He’s a puppet, maybe three feet tall, designed by the master puppeteer, Basil Twist. Boyish, eager, his head thrust a little forward, he’s always manipulated by at least two live performers. When we first see him, he’s sitting on a windowsill between two blowing curtains, and Swanson and Ward, standing behind him and moving his limbs, might be his parents. His voice is Felipe Barrueto-Cabella, who stays to one side of the stage behind a mike and speaks in a high, childlike voice.

But almost all the performers get a chance to speak for him, even as they depict the life outside his window, squabbling, melting into couple dances that turn erotic. The story is sentimental, more than a little clichéd. The hero is a maverick in a different sense from the conflicted cowboys of Maverick Strain. He stands for all the youths who feel “different,” who’re born to be artists, who have “forbidden” cravings, and who eventually find the confidence to come out of their shells and /or out of the closet, and venture beyond their safe, lonely, window-sill views of the world.

He falls in love with another youth (Ward), and at the same time also witnesses the perils that may face a gay man. Zendzian, costumed along with the company’s two women as a cheer leader, portrays the victim of a date rape—“her” own hands groping her and tearing off clothes. The cast chants all the possible hate-slang for homosexuals, and Swanson screams invectives at an invisible someone offstage.

The most arresting and powerful part of Wonderboy comes when the puppet leaves his window. Everyone else congregates to enable him. How brave he seems, jumping from one bent back to another, one shoulder to another—still quite scared of human contact. They boost his ego: “You’re great!” “You’re sensitive!” They tickle him and he likes it. The performers create a striking dance as they collaborate in making the hero mobile and empowered. In the end, white curtains, like those attached to the now vanished window-on-wheels, frame the entire back of the stage. The world is his, and he’s carried on sticks—flying—up the aisle and out into it.