Theater archives

Stephen Petronio Venures Into a Dark World, Chunky Move Lights One Up


For once, I didn’t read the program. When the lights came up on Stephen Petronio’s Underland, I watched videos of fiery explosions on the three-paneled back wall of the Joyce stage, heard crashes, and thought of the earthquake in Japan. When Reed Luplau descended from above, head first, harnessed, and clinging to a cargo net, I saw Orpheus entering the Underworld to find Eurydice. The burning buildings and circling helicopters in Mike Daly’s video montage, as well as the drastic lighting (visual design by Ken Tabachnik), seemed part ancient fable and part shockingly contemporary vision.

As the piece unfolded, however, it became clear that Petronio had in mind other disasters, other hells, and the subterranean, subcutaneous land of dark minds and dark deeds. No heroes except the valiant dancers daring to enter the maelstrom. The gothic songs of the Australian Nick Cave thread through a dire soundscape of elements sampled and manipulated by Tony Cohen from the recordings of Cave and his band, the Bad Seeds. The singer’s voice moans tales of death by execution, sadistic sex, murder, the sorrows of life, and possible redemption like wind rushing around an underground cavern.

Only afterward did I discover that Petronio made Underland for the Sydney Dance Company in 2003, when 9/11 and the wounds that disaster inflicted on the world were still fresh and sore.

Working with the Australian dancers in Underland may have influenced Petronio into using more big leaps and jumps than usual, but his own style dominates. The movements of his magnificent dancers are both three-dimensional and incisive. The four men and five women in his company (plus guest artists Luplau and Davalois Fearon) swing their legs like scythes so sharp that it takes no great effort to wield them; their straight arms slice the air. In my mind’s eye these wily athletes are always turning, vaulting, charting new directions. In Underland, I see them as survivors, insisting on life while buildings collapse and bombs explode behind them.

Petronio sometimes alludes obliquely to Cave’s lyrics, as do Tara Subkoff’s costumes. In “The Carny,” Shila Tirabassi, Tara Lorentzen, and Emily Stone have shed the scanty black costumes they wear over flesh-colored leotards and appear in red tutus and bras. Luplau (I think it was he) enters with back flips. During a lull, Gino Grenek waddles across the stage, belly thrust out. Joshua Tuason and Amanda Wells (in a sky blue tutu) walk with doll-like stiffness. Cave sings of the shabby circus troupe trying to bury the Carny’s dead horse, Sorrow; the dancers (including Julian De Leon and Barrington Hinds) lift Wells overhead, laid out, and carry her toward the dark at the back of the stage.

Is it my imagination that when, to heavy piano chords, Wells performs (magnificently) the fierce gestures of the solo “Prelude to Weep,” her eyes look like dark pits? And in “The Weeping Song” that follows, the dancers, wearing shabby gray clothes, enter in a line, marching numbly; however many individuals break out of that line into wilder dancing, there are always others still slogging along. Not only does Petronio shy away from literal references to the songs, he gives some a different slant. Cave’s “Stagger Lee,” a murderous psycho-sexual encounter between two men, with a woman as catalyst, becomes a violent duet between Hinds and a flirtatious Natalie Mackessy; she floors him, and they roll offstage together.

“Come sail your ships around me/And burn your bridges down/We make a little history, baby/Every time you come around,” sings Cave, and in one of the quietest, most hopeful, and most poignant sections, Grenek, Tirabassi, Tuason, and Wells stand shoulder to shoulder (Grenek in a shiny black raincoat—perhaps to provide a nautical reference). Without moving from their spot close to the audience, they interweave and twine, nuzzling one another, collapsing and being caught, reaching out and being embraced.

The beautiful, dangerous Underland progresses toward a more hopeful conclusion, invoking religion along the way. In the final section, “Death Is Not the End,” the dancers reappear in white, and the flames disappear into whiteness and images of swirling fabric. Although black hearts still flourish underground, art, perhaps, offers redemption. Five people are still dancing as the curtain descends.


Lights on! Lights off! On. Off. On off. Onoffonoffonoff. Now we see through a glass darkly; now we’re blinded. The red eyes of LEDs stare at us. Expect revelations—not, however, devout. Amid four chairs, a boombox, plugs, and a tangle of orange and yellow wires with hand-held, caged, work lamps on one end, Antony Hamilton and Byron Perry fuddle our senses. In I Like This, the director-choreographers engineer a hilarious satire on technology running amok, while seriously exploiting its possibilities.

These two clever blokes are members of the Melbourne company Chunky Moves. Every time the company appears here, it has a different look. This time, its director, Gideon Obarzanek, is not involved, but three additional Chunky Movers—all choreographers themselves—are. At the outset, Alisdair Macindoe and Joseph Simons are discovered sitting side by side, erect and immobile, on two of the chairs, while Stephanie Lake occupies the other pair of seats. Hamilton and Perry crouch at their feet, backs to us, huddled over the wires and plugs.

Although Mark Blackman and Elaina Morgan are handling the light and sound boards out of sight behind the audience, Hamilton and Perry skillfully create the illusion that they and the others are in complete control of what we see and hear. Lake puts a little blue-gel hat over the workman’s lamp she holds when a few seconds of eeriness are needed, and during her hostessy speech to us, she lights Macindoe and Simons like the robots or department store dummies they resemble.

We might be watching a TV set on the fritz: the on-and-off, strobic flashes of light, sometimes coordinated with sounds, reveal the men in split-second jolts of motion. Their fully lit conversation—such as it is—jerks along in fits and starts; sometimes they finish each other’s sentences. “I like this,” confides Lake, and “These guys are good!” She’s right. And they contrast nicely, with Macindoe tall and strongly built and Simons shorter and slighter. After these two’s virtuosic display of timing, Hamilton and Perry have a wittily inarticulate chat about how this, their production, is going. There’s hardly a coherent finished thought in evidence among the words they’re fumbling for.

Many perception-challenging games ensue. Lake swings a light, letting the distance between her hand and the bulb increase, while rhythmic sounds mimic the changes; the darkness around us is illuminated in a dizzying carousel of the visible. Shadows appear on the back wall, grow, shrink, and vanish. Hamilton and Perry keep crawling around, plugging and unplugging, freeing tangled wires; intermittently they comment on what may or may not be happening according to plan. The chairs light up from behind, serve as masks for a dancey little trio, and contribute to the mayhem when they seem to chase their creators, Hamilton and Perry.

In one pleasing vignette, Simons slinks creepily up to Lake and Macindoe, who’re standing motionless side by side. Hamilton is lighting all three of them, but Simons is holding a lamp beneath his own chin, which enhances his Halloween ghoul aspect. He makes his mates’ arms swing, and they take nearly overlapping turns voicing his words. After their tickling of him turns into a minor orgy, he kneels between them, holding a hand of each.

Eventually, Lake, Macindoe, and Simons put a white quilt over Hamilton and Perry, as they hunker down over their equipment. Lights from within make the “tent” glow around these explorers in the wilderness of art. Cue up the thunder, the lightning, the patter of rain. Storm over, the two men put their heads out and talk about how best to end. Shall they just emerge and look at each other? Nah, that doesn’t work. Pop out quickly? No. Well just. . . .

The end.

“I Like This” is too laconic as a summing-up of I Like This. I fucking love it.