Stephen Petronio Company’s thirtieth anniversary, in 2015, inspired Bloodlines, a long-term project designed to maintain the lineage of postmodern American dance. It was also a way for Petronio to acknowledge the many choreographic influences that have shaped his vast body of work. In the Bloodlines endeavors of recent years, the company has revived works by Steve Paxton, Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown (whose troupe Petronio danced for in the Eighties), and Anna Halprin. At their current Joyce Theater run, the collective introduces the undertaking’s fourth installment: Merce Cunningham’s Signals, from 1970.
Set originally to several scores by David Tudor, Gordon Mumma, and John Cage, Signals is now presented at the Joyce with a rotating cast of Composers Inside Electronics members sitting at a control deck in front of the stage, just left of the audience. Whistles, faint animal calls, squeaks, and other electronic sounds alternate throughout the piece. A light-blue backdrop sets a gentle mood. Three female dancers wear mauve sweatsuits, while three men wear the same outfit in gray. All are wrapped carefully in black tape in a way that emphasizes the muscular spiral line employed by dancers for balance and stability. Indeed, much control and coordination are needed for Cunningham’s ballet-like positions and slow, off-kilter tilts. Humor and playfulness eventually sneak through the repetitive movements, as performers signal to each other where to stand or when to initiate movement.
Juxtaposing the Cunningham revival on the program is Petronio’s 2003 Wild Wild World, which uses music by the Australian composer and singer Nick Cave. Here, the lyrics and percussive composition lend emotional context to an otherwise postmodern abstraction. Tara Subkoff’s costumes vary for each of the eleven dancers, but most incorporate tattered black or gray garments with some elements of mesh and glitter. A standout is Nicholas Sciscione, who seems most comfortable in Petronio’s movement language, throwing his limbs away from his torso to such an extreme that joint dislocation seems inevitable. He remains, however, completely in control of his body as he spirals and springs into the air. (I later learned he is Assistant to the Artistic Director.) Following an array of ensemble work, in which our attention is pulled in all directions, Jaqlin Medlock concludes the piece with a memorable solo where ever-changing arm positions frame her grounded steps. The performance is imbued with a sort of darkness, but — as with the humor quietly leavened throughout Signals — occasional explorations of sexuality break through the malaise, when dancers momentarily sink into their hips or undulate their torsos.
Last up is Hardness 10, a world premiere and Petronio’s third collaboration with the composer Nico Muhly. String instrumentation played live onstage by Liam Byrne and intermittent music-box tinkering comprise the score. In front of the theater’s exposed brick wall, the company walks in line formations in several directions, the better to show off all angles of their gold and black unitards covered in bold writing (designed by Patricia Field ArtFashion). “Look don’t touch!” and “he says, she says” are phrases I could make out on the dancers’ bodies, but as soon as the group began moving dynamically, the words were less of a focal point. As in Wild Wild World, their whirling yet strong movement is punctuated with some of the balletic steps associated with Cunningham’s vocabulary. Hardness 10 completes the chronological progression of the evening, concluding with four women in various poses hoisting their fists into the air. Petronio could hardly be more forcefully implementing his choreographic inspirations from the past to address the current cultural moment of female empowerment.