At the hands of choreographer Stephen Petronio, a return to the stage after two years away becomes an occasion to both honor the past and contemplate the current moment. Opening night of the Stephen Petronio Company’s weeklong engagement at the Joyce Theater includes a new work, a restaging of vintage Trisha Brown, and an emotionally redeeming piece from company repertory, “Bloom,” accompanied live by the Young People’s Chorus of New York City.
Intended as a meditation on connection, the premiere of “New New Prayer for Now” showcases the ensemble nature of the eight dancers, several of which are new since the company last performed live. During quarantine, Petronio was determined to find new ways for the company to work together, both via Zoom and on location at his property in the Hudson Valley. The effort shows. Fit and well-rehearsed, the dancers nail the cross directional push-pull momentum of Petronio’s style. Dressed in ragged black tunic tops and lycra shorts that emphasize bare legs that glow in dramatic light, the dancers take up a variety of pairings and amorphous clusters where they reach for and clasp onto one another in an effort to stay physically connected while moving across the space. A repeated element has a group lifting a single dancer who allows their body to be supported and tumbled as if in a team building trust exercise. Performed to an original recorded score by Monstah Black that uses the lyrics to “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” and a traditional spiritual, “Balm in Gilead,” “New New Prayer for Now” takes its consistent pacing from that of contemplative practice. There is no grand sweep to a climax, no discernible shift to a new section. The movement simply continues, with different configurations of dancers entering and exiting the stage. One can imagine the dance continuing in the wings and crossing behind the scrim. It reminded me of sitting in daily meditation, noticing my busy thoughts and letting them pass.
With the restaging of Trisha Brown’s “Group Primary Accumulation” (1973), Petronio continues his “Bloodlines” series began in 2014 to honor the lineage of postmodern dance. Served between two courses of Petronio, Brown’s simple gestures repeated in silence serve as a palate cleanser to the constant action that bookends them, while also echoing an influence on Petronio, who danced with her company for seven years. “Group Primary Accumulation” presents a row of four women lying prone on the stage. Dressed in silky white jumpsuits, they perform a series of gestures in unison while lying down. You see four arms reach up, bend at the elbow to frame four heads in profile, then return to rest on the ground. Then they repeat, each time adding a new gesture at the end to eventually complete a long mesmerizing sequence. The four women rock their hips, they splay their hands in the air then drop them onto their chests like spiders, they arch their backs, they reach their left legs to the diagonal and circle them low. Near the end, a roll initiated by a twist onto one hip, shifts the group into a new diagonal orientation with the sleek elegance of synchronized swimming.
Petronio’s “Bloom,” first performed in 2006 to an original score composed by Rufus Wainwright, feels like a nod of hope for the future. It’s a sexy ode to spring renewal, with half the dancers costumed in silvery green baby doll tunics and the other half in corset-like vests and tight shorts. This is a work that shows off well the precision and clarity of the dancers’ classical training—longtime company members Jaqlin Medlock and Nicholas Sciscione in particular are standouts. Crouched amid the movement is the impressive Kris Lee with her rear (and sometimes feet) in the air as if a sprouted plant pushing awkwardly up out from the dirt and unfolding a lanky stem and budding leaves. It’s an inventive image that references rather literally the accompanying Walt Whitman lyrics of “Unseen Buds,” performed live from the balcony by the Young People’s Chorus of New York and conducted with terrific animation by Francisco J. Nuñez. The singers’ powerful presence is a joyful addition, so much so that at times it competes with the dancers for attention and finishes the evening on an upbeat. With the future anything but certain, one can leave the theater with one version within grasp—the bracing inspiration of live performance.