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By Susan Yung
Stephen Petronio Company
Joyce Theater, NYC
April 5–10, 2011
Reviewed by Susan Yung
Photo: Barrington Hinds and Natalie Mackessy in Underland. Photo by Julie Lemberger, Courtesy Petronio Company.
Stephen Petronio's Underland contains examples of the most exhilarating elements of his work, while exposing some of the challenges he faces when tracing a narrative. Created for the Sydney Dance Company in 2003 (this was its New York premiere), it is accompanied by a suite of Nick Cave's songs for an essentially seamless hour, feeling in form like a full-length ballet or musical theater. Cave's songs tend toward dark or edgy themes, in theory well-suited to the dancing's frenetic, fraught choreography. But at times, the music subsumed the dance.
Petronio's movement concerns the extreme acceleration or braking of energy, which creates plenty of drama by itself. He deploys limbs as line-makers, often with locked knees or elbows, to provide even longer arcs when they're flung, catapult-style. His impressive dancers trend toward tall, which exaggerates this velocity. Deep pliés are matched with explosive jumps. A particularly resonant phrase, repeated by the electric Reed Luplau, consists of a spearing, perfectly square grand jeté headed downstage, followed by a chassé in which the legs cross and twist in the air, into fluttering petit allegro steps embellished with beats. Luplau virtually flies across the stage, barely touching the floor. Not to be outdone, company veteran Gino Grenek soars in split grand jetés. Amanda Wells and Shila Tirabassi display taut, polished lines; both Natalie Mackessy and Tara Lorenzen uncoil and detonate through big leaps.
It is when the lyrics provoke description that the movement feels supplemental, less primary. "Wild World" features three wild women; "Weeping Song," mimed swipes at tears and a communal circle that feels folksy and antithetical to Petronio's stage-slashing geometries. A section of four dancers in a line, who lean on each other and trade intimate gestures, recalls a similar work by the choreographer. A few parts include feats of daring group partnering, resulting in sky-high lifts that demonstrate the sheer kinetic power that's such a Petronio signature. Tara Subkoff designed the costumes, which range from fishnet tops to raggedy khakis to redemptive white tunics. Mike Daly's videos, a crisp mélange of apocalyptic and quotidian images, are projected onto three panels. Ken Tabachnik designed the lighting for this imperfect evening that nonetheless offered ample rewards.