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By Wendy Perron
When Stephen Petronio stood on the roof of the Whitney Museum and leaned out into space until he was perpendicular with the wall, it was pret-ty scary. Far below, those of us who know him and love him were cowering, screaming, and hoping for the best. Others in the crowd were raising their cell phones for an immortal peak.
Of course Stephen had already done Trisha Brown’s Man Walking Down the Side of a Building two days before, and actually, about 20 years before, when he was with Trisha’s company (not at the Whitney but in Avignon, I believe). And, of course Trisha had hired the best rigger possible, a man whom Stephen had total faith in.
But I was too viscerally frightened to enjoy it…only dimly aware of how thrilling and beautiful it really was. Afterward (when I was still shaking), everyone wanted to touch Stephen or have their picture taken with him. He was like Washington crossing the Delaware, or Neil Armstrong taking the first steps on the moon. (So sorry I didn't get to see the formidable Elizabeth Streb do it on another day.)
Less anxiety-producing but just as thought-provoking, the rest of the Whitney’s program “Off the Wall” was a lesson in Trisha Brown logic. In Leaning Duets I (1970), Diane Madden leaned so far out against the pull of her partner that she almost seemed to be walking on the wall. So it’s easy to see how Trisha got from there to Walking on the Wall (1971). (For a full review of the program, see www.dancemagazine.com/reviews.)
My strong memory of Falling Duets (1968) was that watching Trisha and Barbara Dilley alternating falling with catching the fall was almost unbearably suspenseful. One of them would stand still until her body swayed off-balance, and the other would scramble to catch her while they’d melt together just before hitting the floor. At the moment of contact they released every muscle in their bodies. It was like watching a solid turn into a liquid. And the fall was different each time.
Last Saturday, four couples performed this simultaneously, spread out through the gallery, so the focus on each couple was less intense. Also, the current dancers didn’t seem to take the risks that Trisha and Barbara took back then.
But the Whitney’s “Off the Wall” program was a gift. The museum recreated part of Trisha’s Whitney program from 1971, which was the first time many people (including me, four years before I danced with her) first saw Trisha’s work. It awakened us to the understated miracle that is Trisha Brown.
Stephen Petronio in Man Walking Down the Side of a Building. Photo by Graham E. Newhall, Courtesy TBDC