Review: Stephen Petronio Looks to the NYC of His Past for Inspiration

When the pandemic hit, the choreographer Stephen Petronio found himself grappling with the confines of space, especially when creating over Zoom. That experience of restriction, he writes in “In Absentia,” a limited-edition book chronicling his life after the shutdown, reminded him of his early years — specifically a time in the 1980s when his studio space was his living room on St. Marks Place.

It was less than ideal — he kept crashing into furniture — but Petronio, who calls himself a positive nihilist, choreographed a solo that spoke to his working conditions. He planted his feet in fourth position, and for the solo’s eight-minute duration, that is where they stayed.

“Petronio Punk Picks and Other Delights,” his latest evening of work, takes place, fittingly, in his old stomping ground: Manhattan’s East Village. In a series of short works created from 1993 to the present, Petronio unveils a survey of sorts at the Ellen Stewart Theater at La MaMa.

There were some impressive performances, yet however articulate and imperative his dancers were, the 12 short works — 11 of them excerpts from longer pieces — exposed a sameness in Petronio’s explosive, sleek vocabulary of twisting torsos, lashing legs and whipping arms. The costumes changed, the music changed, but the bodies, veritable ribbons of flesh, were too often stuck on repeat.

Johnnie Cruise Mercer was invited by Petronio to choreograph a portion of the evening.Credit…Julie Lemberger

Strangely, Petronio’s portion of the evening took place entirely in Act 2. The first half featured another choreographer at his invitation: Johnnie Cruise Mercer of TheREDprojectNYC. A vague program note states that the Petronio company had joined forces with Mercer, who in his premiere — titled “and then we hit the boundary where the sun’s wind ceased.” — paused several times with his feet in fourth position, his arms stretched to either side like low wings. But beyond an apparent shared fondness for that shape, one foot in front of the other and at least a foot apart, it didn’t seem like much more than a shared evening.

Mercer’s work, according to program notes, is part of a larger project. During the run, which ends Sunday, he will continue to explore characters based on the four horsemen in the Book of Revelations. As he cut across the stage, bouncing and skipping in a pair of red sneakers, Mercer’s sudden starts and stops were compellingly unpredictable; with turned-out feet and an invisible horse between his legs, he cut a spooky prancing path through the center of the stage. But shortly after he abandoned his movement meditation for a singing-spoken segment, the piece was over. It had the feel of a study.

While Mercer made use of a balcony at the back of the theater — and disappeared through a door where a ring light hung — the space seemed to be arranged mainly for Petronio’s excavation of what he calls in the program notes, “short form works that I consider golden keys to viewing the larger works that they were attached to.”

Jaqlin Medlock (facing), Kris Lee, Tess Montoya and Tiffany Ogburn perform an excerpt from “Bud Suite.”Credit…Julie Lemberger

At times, the echoes were palpable. In “No More Heroes,” to the punk band the Stranglers, Nicholas Sciscione, wearing a billowy, transparent white top and shimmery shorts by Manolo, etched the stage with a phantom feeling of the complete dance — Petronio’s “Lareigne” (1995) — in his prickly and frenzied airborne solo. With his hair in pigtails, Ryan Pliss tore across the stage in “For Today I Am a Boy,” set to Anohni (from “This is the Story of a Girl in a World,” 2008); angular in one moment and wilted in the next, Pliss demonstrated masterful control. And Jaqlin Medlock, in “Pre-Weep” set to to Nick Cave (from “Underland,” 2011), showed off her ever-rippling arms with luscious abandon.

But presented back to back, with the performers changing costumes off to the side, the works seemed more like fragments of dances than complete works; they could also nod too closely to the lyrics. The costume that Mac Twining wore in “Sleeping Pills,” to the London Suede (from “Drawn That Way,” 1996), featured an oversized pill capsule strapped to his back. And when an Elvis Presley recording of “Are You Lonesome Tonight,” a recent video work transferred to the stage, was followed up with “Love Me Tender” (from “The King Is Dead,” 1993), it felt like a fall down a YouTube rabbit hole.

Petronio’s choice of songs — “human markers from pop culture,” he calls them — are full of emotion; in some ways, the soundtrack also seems to also pine for the glory days of the East Village with its, he writes, “fierce street fashion and poetry that screams into the void.” Then, nightclubs were performance spaces ripe for experimentation; here, a machine filled the stage with hazy smoke. But even at La MaMa, an East Village institution and survivor of gentrification, it felt forced, more like a nostalgic whisper than a fierce, ferocious scream.

Petronio Punk Picks and Other Delights

Through Sunday at La MaMa,

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