Choreographer Stephen Petronio plumbs Nick Cave songs for Underland
When theStraight reaches celebrated New York City choreographer Stephen Petronio, he’s way over in Cardiff, finishing up an atmospheric new work for National Dance Company Wales. Inspired by the lakes and coastlines of the region, it’s set to a commissioned score from Nine Inch Nails collaborator Atticus Ross, who’s also written soundtracks for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and The Social Network with Trent Reznor.
No matter where he works, the acclaimed dance artist can often be found drawing on music from the indie and rock worlds. Radiohead, Wire, Rufus Wainwright, Laurie Anderson, Fischerspooner, and Nick Cave: they’ve all provided soundtracks for his fiercely physical works over the past couple of decades. And he clearly enjoys the notion that he’s exposing music fans to dance.
“I love that!” the charismatic choreographer says over FaceTime video, sporting a cool strip goatee that complements his shaved head, tats, and thick black-framed specs. Speaking of the Cave-soundscaped Underland, which DanceHouse brings here Friday and Saturday (September 27 and 28), he adds: “Nick has a real cult following, and if my show is the first time they’re coming to a dance performance, I really feel like my life’s work is accomplished.”
Petronio explains he’s a social creature who likes to collaborate with other artists. “Plus, there’s kind of a poverty-stricken attitude in the dance world, so I like working with musicians; they’re so much more successful. And in Atticus’s case, he’s excited to take on something other than music.”
An acclaimed dancer in his own right who performed with the revolutionary Trisha Brown Dance Company for seven years in the ’80s, Petronio started tapping the music world soon after launching his own company in 1984. Underland was created many years later, when the Sydney Dance Company came calling for a commission in 2003—a time when, Petronio has said, he was still feeling the dark weight of 9/11 and the Iraq war.
“They said, ‘What would it take to get you to Australia?’ And I said, ‘Nick Cave,’ and they gave me his producer and we had all these great tracks and just had to build bridges between them,” Petronio explains. “So it hangs together like a whole score but with seven hits.”
Cave classics will include the majestically baroque “The Weeping Song”, the epic electric-chair odyssey “The Mercy Seat”, the blood-spattered “Stagger Lee”, and the serial-killer tale “Mah Sanctum”—fairly dark territory to wade into for a while, and not necessarily tunes you’d at first associate with the rhythms and flow of dance.
“His work grabs me by the throat and gut. I thought, ‘Either this is the stupidest thing I’ve ever done or the greatest,’ ” Petronio says with a laugh. “Yeah, I had to lie with the stuff for a long time, but I love the music and I never get sick of it. He’s such a great storyteller and in my work I’m not; I fracture everything.”
Don’t expect the dancers to act out Cave’s stories literally, then, although you might recognize an intense gesture amid the whirl. Instead, Petronio creates a dystopian underworld that captures the mood of Cave’s music. Still, the choreographer has definitely crafted an arc out of the brooding songs. “This really is a journey from darkness to light,” he explains. “It starts with ‘Mah Sanctum’, which is pretty creepy, and the last song is ‘Death Is Not the End.’ ”
Cave isn’t the only cool collaborator on Underland, which Petronio has pared down to 10 of his own dancers, from Sydney’s original 20. The costumes, a steamy mix of lace bras, red tutus, and scissored black bodices, are by Tara Subkoff of the ultrahip New York line Imitation of Christ. Australian film director Mike Daly created the video projections, sending everything from hellish infernos to shattering glass across a triptych of screens.
Collaboration has always been key for Petronio, but in the studio, alone with his ideas, things are slightly harder. “It can be pretty lonely in there,” he says with a smile. “It’s like going into the desert together. For me, the research is improvised; you’re trying to corral these invisible horses and it’s hard.” Still, he says, creativity has never been a problem for him: “I’m an Aries, I’ve been given the gift of a million ideas; it’s just in my nature. I think what’s exhausting is the constant financial struggle—but what I have in motion can never be replaced with money.”
Those collaborative projects give Petronio’s work, with its strong imagery, projections, and pulsing new music, an overall feel that’s often filmlike. Somewhat surprisingly, Petronio credits that to his humble upbringing in New Jersey.
“I was never exposed to [performing] art till I went to Hampshire College,” he says of the Massachusetts school where he finally started to dance. “So a lot of my exposure to art was through film. That’s part of why I love Underland, because it has this cinematic feel.”
Cinema and visual art give Petronio’s work its one-of-a-kind look. But the music—and his edgy and physically exhilarating way through it—is a big part of how he’s made his name. From dark ballads to indie electronic experimentalism, new music seems to feed his work, and it would appear he has a voracious appetite for it.
In fact, one can’t help but wonder what a whirl through his playlists would sound like. “It would take you a long time to look through my iPod,” he says with a laugh, before heading off into an autumn Cardiff evening. “I have a very wide range of tastes.”