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By Christopher Atamian
“I won’t be your man at all if I can’t be your salty dog,” Stephen Petronio mumbles at the beginning of I Drink the Air Before Me. Costumed like a gnarly old ship captain by none other than Cindy Sherman, a bearded Petronio sets about hooking ropes around The Joyce Theater and grumbling at audience members before climbing up to a crow’s nest to survey the action unfolding below. According to the company press release this newest piece, created to celebrate his 25 years in dance and set to commissioned music by Nico Muhly, purports to “focus on storms, both atmospheric and emotional.” Yet nowhere on the ship/stage did one witness a storm unfold, much less a tornado or a typhoon—Petronio’s dancers looked as if they were out for a very quick jog at best.
Part of the problem lay in the curious disjunction between the music and choreography. Muhly may be a great contemporary composer, but his music sometimes seems better-suited to a concert hall than a dance stage. Perhaps his compositions lend themselves more easily to certain choreographers than others—one imagines Trisha Brown or perhaps Merce Cunningham pulling it off. But to my mind Petronio works best with more “uplifting” or harmonious material, not jarring, experimental compositions. His 2006 collaboration with Rufus Wainwright was, for example, simply glorious: everything from the singer’s plaintive tone to the dancers’ exquisite interpretations of his choreography, to the stunning flowered shirts worn by the Young People’s Chorus of New York City lit up the soul.
To Petronio’s credit his dancers displayed their characteristic virtuosity. The marvelously sexy wave-like forward swivel of the hips, the effortless counterclockwise turns, the agility and speed—all shone through again. The vibrant and lanky Gino Grenek cut through the air like a windmill untethered, while Shila Tirabassi and Mandy Kirschner performed each movement with sylph-like grace.
But speed and agility do not necessarily a tempest make. For the better part of an overly long 60 minutes, one waits with anticipation for more tension or counterpoint to develop. The dancers remain curiously expressionless through much of the performance, as if they are just going through the motions—at an albeit remarkable pace. At one point about two-thirds of the way through, the young Joshua Tuason displays a raffish mixture of gamin-like innocence and devilish appeal as he slowly lowers himself down onto a female dancer and back up again. For a brief instant there is real electricity onstage, a sense of tension, of something about to snap or break. Towards the end of the piece Muhly’s music picks up as well, with a powerful drumming beat and metronome-like quality taking over.
Just when you’re feeling you’ve had enough whirling and twirling for one night, Petronio slows the pace down and the Young People’s Chorus performs the piece’s finale “One Day Tells Its Tale to Another,” delivering a lovely message of hope. The dancers acknowledge the audience by individually coming to a brief halt before starting up again. They tap fist to chest, a well-intentioned if somewhat saccharine farewell. All is calm once more.