Stephen Petronio has a knack for defining the edge of postmodern dance. While living in London during the late ’80s and early ‘90s, the young choreographer and dancer — onstage with a shaved head and surrounded by other dancers sporting g-strings and women’s corsets — galvanized the press with outrageous antics and sex performances with collaborator and lover Michael Clark, the bad boy of British ballet, and outre fashion designers such as the late Leigh Bowery. Petronio had a successful dancing career before this high-profile period, as a member of the Trisha Brown Company (with which he performed for seven years) and for his own work, which trades on a quirky, erratic athleticism flayed across the stage at a relentless pace. But it‘s the juicy, if outdated, rebel-with-a-cause image that people latch onto. “There’s always an edge — that‘s what we live for as artists,” Petronio says during a telephone interview from his home in New York. “That was a very long time ago and a very specific cultural moment. And I’m no longer a boy.”
Collaborating with artists from other disciplines, however, has remained a cornerstone of Petronio‘s work. Since founding his own company in 1984, he has worked with musicians as varied as the Beastie Boys, Diamanda Galas, Sheila Chandra, and David Linton; visual artists such as Cindy Sherman; and fashion designers from Manolo Blahnik to Imitation of Christ, who designed the costumes for the opening prelude to Petronio’s Strange Attractors, at UCLA‘s Royce Hall next Wednesday and Thursday. On hand for the L.A. run will be Michael Nyman and his quartet to perform live — oddly enough, it will be the world-renowned, Academy Award–winning composer’s L.A. debut. (The following night, Nyman will perform a selection from his 30-odd film scores.)
The hourlong piece — created in celebration of his company‘s 15th-anniversary season last year — brings together an impressive cadre of other British artists as well: Turner Prize–winning sculptor Anish Kapoor, underground DJ James Lavelle and Richard File of UNKLE, and Tanya Sarne of the London design house Ghost. Collaboration is often code for commission and is an easy way to add cachet through big names. But mixing it up with other artists is one of the reasons Petronio says he makes dances. “The dance world is very insular, but I came into it knowing dance in relation to visual art: Diaghilev and Nijinsky, Cunningham and Cage, Brown and Rauschenberg — I just didn’t see any reason to think of it any other way. It was so much sexier having different people in the room, other than dancers.”
Like the chaos theory, from which the title of his latest piece is taken, Petronio thrives on the ricochet effect of a collaborator‘s impulses. Take, for example, the pairing of a series of evocative Nyman vignettes in the first act with Lavelle and File’s backbeat-heavy, electronica-influenced score in the second act. Critics have noted with delight a corresponding lyricism in the sophisticated abstraction of the first act, what The New York Times called a “surprising grandeur.” Nyman, speaking by telephone from his home in London, says he, too, was surprised when Petronio encouraged him to explore a more lyrical, conversational mode. “I know that Stephen was attracted to my fast, driving music, but, paradoxically, he‘s chosen not to trade on that side of my work. It seemed strange since I knew his choreography as very frenetic and never settled, but in pushing me to write something unusual for me, he paralleled it with choreography that was somewhat unusual for him. It was a way for both of us to remove ourselves from what audiences expected of us.”
Similarly, the structure for that section was also an accidental outcome of a process that Nyman calls “mutually exploratory.” Nyman had sent a demo tape for Petronio to choose among several variations; instead he chose them all, as they were presented on the tape, with interludes of stillness. Seen in conjunction with the choreography, these silent lapses take on a weighted, almost physically tangible presence through which the dancers move.
For the second act, Kapoor has created two highly reflective discs — stunning, enigmatic shapes that hover against densely saturated color fields, echoing the dancers’ motions and glowing with an eerie luminescence as they react to light. Petronio, a student of the Kabbalah who attends Shabbat services every Saturday, was drawn to the mysterious, illusive nature of Kapoor‘s creations, which mediate between the physical and the spiritual, a goal of his own precise yet enigmatic work. “I’ve been dancing for more than 20 years, and the unconscious mind has come through my body in very radical ways,” Petronio says. “Culturally, we need to see things through movement — things that we can‘t put our finger on or put in a box — not stories that we can print up, read and forget about. That’s where the bad boy still lives.”