Stephen Petronio Company

"Strange Attractors"

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, CA

February 2, 2002
By Karen Hildebrand

Strange Attractors is about physics. In this work, Stephen Petronio uses the metaphor of scientific chaos theory to explain the random ways of attraction in human relationships. But forget about physics, and dump the relationship theme too. The real pleasure of Strange Attractors is in its pure abstract dance. The deft choreography is performed with such elegance and endurance that it seems effortless. With a dance magician's slight of hand, Petronio renders science as art, and movement free of emotion.

The evening-length work is split into a prelude followed by two parts, accompanied by original compositions by Michael Nyman and James Lavelle. In the brief "Prelude," rock lyrics of Without You I'm Nothing offer the only narrative clue to Petronio's subject matter. As David Bowie sings Strange infatuationů eight dancers stand in a cluster illuminated by a pool of light. As if connected by an invisible rubber band, they lean, turn, and drop within a stretchy but limited range. When one falls out of line, the group organically fills the vacancy. In a surprising moment, they all audibly expel puffs of a powdery substance from their mouths. The particles float in the air over their heads, twinkling in the light, while the dancers continue their amorphous contortions.

Part I (an earlier incarnation of which was created and performed here first in 1999) opens with a man dressed in silvery pyjamas dancing on a dark grid against a plain black scrim. His movement is balletic, with textbook arm placement and turn preparation. A woman in a short black slip-dress joins him, and their unison work is spotless. The full ensemble of four women and four men eventually appear, entering and exiting in a variety of combinations. Petronio introduces a recurring motif of a vertical line of dancers, upstage to down, split in this instance into two lines of three dancers each.

What a joy to see the strong modern dance technique that lies at the foundation of this work. (For all his reputation as a rebel and rule-breaker, Petronio hails from Merce Cunningham lineage, and was a member of Trisha Brown's company from 1979 to 1986.) The dancers hurl their energy up and out, yet there is a deep control in the crisp detail of the arms and feet. It's easy to imagine that any one of these dancers might stand out as a star with some other company. But here they function as an ensemble, equally compelling and capable.

In one duet, a man and woman rarely lose contact with each other in a demonstration of mutual support. Sometimes the touch is merely her hand on his shoulder. This is followed by a duet of two women whose embrace becomes a cage, their movement that of pushing away.

Near the end of Part I, Petronio raises the solid black rear scrim to expose the Yerba Buena Theater's complete backstage, including a round orange sign over a door that reads, "You Are Here." Four dancers stand still in a few moments of silence. When motion and music return, the pace seems just a touch more intense, and the reason for this attention-getting element isn't clear.

In Part II the same eight dancers return, wearing black turtleneck shirts and briefs, exposing the full length of their legs and a slice of midriff when they move. Two convex mirrored disks designed by Anish Kapoor hang above the stage and reflect the dancers as short sticks of light. In an interesting juxtaposition, the lighting (designed by Ken Tabachnick) mirrors the dancers in the shiny surface of the floor, forming a continuous loop of leg. The scrim is a vibrant blue, then goes to red, to orange and marigold and pink.. The most electric of colors render the dancers in partial silhouette and turn their skin metallic shades of bluish green. The tone of the dance changes during these silhouette-segments as well, one time with the men taking standing poses, elbow and hip akimbo, the women later join in to help perform rehabilitation, or perhaps to reassemble body parts into a workable whole after having fallen apart.

Petronio's choreography happens primarily on a single plane-no floor work, and relatively few lifts. The dancers move upright in flawless movement phrases. Petronio's patterns never require the viewer to make a choice-all the action can be seen at once. In Part I, energy is flung outward on the diagonal by strong arms and legs. One can see the origin of the movement as a head ducks to initiate a turn and an arm scoops a slice out of an almost visible block of energy. In Part II, the movement vocabulary is similar, but this time the energy is contained inward with bent elbows and fisted hands. The dancers are no longer the shining particles of matter of Part I, but sparring boxers taking an illusory left hook to the jaw.

Strange Attractors is well polished and elegant, danced with deep control and precision. In a season that's brought some big names and international innovators to San Francisco (American Ballet Theatre, Ballet Nacional de Cuba, Dance Theatre of Harlem, the Tokyo based Rosy CO, Portuguese Paolo Ribeiro, and Joachim Schlomer's dance to 17th century Madrigal music, plus the much heralded Alonzo King collaboration with a tribe of Pygmies), the Stephen Petronio Company gives one of the most satisfying performances to date.

Strange Attractors ends as dancers walk to form one more upstage-downstage line and the scrim again changes color. We expect another segment to begin when the curtain comes down as if, behind it, the perpetual movement of energy in space goes on whether or not we're watching.


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Edited by Marie.

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