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For more than 30 years, American choreographer Stephen Petronio has honed a unique movement language that speaks to the intuitive and complex possibilities of the body informed by its shifting cultural context. Petronio’s current project, Bloodlines, honors the legacy and the works by Merce Cunningham, Trisha Brown, Steve Paxton, Yvonne Rainer, and Anna Halprin.
Dance ICONS: Tell us how you got started in dance and choreography.
S.P.: I’m a New Jersey boy. I had no art training at all. I got a full scholarship to Hampshire College and so I went against my parents’ wishes. They didn’t understand Hampshire so they were a little frightened by it. I was thinking pre-med, because I was the first kid in the family to go to college, so I thought I had to be a doctor. I took a dance class to relax because a girl I was dating at the time said I should take a dance class, because I was pretty good at parties.
I signed up for an improvisation class and in the middle of that class a thunderbolt struck. I discovered that I had a body. Then Steve Paxton came to Hampshire as a guest artist to teach that year. So between the improvisation class I was taking – there was no technical requirement, anyone could do it so it was perfect for me – and meeting Steve, I realized I was far more creative and I would never go to med school.
ICONS: What inspired you about Paxton’s work?
S.P.: He was at the height of his physical glory. He had just invented contact improvisation two years earlier. He was still evolving. I met him at that moment. I was 18 and he was maybe 40 and he was really ungodly. His dancing was spectacular … and, because I didn’t have any formal training, improvisation was a discipline where I could develop my own vocabulary very quickly and branch out from there. So what Paxton did was help codify my personal proclivities for moving, which became a personal language. That really was the beginning of the Petronio style.
I worked with him for many years. When I realized I wanted to dance, I asked his partner, Lisa Nelson, for advice. She told me, ‘You can study anything you want: You can go study ballet and become a bad ballet dancer, and then you can let that go. Or you could try editing out that part of your training, don’t do the classical technique and see what happens.’ I figured I could always learn later, but I couldn’t unlearn it, so I stayed with my personal movement explorations and investigations through contact and other improvisational forms. It was only much later that I became interested in extension into space, which was associated with many of the more technical idioms of that day, like Cunningham and Limon.
ICONS: Was there another lightning strike that induced you to begin choreographing?
S.P.: From the beginning of that first improvisation class at Hampshire we had assignments, so I was creating. I never thought I’d be a dancer, but I thought I might be some kind of maker. I was opinionated and kind of bossy. So I was making dances on assignment that first year and, of course, I began to perform in contact so I was a performer and a creator in that sense. When I moved to New York, I was making dances already. There was no light bulb to begin choreographing. When I started dancing, the light bulb of creativity was turned on: kinesthetic awareness, self-consciousness and creative empowerment came together for me all at once.
ICONS: Is improvisation choreography?
S.P.: I don’t actually think of improvisation as choreography. I think of choreography as rote and repeatable, as a decided thing and not as an improvised, open-ended thing. I think there are scores that stimulate certain creative results that can be considered a choreographic thought.
In my work there’s very little improvisation on stage. We improvise ad nauseam when I’m building a work. I stopped performing improvisation very consciously because I had a couple of really nasty improvisational experiences in public. I thought, ‘I decide what to wear when I leave the house. Why would I not decide what to do when I come on stage?’ For Steve [Paxton], when you look at him as a master of making decisions in public, it’s a very particular skill. I’ve often gone with my intuitive response, for example going into dance, but I didn’t love improvising in public. At some point I thought that I’m so much more skilled at culling the information from the experience and making something that’s set. My dancers never improvise on stage, but they do improvise a lot in the studio and they’re quite good and prolific. I like to able to control the results.
ICONS: Tell us about your work as a choreographer.
S.P.: I’m a step queen. I love making movement. I love discovering it. I love chasing and catching it. I love wrestling with it until it’s good. I love tweaking it until it’s better. Then going back to the original …I just love all of that. When I’m making choices with what’s happening in the room, that’s kind of an editing process. But I’m very engaged with making movement and a lot of it comes out of my body, still. And a lot of it comes out of the dancers’ bodies, too. I don’t do the leaps and jumps that they do, but I can infer a direction with my body and my language that totally shifts the movement in the room and then we work very hard to capture that.
ICONS: Bodies inspire you.
S.P.: Every day and in every way. Onstage and off. In the studio and out.
ICONS: What do you want young choreographers to know?
S.P.: Define your problem. Don’t believe what anybody tells you. And be ready to get kicked a lot; be open to that as part of the process. There’s a lot of rejection, a lot of dead ends, a lot of getting stumped. For me it’s gotten easier and easier for one reason: I’ve done it for so long and I know that in every piece there’s a moment where I’m sweating bullets and I can’t fix it and I don’t know what to do and how is it supposed to end, or whatever the problem is. The only consolation I have is that I’ve done it before. I trust that it’s going to happen because it’s happened before, even though I don’t know how it’s going to happen. There are a lot of sleepless nights, so try not to depend on sleep.
And, whatever you have, you can always make it shorter.
More about Stephen Petronio…
Throughout his more than three decades of dance making he has received numerous accolades, including a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, awards from the Foundation for Contemporary Performance Arts, New York Foundation for the Arts, an American Choreographer Award, a New York Dance and Performance “Bessie” Award, and most recently a 2015 Doris Duke Performing Artist Award.
Born in Newark, N.J., Petronio received a BA from Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., where he began his early training in improvisation and dance technique. He was greatly influenced by working with Steve Paxton and became the first male dancer in the Trisha Brown Dance Company, where he performed from 1979 to 1986.
He has created more than 35 works for his eponymous company and has been commissioned by some of the world’s most prestigious modern and ballet companies, including William Forsythe’s Ballett Frankfurt (1987), Deutsche Oper Berlin (1992), Lyon Opera Ballet (1994), Maggio Danza Florence (1996), Sydney Dance Company (2003, full evening), Norrdans (2006), The Washington Ballet (2007), The Scottish Ballet (2007), and two works for National Dance Company Wales (2010 and 2013).
Petronio’s training originated with leading figures of the Judson era and he has performed Man Walking Down the Side of a Building in 2010 for Trisha Brown Company at the Whitney Museum, and performed his 2012 rendition of Steve Paxton’s Intravenous Lecture (1970) in New York, Portland, and at the TEDMED-2012 conference at the Kennedy Center Opera House in Washington, D.C. Petronio received the distinction of being named the first artist-in-residence at The Joyce Theater from 2012–2014. Petronio and visual artist Janine Antoni are the 2017 McCormack Artists in Residence at Skidmore College, where their series of installations, Entangle, will be shown from January–July, 2017. His 2014 memoir, Confessions of a Motion Addict, is available at Amazon.com.
Interviewer Lisa Traiger writes on dance, theater, performance and the arts from the Washington, D.C. area.
Photography credits: Maria Kolcheva, Sara Silver, Yi Chun Wu
Content Editor: Camilla Acquista, Dance ICONS, Inc. 2016 ©