Originally posted July 17, 2014 by New York Foundation for the Arts at NYFA.org.
NYFA talks to Stephen Petronio (Artists’ Fellowships Program ‘85 and ‘04 Choreography)
The choreographer, dancer, and artistic director discusses the recent publication of his memoir, Confessions of a Motion Addict; his dance company turning thirty; and what he is planning next.
NYFA: Congratulations on the publication of your memoir, Confessions of a Motion Addict. What motivated you to write a book? Did your decision surprise your family and friends?
SP: My family can no longer be surprised by anything I do. I began writing the book because I was having many sleepless nights during the making of a dance called Ghostown. So I decided to start writing some early memories as a way to prod the dance, and to fill those middle-of-the-night hours. And the book developed from there.
NYFA: How did you find the writing process? Did writing impact your work on stage at all, or vice versa?
SP: Particularly [regarding] writing about the early-childhood part of my life, I found it quite easy. My visual recall of that period was surprisingly vivid. All I really needed to do was call up the image and catch it with words. The challenge became apparent as I moved into adulthood and had to spar with more intellectual and conscious ideas. I’m not sure how writing has impacted my stage work. I’m a composer of motion, so I think that affected how I can write, and I tried to keep the sense of motion alive throughout the memoir. I will say that editing plays a crucial role both on the stage and on the page.
NYFA: Do you have any more literary projects on the horizon?
SP: I’ve got several ideas cooking, but I’m currently using my memoir as a source for a performance text.
NYFA: Another congratulations is in order: your dance company, Stephen Petronio Company, just celebrated its thirtieth anniversary. What did this milestone mean to you personally, and to the company as a whole?
SP: It’s hard to describe how satisfying and emotional it is to keep a dance company viable for thirty years. An enormous amount of talent has passed through this company, and it has made all of our lives extremely rich.
NYFA: What do you find most inspiring to your work?
SP: I’m oddly inspired by two-dimensional sources, particularly the written word and the visual world. For some reason, two dimensions beg me to make them three. My earliest engagement with art was through literature. Books were my escape hatch.
NYFA: What do you find most challenging as a dancer and choreographer respectively?
SP: As a dancer: capturing the wildness of the improvised moment and rendering it repeatable. As a choreographer: paying for everything.
NYFA: Similar to NYFA’s multidisciplinary approach, you have collaborated with artists working in all media. What prompts you to work with artists of opposing disciplines? How have your past partnerships impacted your current and future work?
SP: I was raised in a tradition of multidisciplinary collaboration. Through watching Merce Cunningham and dancing with Trisha Brown, both avid collaborators, this became my given. I believe dance is a social form, and that form must be as diverse as possible. Different brains pressing up against each other yield the most surprising results. I understand what I know. It’s what we discover together that I find of interest.
NYFA: Can you share any information on your upcoming solo for The American Dance Company, Big Daddy?
SP: I’m using text written about my father as a catalyst for unraveling improvised movement. It feels surprisingly raw and honest to build movement from the images of a man I know so well.
NYFA: You received NYFA Artists’ Fellowships in Choreography in 1985 and 2004. With almost twenty years between fellowships, how did NYFA’s funding impact your career?
SP: That initial fellowship was really the first show of support from an outside organization for my work. And that vote of confidence had an enormously positive impact far greater than the monetary award (which in itself was significant). Twenty or thirty years later, guess what? Every artist needs help making their work regardless of what phase of their career they are in, and it’s always very much appreciated.