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Preshow Talk by Melanie George

By February 14, 2017News

Preshow Talk by Melanie George at Lumberyard Contemporary Performing Arts in Rockville, MD
December 9-10, 2016

In 2014, Stephen Petronio announced a project that would introduce significant works by post-modern masters into the repertory of his company. Petronio’s Bloodlines project is atypical for dance companies with a recognized aesthetic focused on the productivity of an individual artist. The singular visionary is the standard model that much of modern dance is built upon. Unlike ballet, modern has no universal vocabulary, technique or philosophy. In modern dance, techniques are predominantly named for their creators – Graham, Horton, Limón, Dunham – rather than associated with regions of origin. Though there are certainly trends and schools of thought that ear mark eras within history, modern dance has always been eclectic, purposely championing the individual and personal statements.

But what becomes of the body of work of a visionary following retirement or death? Seminal works are chronicled for history books, but are rarely seen live without the benefit of a working dance company. For Petronio, the death of Merce Cunningham and the retirement of Trisha Brown sparked a clarion call to address these concerns. Beginning with Cunningham’s Rainforest in 2014, Stephen Petronio Company’s seasons include a historic work alongside a new piece created by its namesake. In addition to works by Cunningham and Brown, Bloodlines repertory includes choreography by Steve Paxton, Anna Halprin, and for Lumberyard audiences tonight, an exclusive advanced showing of Yvonne Rainer’s Trio A with Flags, which will have its formal premiere in March 2017 at the Joyce Theatre.

Petronio speaks of his work as being in conversation with that of his post-modern mentors. He alluded to this in a 2015 blog post on his company’s website, writing “The last night of shows I felt a crack in time during the performance, and we were not honoring history at all, but were embodying a crucial state of presence in the eternal.”[1] Rather than a retrospective exhibition, Petronio positions the programming as being of a lineage, sparking potential conversations about the past as continuum, rather than an end unto itself.

As Stephen Petronio Company has recently celebrated its 30th anniversary, it is a decidedly confident and altruistic stance to create a chapter for the work of others in the book of your own legacy. In a statement announcing Bloodlines Petronio commented, “Decades later, I feel I can approach these masterpieces with a level of intellectual and physical rigor that finally matches my personal awe and emotional connection.”[2]  In keeping with his focus on lineage and legacy, Petronio’s next project is the establishment of a residential choreography institute which will afford choreographers time to conceive, play and study separate from the production driven economy that dominates an artist’s life. He envisions the institute and Bloodlines occurring concurrently on same property, past and present in dialogue much like they are in the company’s repertoire.

Tonight’s program is as rich as it is diverse – driving contemporary dance, seminal works of post-modernism, pop-art installation, sociopolitical statements. Though each of the three dances on the program (Cunningham’s Rainforest, Rainer’s Trio A with Flags, and Stephen Petronio’s Locomotor) deserves an individual talk unto itself, in the interest of time, here is a brief overview:

Rainforest is an iconic work within the Cunningham repertory. The title comes from Cunningham’s memories of growing up in the Northwest, and ruminations on the rainforest in the Olympic Peninsula. The music, composed by David Tudor, is meant to evoke the chirping and chattering of birds and animals. Cunningham invited Andy Warhol to adapt his 1966 exhibit Silver Clouds into a set design for the piece, which debuted in 1968. Though uncredited, the original flesh colored unitards were razor cut by Jasper Johns to give the costume a roughened appearance. In short, this work is a veritable who’s who of modern art in the 1960s.

In Rainforest, we see the hallmarks of Cunningham’s style. Regarded today, as the father of post-modern dance, Cunningham taught us that dance and music can operate separately but coexist in performance; that dance is of motion, not emotion. He introduced chance structures, Eastern philosophy, and the belief that all areas of the stage have equal value. Rainforest exhibits the exceptional linearity, and coil-like spine of Cunningham dance technique. And, by the way, if you’re looking for a narrative there is none. Rainforest is emblematic of the ways in which Cunningham liberated dance from the conventions of his time, including story and character. It’s a gorgeous work that juxtaposes the concrete form of the dancers with the ethereal luminescence of the set. I defy you to not be mesmerized by this work.

If Cunningham is the father of post-modern dance, Yvonne Rainer is one of his most notable offspring. A member of the Judson Church and Grand Union collectives, with Trisha Brown, Steve Paxton, and David Gordon among others, she is a grand dame of the second-generation post-modern underground, still highly celebrated today. Trio A is, arguably, her most lauded and well-known work. Some historians liken its impact on dance to that of Duchamp’s Fountain on visual art. By breaking established rules of dance composition regarding dynamics, focus, and presentation, it would come to represent the counter culture’s relationship to the modern dance establishment.

An excerpt from a larger work, The Mind is a Muscle, Trio A is a task-based dance as notable for what it excludes as it is for the content of the work. With little to no dynamics, the dance lacks transitions, repetition and pauses, standard tools of dance composition. Purposely pedestrian movement employs opposing and successive rhythms, exchanged between the limbs and head, with sequential movements overlapping among body parts. It is a visual document of the tenets in Rainer’s NO Manifesto: “No to spectacle, virtuosity, glamour… no to trash imagery, style or seduction of the spectator… no to moving or being moved.”[3] In Trio A, when performers face the audience, the head is profile or occupied with movement, so that the face, and by extension, contact with the audience, is constantly minimized. In her rejection of the conventions of dance performance, Rainer willfully rejected flattery from her audience and peers.  Or as the manifesto states: “No to involvement of the performer or spectator.”[4] In 1980, fifteen years after composing the manifesto, Rainer recalled, “so much dancing had to do with a kind of narcissism. I was, of course, very aware of my own narcissistic pleasure in revealing myself and being exposed before the adoring, loving gaze of the audience. I did not accept this part of myself.”[5]

Accordingly, the work is egalitarian. It can be danced by anyone, in solo, duet, small, or large group. It can be costumed or performed in the nude. In bare feet or in sneakers. And, in the case of tonight’s version, it will be performed with flags. The first performance of Trio A with Flags occurred in 1970, when members of Grand Union, including Paxton, Gordon, and Rainer, presented the work in the nude with five-foot American flags tied around their necks. The performance occurred during the People’s Flag Show, organized by Faith Ringgold and her colleagues, to protest the arrest of fellow artists accused of desecrating the flag in protest works of art. Those cases would later be thrown out of court.[6]

Like the sociopolitical climate of 1970, these are fraught times in our country. While we sometimes look to art as a respite from struggle, we also rely on it to reflect and comment. By restaging Trio A with Flags, Petronio is commenting not only on the right, but the necessity, to make sociopolitical statements on stage; specifically, freedom, liberty, and bodily integrity. For dancers, the body is the most cherished possession. To display it nude is not a sign of disrespect to our country’s symbols. On the contrary, it is the utmost sign of reverence to conflate this medium, that prop, and his message. For Rainer, and now Petronio, Trio A is a humanist declaration about autonomy and respect, the rights of our citizenry, and the role artists play in protecting those freedoms. I see it as elemental to the art form, and fundamental to the relationship between art and society.

The final dance on the program is Petronio’s Locomotor. As implied by its title, the work is a succession of almost continuous movement. Reverse propulsion in the theme here, as dancers thrust their bodies backwards across the stage. With music by hip hop producer, Clams Casino, the accompaniment and the movement have a pulse that insists on space, time, and the capacity of the dancers’ bodies. Where Cunningham’s work is physical, but inherently cerebral, and Rainer’s work is minimal, with intellectual curiosities, Petronio’s Locomotor is full of agile possibility; purposeful exhaustive change, that speaks to a quick choreographic mind, with even quicker bodies to support it. And though we will not see any of Trisha Brown’s work on this program, her pure love of moving has, clearly, imprinted on Petronio.

I encourage you to look at the three works performed this evening not as individual pieces discreet from each other, but more as a puzzle or a sculpture, with aspects of the dances alternately fitting into grooves, and bisecting at odd angles. Bloodlines presents lineage as multi-directional: The past informs the present which spurs the future, but within those relationships, conversations can reverse, fast forward, and pause, encouraging a reconsideration of what we think we know about art and history, making room for reframing, and stimulating fresh eyes and renewed appreciation.



[1] Petronio, Stephen. “From Joyce to Amherst.” Blog post. Stephen Petronio Company, 15 Apr. 2015. Web. 8 Dec. 2016.
[2] Barone, Joshua. “Stephen Petronio Continues Tributes to Postmodern Dance-Makers.” The New York Times 10 Aug. 2016: n. pag. The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 10 Aug. 2016. Web. 8 Dec. 2016.
[3] Rainer, Yvonne. “Some Retrospective Notes on a Dance for 10 People and 12 Mattresses Called ‘Parts of Some Sextets,” Performed at the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut, and Judson Memorial Church, New York, in March, 1965.” The Tulane Drama Review, vol. 10, no. 2, 1965, pp. 168–178.
[4] Ibid
[5] Beyond the Mainstream. Prod. Merrill Brockway. Perf. Yvonne Rainer, Steve Paxton, Trisha Brown, David Gordon. PBS, 1980. Videocassette.
[6] Rainer, Y. (2009) ‘Trio A: Genealogy, Documentation, Notation’, Dance Research Journal, 41(2), pp. 12–18. doi: 10.1017/S0149767700000619.


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