TheStephen Petronio Company led off the city's 1987-88 dance season this past weekend with an explosive, disturbing program at Dance Place.
The New York-based troupe was founded just three years ago but has already been accorded high honor within the profession. Thursday night at City Center in New York, for instance, Petronio dancer Meg Eginton received a "Bessie" -- a New York Dance and Performance Award, named informally in honor of influential teacher Bessie Scho nberg. Last year, Petronio was similarly honored for the choreography of his "Walk-In," which closed the Dance Place program.
In this first Washington appearance, Petronio's work and the way it was executed by the troupe's seven performers seemed to epitomize both the up and down sides of the current postmodern scene.
Have we ever seen more blistering virtuosity, from dancers of any genre or generation? The postmoderns, starting with Twyla Tharp and reaching a recent apex with Molissa Fenley, have bred a new species of dancer, and nowadays New York's zillion "downtown" companies (the term is more than geographical) are inundated with them. They are youngsters of sleek, hardened physique who not only move with improbable speed, precision, dynamism, rhythmic acuity and electricity of attack, but also possess a marathonic stamina unique to the Age of Fitness. Their training runs a gamut of idioms from ballet, jazz and martial arts to traditional and radical modernisms, and consequently they are as much at home hugging the earth as hurtling through air, befriending gravity or thwarting it.
Petronio and his crew exhibit these qualities in profusion, and yet -- and this is equally characteristic of the breed -- with not the merest trace of self-consciousness, as if it were perfectly natural for people to whip themselves into 40 different pretzels in 20 seconds and to keep it up for half an hour without visible sweat or strain.
Yet it may be that such an abundance of virtuosity -- not only of technique, but of vision and intellect -- has hazards as well as advantages. For all the muscular and mental dexterity expended, the evening had relatively little affective impact. There was no end of kinesthetic excitement, but to diminishing expressive effect.
Petronio's choreography keeps eye and mind riveted from moment to moment with a movement logic born of honest visceral impulse -- it feels true, from inside out. But it also seems to spurt forth in unstoppable gushes without any more far-reaching goal than using up all the music. And the experiential world it inhabits and reflects strikes one as singularly hermetic, confined within the new wave music and sensibility of today's young urban bohemia, and the ambisexual overtones thereof.
Admittedly, Petronio's dances accurately mirror aspects of contemporary city life, particularly its violence, erotic stimulation and nerve-shredding discontinuities. But they're the same aspects over and over again, divorced of broader context.
The rhythmically addicting music Petronio used, from composers Lenny Pickett and David Linton, both of them "Bessie" winners in their own right, together with the sensational dancing and skillfully voguish lighting, decor and costumes by Ken Tabachnick, Justin Terzi and Yonson Pak, made for a seductive package. It worked perfectly in "#3," a nine-minute solo for Petronio in which he gyrated in place, twisting into distorted configurations like an animated pipe cleaner gone berserk, spurred by Pickett's hyperkinetic sax and drum score.
It held one through most of "Simulacrum Reels," too, a 30-minute group piece with a percussive Linton score featuring frenetic unisex partnering, balletic pirouettes and beats, jerky isolations like those of electric boogie and flurries of overlapping entrances and exits.
But the sameness of it all began to take its toll. If "Walk-In" had come first, it might have seemed as strong or stronger than anything the evening had to offer, but coming up last it simply palled. Some suggestive imagery in this work -- Terzi's side panels with faces, busts and perilously dangling figures, and a brief cortege of dancers toting a fallen comrade in silence -- only underscored the inscrutability of the piece as a whole. Despite the brilliant dancing, I found myself blanking out about midway, thinking "Overload, overload!"
Petronio is clearly bursting with talent, but he'll make more memorable choreography when he can stand back, take a longer view, and summon the courage to discard, to weed out, to winnow.