Stephen Petronio Dance Company
As the enfant terrible of the dance world Stephen Petronio has worked with some of the world’s most recognisable names. Kelly Apter meets the man behind the stage magic
Stephen Petronio is standing on stage wearing the shiniest pair of gold trainers I’ve ever seen. You get the feeling he could click his heels together, say the magic words, and transport himself somewhere fabulous. Not that he’d want to. Taking a bow before a packed, and loudly appreciative, audience at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall is surely fabulous enough. Holding hands with his wonderful dancers, who have just performed his equally wonderful choreography, Petronio looks happy to be right where he is.
But it wasn’t always so. As a young boy growing up in New Jersey, Petronio found it nigh on impossible to live in the moment. And when the time came to share his creativity with the rest of the world, he made sure we felt the same way. ‘I used to have lots of things happening on stage simultaneously, so the audience was forced to choose and felt like they were missing something,’ says Petronio. ‘I always had that feeling growing up. If I was on the left side of the street, I was missing something on the right. If I went to bed, I worried I was missing out on something; I wanted to have that experience in the theatre as well. But I’m less interested in that now.’
That’s not the only thing Petronio has lost interest in. At the age of 52, the former enfant terrible of the American modern dance scene has mellowed, in the best possible way, as all those who saw his stunning work for Scottish Ballet, Ride the Beast will testify.
For years, Petronio was best known in Britain for his outrageous partnering with our own dance bad boy, Michael Clark. Having met at Glasgow’s Mayfest in 1989, the duo’s hedonistic relationship, both on stage and off, eventually burnt itself out – but not before they performed naked in bed at a London art gallery.
But once you’ve pushed the envelope that far what do you do for an encore? ‘When I got to that point I switched to pure form and made Lareigne,’ he says. ‘Because I had done the naughtiest things I could. You can perform things in public that are only meant to be performed in private and you can say things that you shouldn’t say. But short of cutting off a limb, how else can you get that kind of shock? So I thought, restrict all of that, and see if I can shock people with form.’
Upbeat, fast-paced and utterly compelling, Lareigne is one of three pieces Petronio’s company will perform in Glasgow this November. Choreographed in 1995 to The Strangler’s No More Heroes, it signalled a new era for Petronio – and the people watching him. ‘I think my work was much angrier when I was younger,’ he says. ‘There was a brashness and brazenness to it and an interest in abusing the audience more than I have a need for now. I’ve allowed myself to embrace my more lyrical and tender side on stage.’
That tender side shows its face in the two pieces accompanying Lareigne, both of which were created in 2006 and feature the music of American singer-songwriter, Rufus Wainwright. Set to four existing songs, Bud Suite explores notions of desire, while Bloom matches beautiful movement with Wainwright’s specially commissioned choral work. What was it about Wainwright’s music that caught Petronio’s ear?
‘Rufus has got a real sense of show business and so do I, so I’m really drawn to that’ explains Petronio. ‘His voice is sexy, his music is witty and it sounds like folk, pop, opera, Broadway – he’s a real boundary hopper. Plus he’s really out and vocal about that, which I admire – I did that very early in my career but it’s different to do that as a musician.’
Another major change in Petronio’s life was his relatively recent decision to stop dancing. Two years on, he’s now calling it his ‘first retirement’, suggesting we may yet see him back on stage in some capacity – just not dancing his own incredibly demanding, high-octane choreography. ‘When I turned 50 I officially said that’s it,’ he says. ‘I still had the memory of how I used to dance in my body, and it wasn’t pleasant not to be able to do that anymore. And I was happy to stop putting make-up on every night, because there’s nothing less pleasant than having to look in the mirror and put make-up on when things are shifting.’
The laughter which accompanies that last remark suggests he’s less bothered than most about the ravages of time. Relaxing in his backstage dressing room before the show, Petronio still looks the epitome of cool. Trendy glasses, shaved head and a most beguiling smile – which must come in handy when it’s time for that most loathsome of tasks, fundraising. Like most artistic directors, the administrative side of Petronio’s job holds far less appeal than the creative. When I ask about juggling that dual role, he makes a ‘yeuch’ sound that says it all. ‘It’s very hard for me to call somebody up and ask them for money,’ he says. ‘I do it, but it’s not my favourite thing to do.’ Which begs the question, what is? Once upon a time the line-up of options might have included sex, drugs and shocking an audience. These days the answer is a lot more straightforward, though no less joyful.
The young boy who used to worry about missing out on something more interesting has discovered that the best place to be is remarkably close at hand. ‘The beauty of my life is I get to make movement,’ says Petronio with a smile.
‘To get my clothes off and dance in a room full of great dancers,’ he replies, before quickly clarifying that he means taking off his everyday clothes to change into dance gear. Heaven forbid we should think otherwise …
Stephen Petronio Dance Company, Theatre Royal, Glasgow, Tue 4 & Wed 5 Nov.