Stephen Petronio: Hi, I’m Stephen Petronio. I am the artistic director of Stephen Petronio Dance Company which is currently celebrating its 35th anniversary.
Roger Copeland: I’m Roger Copeland. I taught theater and dance at Oberlin College for too long, forty some years, and I’ve written a lot about Merce Cunningham and the Judson era of dance and Balanchine and yeah… So I’m a dance goer, a pretty avid one.
SP: So in preparation for this, I was trying to really remember when I first met you. I know it was on stage at Oberlin College after a performance and I was dancing. I was currently a dancer with, I mean then I was a dancer Trisha Brown.
RC: Right, right, right and you know ’80… Your guess, ’85, is probably pretty close because “Set and Reset” premiered in like ’83, ’84…
SP: I think maybe ’84.
RC: For the next wave festival, so it certainly would have been in the repertory then.
SP: And it was recorded kind of at the end. I left in ’86 so… And I remember a very lively…we might have been talking about the piece before even.
RC: Yeah, it’s possible.
SP: But it still, uh, it’s been a long…
RC: But you know that’s a good place to start, because I was gonna ask you to chat a little bit about the Bloodlines project and of course the fact that your bloodline goes back to Trisha Brown and then moves in other directions.
SP: It goes back to Paxton, actually.
RC: That’s true, that’s true. So a bloodline that moves like this.
SP: Okay. I started dancing in 1974 at Hampshire College. I took an improvisation class there…
RC: Was Becky there? Rebecca?
SP: No she wasn’t. She might have been a grad student at the time but…
RC: I didn’t know you were in Hampshire.
SP: I went to Hampshire and I was pre-med, because you know being the first son of an Italian working-class family, I had to be a doctor. So I got a scholarship to Hampshire and I was going pre-med. And then I took a dance class for amusement and the lightning bolt struck me in that first semester like major, like, “Oh my God, my body.” And then Steve Paxton was a guest artist in that moment and so I saw Steve Paxton dance and then I began to learn contact improvisation from him.
RC: And you know there’s an Oberlin — talk about criss-crossing bloodlines — there is, of course, an Oberlin connection here, because in a very real sense contact was sort of created by Steve and Nancy Stark-Smith in what we call a winter term session in January.
SP: That’s when I was a student there. It was “Magnesium.”
RC: That’s right. Wow! What a good memory.
SP: Well I’ll tell you why because Eleanor Huston was a student there as well. I think Brenda Way was kind of overseeing from San Francisco.
RC: She was the person who hired me.
SP: She was overseeing that whole thing and then so Eleanor, who then later became my girlfriend, was a grad student at Smith. So she brought Paxton in. She was teaching in New Hampshire a little bit and she brought Paxton into Hampshire. That’s how I met him. So it was a very very small circle of friends and Steve really you know taught me that I could develop a vocabulary of my own. I had to to be an improviser, so I began building my language very, very early. Like at the beginning of my dancing first steps, I was building an improvisational language. Then he introduced me to Trisha Brown, so you know the Judsons were really my classicists. They were what I knew.
RC: And Steve had danced however briefly with Cunningham and in a certain sense set out to unlearn some of that technique for his Judson work or at least go beyond it.
SP: No. I would think he probably looked at it as unlearning, but you know when you saw Steve solo… You know, the virtuosity in his body. It was astounding. But there was also a much more factual interest that he had in the physics of his body, so he prepared me for Trisha. And I always say that Steve and Trisha were doing some very similar things with the body in terms of sequence and energy and flow and continuum. But Steve was committed to never repeating it and Trisha was committed to memorizing it. So when Steve passed me in some cosmic way to Trisha, I couldn’t believe she was learning that kind of material. So that’s really where I carried on.
RC: It’s funny: at the Bessie’s a couple of years ago, Paxton got some kind of Lifetime Achievement Award something like that and he was in Paris at the time teaching a work of his to French dancers. And he said, “You know I’ve got some advice: have at least one piece of choreography that you can teach.” He was talking about the monetary value of not working entirely in an improvisational…
SP: Well there’s another story that I’ll tell you later, but those people were my introduction to dance, the Judsons. So when I hit my 30th anniversary and Merce passed away and Trisha became gravely ill, I just realized that the model of, that I was pursuing which was to be the reign of a kingdom at the end of my life that would be passed onto a bunch of other people, it didn’t seem contemporary. I just didn’t feel like that was what was gonna be for me. I was so very saddened by the loss of both of them and it was the 30th anniversary and I was reassessing, so I decided the most radical thing I could do was stop focusing just on my own work and to bring their work into my company in some ways. And the choreographers that influenced me and that delivered me to the world, you know. Because I always think there’s this idea from the public that you drop down from the sky a genius.
RC: Right. And in the dance world especially, there is less sense of history and continuity often.
SP: You know I was taught things from people and I don’t know… I think also because of limited resources and because individuality is so prized, we tend to hide all that and I know I did for many years. I didn’t talk about my sources so much. I just decided to like blow that open and bring them into my world and then to frame my own work with the lens of people looking at their works and my dancers looking at their—embodying their works. Instead of getting the information from me, you’re not really knowing it, to actually learn those things and see the genesis of certain movements in my world that come from Paxton, or Brown, Cunningham, or Rainer.
RC: It’s an added level of accomplishment and excitement to know that what you’re doing is part of a continuum.
SP: And it’s an embodied continuum, so it’s not just, “Okay, you know my history.”
RC: Well actually, okay, so that sort of leads to the question I was gonna ask next. And maybe something I just learned today that you were a pre-med student at one time, maybe that explains the choice of the term “bloodlines” as the metaphors. Because normally people talk about roots and branches of the tree, the apple you know not falling too far from…
SP: Petronio Familia…
RC: Bloodline you can’t refuse…
SP: Yeah, I think that’s where it came from, but you know before I started bloodlines which was meant to only be a five-year investigation of the people that inspired me, a very personal, not a survey of postmodernism, but a very personal look at what floated my boat into where I am. Before I did that, a precursor to the project was… and it was about Steve because Steve was one of the first men I saw dance. I mean officially I saw Nuria do Sleeping Beauty as a graduation present from high school and I went kicking and screaming. And then the next thing I saw was Steve Paxton.
RC: Wow! Talk about two complementary poles.
SP: Yeah, two very different men offering very different models of masculinity and movement and aesthetic. At a certain point before the Bloodlines project Steve had a piece called “Intravenous Lecture” and I decided to honor him in some way. Well I thought it was honoring him. But I’d only read about it. I didn’t really know what it was. I couldn’t find out much about it. I knew he was hooked up to a saline drip but I called him and I asked him if he would allow me to do it. So literally a doctor or a nurse hooks you up to an intravenous saline drip and maybe that’s where “Bloodlines” came from.
RC: Make sure there’s some smelling salts just in case.
SP: A few people did faint.
RC: Okay I didn’t realize how literal that connection to the bloodline was. So let’s talk a little bit about the three works on the current program at Skirball. So you’ve added yet another Cunningham piece to the repertory.
SP: So “Bloodlines” started with… I decided to start with Cunningham. The first thing we did was “RainForest.” So immediately when I knew I was gonna go to Merce… Because you know Merce really wasn’t… I didn’t study Cunningham technique, but I’ve seen it since day one living in New York. And I just felt that… Well most people don’t consider him postmodern. I think he was the instigator of many, many things.
RC: I mean that’s where a whole new conception of my… You know if there’s a bloodline that goes say from Duncan through Graham or Wigman, then something very different starts with Cunningham. Then the Judson people owe their lineage to him or to Cage.
SP: Well, they fractured space from the frontal plane to the grid. Paxton made it a sphere. That’s the world that I came into, so I started with Merce. So this is the third Cunningham work that we’ve done. We did “RainForest” and “Signals” and now “Tread.” We’ve been working with the trust very closely. I knew I wanted to do three, because I didn’t think we could make much headway with and have much dialogue with just one.
RC: Interesting. How did you decide on “Tread,” which is the piece I don’t think I’ve seen since 1970. I remember the fans.
SP: Yeah, well, interestingly enough, the trust made the suggestion to me for “Tread.” Because you know we’ve got to know each other over the…
RC: That’s great. So in other words, there’s a piece that they think should have a second life.
SP: They were like, “Stephen, this hasn’t been seen. We think this might be really suited to you.” And I have no problem with that. It was a good discussion and interestingly enough, because I hadn’t seen “Tread,” and many people haven’t seen “Tread”— and this happens to many people in the arts, especially when they’re interested in history and I am… I see a picture in 1974 and it becomes this fantasy object for you. And you never see the performance but you see the thing, so you create this mystique in your head. So I’ve made a piece in my head that was called “Tread.” For those people who don’t know it, there’s a series of fans by Bruce Nauman, industrial fans across the proscenium edge. So the audience is looking through these fans at the dance. The fans are on and they’re oscillating, so you’re feeling a breeze and you’re feeling something and you’re watching the dance through…
RC: I’ll tell you something funny. As happenstance would have it, I found myself at the first time it was performed at Brooklyn Academy of Music 1970. I was sitting next to the late Clive Barnes and he kept complaining, “I’m going to catch a cold from this dance,” because we could feel the breeze.
SP: Yeah, well, last night it was exciting. We had it for the first time last night.
RC: But what I thought what was fantastic about the dance was the way the fans function as a visual barrier of sorts. Many times when you viewed a dancer through the spinning grid of the fan, it looked as if they’ve been vivisected for a second. For me it put “Tread” in that subcategory of Cunningham pieces, like “Scramble” where Frank Stella created a series of color field images cloth stretched on a moving grid, and then there’s the Jasper Johns version of Duchamp’s “Large Glass,” and “Walkaround Time,” and a series of works around that time in the 60s where Cunningham’s designer put some sort of visual obstacle between the dancers and the audience. It sort of encourages you to look harder.
SP: Looking through. And it’s something I learned intuitively by seeing that picture because I later became obsessed with putting things, obstacles in front of some… kind of like the Rauschenberg painting. Oh what the famous painting he whites out?
RC: Oh, the Kooning.
SP: Erased de Kooning. So that idea and its kind of the ultimate punk-rock gesture. Cunningham can get away with it, putting the fans there.
RC: And of course Trisha in “Newark” had those Donald Judd drops coming down at different distances from…
SP: From that photograph, I learned intuitively put something in front of it and you look harder at the thing.
RC: Yeah, yeah, yeah… Saison says, “We see more clearly on a cloudy day.”
SP: I love that. So it was beautiful to bring it back for that reason. The same thing with “Intravenous Lecture.” I’d read the title and the title was so vivid that I made this whole thing up about it. Then I got to find what it actually was. So that’s a really beautiful part of these investigations, to embody and bring back what the object actually is for this next generation of viewers. And in the process I’m getting to re-educate myself. For example the idea of the barrier I didn’t really understand my obsession with that. I just absorbed it as a young dance goer or as a young thinker and looker at art. It wasn’t something I studied; I just stumbled onto it and absorbed it. So that’s really interesting to me. And then for the works that I’ve seen, for example like “RainForest,” it’s like reading a great book over again. Except I’m reading it now as a mature… Well some people would consider me mature, some wouldn’t. When I went to Chicago, I went to Columbia College, I went with “RainForest,” Trisha Brown’s “Glacial Decoy,” and one of my own works. “Non Locomotor.” One woman came up to me in tears and said, “You know I’ve only read about ‘Glacial Decoy,’ I thought I missed my chance and so thank you so much.” So it’s beautiful to do that.
RC: Absolutely, yeah, it is an extraordinary piece. Well let’s talk a little bit about the Rudy Perez piece which initially I had confused with probably his best-known solo called “Countdown,” which is the smoking piece. I actually saw him…
SP: Smoking and crying.
RC: Right, that’s right, that’s right. I saw him do that at the American Dance Festival at Connecticut College.
SP: He’s an intense performer.
RC: Extraordinary. So this piece called “Coverage.”
SP: Well this version is called “Coverage Revisited.” There’s another photographic story here. When I was at Hampshire College in 1974 and I decided that I was interested in dance of course, I began studying about dance history as much as I could. And I read Don McDonagh’s book “Rise and Fall and Rise of Modern Dance.”
RC: That’s a very helpful book.
SP: Very helpful and it had just come out a few years before. And in that book, which was full of legendary postmodern and modern dancers, was a picture of Rudy Perez and he was one of the few people of color in the book.
RC: Certainly in that world.
SP: And I was, although I didn’t know him and I didn’t really get to see his work in New York cause he had already moved to the west coast…
RC: I was going to say because he’s been in LA for so long now.
SP: But the picture really fascinated me. He struck me and that picture has stayed with me for a very long time. When I was thinking about what I would be programming next, I realized that I am now in some ways holding the keys to a very white postmodern world. And I just thought, “Well. we need to have Rudy. Rudy needs to be represented.” People don’t really know him here. And so he’s still alive, I called him up. He’s 89. He’s having some health problems. His blindness is an issue and he’s not completely blind, but I just felt this was the moment for him and for me to bring him forward. I will say it was not an ideal situation because his documentation was hard to get and he’s incapacitated. He couldn’t come here, we couldn’t afford to spend the whole time there. So we agreed to do it mostly through video which I think was very frustrating for him in the end, because he’s very emotional. When he is talking about his work, he’s 20 years old again and very, very clear and very articulate and very demand— he’s a very demanding guy and very intense guy. He did in the end send us someone to help restage, Sarah Swanson, who helped us enormously to get down to the essence of Rudy’s work. [It] is very pedestrian and very emotional, but in a very plain way and deceivingly simple. He really demanded that we strip away any veneers of dancerliness which of course my dancers are very good at because I do dance-y dances.
RC: It’s tough to divest yourself of all that training.
SP: So it was like putting paint thinner over paint thinner. I mean he really stripped it back and stripped it back and stripped it back until right before the show. We got to an essence that was very, very plain and that’s what was presented last night.
RC: Because I think of a lot of his work is being about what some of the contenders for the Democratic Party nomination at the moment call “the dignity of work.” We associate tasks of various sorts with a lot of Judson era work and oftentimes say in the case of Rainer’s “Trio A” that task may be completely non utilitarian. But in Perez’s work I remember thinking, “Yeah, that’s like something that people really do for a utilitarian reason but we overlook its dignity because it’s done by workers.”
SP: Yeah, well he does do that, but there’s an emotional undercurrent that’s at play as well. And it has to do with sexuality and I believe it has to do with otherness because of his race. Especially in “Coverage,” you know there’s a hardhat and coveralls that comes off and the national anthem is being played, so there’s a relationship to himself as an other in a very confined space that he works with. It’s kind of his salute to that position in America at that time and there were a lot of people in the audience that have lived through… This is also from 1970, actually a lot of the works from “Bloodlines” are from 1970.
RC: Cause “Tread” is also 1970.
SP: So I’m really obsessed with that period because that’s kind of when I started dancing.
RC: Which I think it was still very much the 60s.
SP: Well I started in ‘74 so I’m very, very interested in that period. Cause there’s a big shift going on there and that’s how I ended up in dance.
RC: My definition of the 60s starts with the Kennedy assassination in ‘63 and ends with Nixon leaving the White House after Watergate in ‘74 so there we go.
RC: So we would be remiss in not talking a little bit about the new Petronio work on the program.
SP: “American Landscapes.” So when he got elected a couple years ago…
RC: Good let’s keep it at he…
SP: My utter mortification was deep. The only thing I could think of doing was making the most beautiful abstract object that I could make. So I buried myself into this formal exploration and so I made something called “Hardness 10.” It’s a very singular structured work where people are walking and then dancing very virtuosically out of that walk and back into the walk. I really stuck with that for 20 something minutes; and I’ve never done something that intensely single-mindedly structured before. I’m more used to using structure in service of the larger arc and this was really in service of confinement of the idea so we did that. And it was very satisfying. Now that it’s two years later, I felt that I had to do something that I would be… There would be something wrong with me not at least pointing at some of the pain that I feel that has been inflicted on our nation and what it’s looking like right now while still offering some beauty of the body. So I made this work “American Landscapes.” I chose to collaborate with Robert Longo who’s the great American, New York artist and at the moment he’s doing these incredible… What he’s doing right now is taking photographs from contemporary news cycles and making these massive charcoaled, very realistic charcoal renderings of these situations.
RC: So presumably less abstract than, before we turned the camera on, the “Men in the Cities” series we were talking about.
SP: Graphic depictions of scenes for example the police barrier, the police line up barricade in Ferguson.
RC: And recognizable as such.
SP: Totally. If you’ve been alive in the last two years, they’re probably recognizable. What else? There’s atom bomb explosions. There’s a lot. It’s grouped into three sections. There’s natural images to start but something quite not right: decimated forests, waves crashing, and American flags that disintegrate over the course of…
RC: But these are all rendered in graphite?
SP: They’re graphite and then made into projections that are on a three screen system that shift very slowly through the course of the piece. Then they move into more troubled images like soldiers and bombs and twin towers and Russian jet fighters and that part of our reality. Then it moves into a final stage, which is back to nature, but even more troubled: ice sheets melting and things like that. It does end with kind of a hopeful image.
RC: Right so nature is not an idyllic retreat from our problems but in fact it’s been corrupted.
SP: Circle it on your calendar because it’s coming. It’s here. So he’s framing the work, he’s framing this work with these very specific images and I decided to make the dance… I’ve experimented with several ways of working with it, but I decided to let the images and the dance run on simultaneous cycles. I really avoided commenting with the body on these images but there’s one moment where the dance and the images intersect directly. It’s when the dancers take a knee at one point for that historical moment and that image is up at the same time.
RC: Now are there other moments in the dance, even if they don’t in some way correspond to the image, that we would read as iconic?
SP: Oh yeah, yeah they’re just not simultaneous. Well, for example, there is a line of police from Ferguson on the images at one point. Earlier in the dance, there’s a line of dancers, a unified line of dancers. So, yeah, there are. Of course there are relationships and there are references, but they don’t match up except for that one point. I thought it was one of the most tender points of the dance and the right one to mirror exactly.
RC: And tell me a little about the musical score.
SP: Yes, so the musical score… I’m very lucky to have Jozef Van Wissem and Jim Jarmusch. Jozef is playing lute and acoustic guitar and Jim is playing electric guitar. You’d think lute is a weird choice for something called “American Landscapes” but it sounds kind of like a banjo. And he’s very meditative. He’s built it in a palindrome so it starts at “a” and ends at “a” and it’s a very meditative score and when Jim comes in…
RC: Now did they perform it live?
SP: They didn’t perform it live. We had visa issues. They were supposed to perform it live and we tried until this week. Thank him again who was elected two years ago. It’s harder to get in and out.
RC: Of course, you know, after Brexit it’s gonna be that much harder for British and European artists. Anyway…
SP: So Jim comes in at the point when the imagery and the dance become very dissonant and more, more politically driven in terms of trouble on the streets. Jim comes in with the electric guitar. I love what they’ve done I feel, we feel honored and this collaborative team has been pretty exciting.
RC: So what’s next for you? Is the Bloodlines project gonna continue?
SP: It’s continuing.
RC: Great. Are you at liberty to reveal…
SP: I haven’t really announced it yet. But I am talking to one of the great structuralist of postmodernism, I’ll tell you that. Think minimal structuralist. Actually I’m talking to David Gordon as well. You know, these people all live in the same building in Soho. I was riding up and down that elevator every day, so to me I’m living in the same world…
RC: You know the Gordon work that I would love to see revived I mean it’s technically more a play, a work of dramatic literature… Do you remember “The Family Business”? It was Ain and Valda and David and it was a kind of meta drama. I have the fondest memories of that.
SP: You know, the fun thing about “Bloodlines” is that everybody wants me to do something…
RC: That’s right. That’s right. I was hawking you, trying to get you to do “BIPED.”
SP: That’s way too big for me. I only have nine dancers, so I would need more for that. But you know David is an interesting choice for me because we don’t generally talk and so David generally talks. So we’ll see how that goes. We dance.
RC: That’s great. Well I assume whatever of David’s you wind up doing will involve some cheers one way or another. I’d be very disappointed if it didn’t.
SP: Well, you know, even with Rudy, the minute I said I was gonna be working with Rudy Perez, everybody had an opinion and it was not what I chose. Because what I chose is a very, it’s a tricky piece because it is so simple and it is not the famous ones. “Countdown” is the one that everyone wanted me to do.
RC: Dance Theater of Harlem…Did they do a reconstruction of it? I thought… maybe ten years ago… the Ailey Company.
SP: They only did “Coverage.” Part of the issue with Rudy is access to the archives has been tricky. So part of it was that I could get this but I fell in love with it.
RC: Right. Good, good. I may be misremembering this but I think I saw a piece that was attributed to Rudy at Connecticut College. It would have been the early 70s. Must have been a one-time only, site-specific event but I think it involved automobiles that were moving around. Either I’ve conflated some memories… I mean I saw a piece involving automobiles and I thought it was Rudy’s but…
SP: I like the idea though.
RC: We will do some detective work on that.
SP: So one of the other things I’m doing, you know, just about the thinking about the future… Everyone has said, “What’s next?” Well I’ve mapped out what’s next. So for the next part of my life, I’m gonna be making new work for myself, I’m gonna be investigating the people that I love in “Bloodlines,” and the third jewel in my crown right now is we started a retreat for, a research and development retreat for choreographers up in the Hudson Valley, in a town called Round Top. It started with a very big gift from Anish Kapoor who I collaborated with. He allowed me to sell one of his works of art. That got us in. So we have we have a 175 acre property with… It can sleep ten and it’s got a 2,500 square foot studio. So we are committed to helping the next generation in the fashion and the bloodline that I come from to build new work.
RC: This will happen in the summer?
SP: This is year two and so it’s the summer. It’s more of a summer project and it was conceived as a summer project because I thought I was gonna be working in a barn somewhere upstate. But I found this all-weather facility. But raising the money to do it all year round is very difficult so we’re limited to the summer. We did one season last season and we’re in the process of…
RC: How do you choose the choreographers who reside there?
SP: Every year we invite a network of national presenters to submit three—and it’s a very diverse panel, we’re really committed to diversifying the sort of resources that we have that go to art making—they nominate three people each and they…
RC: So people don’t apply.
SP: Nobody applies. They’re nominated and then I have… So they’re all producers and presenters and then this selection panel is only artists. In the last two years, they’ve been artists of a certain age, more of the elders of the field, the postmodern field and a very diverse, as diverse as I can be. So that’s the project that, well, I think I will be raising money for for the rest of my days.
RC: That’s tremendous. So the choreographers who are invited they are given…
SP: Here’s what they get. Right now, it’s a week for up to ten people. So it could be ten dancers, or nine dancers and themselves, or it could be their family and three dancers, or it could be two dancers, it could be the collaborative team. They get fed three meals a day by an amazing organic chef and a lot of the food is grown in the garden. The garden was donated by a beautiful artist friend of ours, Cindy Sherman. She donated an organic garden. And my husband, Jean-Marc Flack, designed these raised beds. One of the funny things that we found is that a lot of the dancers from the city don’t like to be out in nature and we’re in on a mountain top in the forest. So he’s developed these beds where you can sit on the edge and interact socially, so you’re close to the garden even if you’re not. They also get a couple of cars to, some transportation budget cause we are at the end of the road on the mountaintop. And they get $5,000 stipend.
RC: Very nice and they are then free to use the time and space…
SP: They can do whatever they want. Sometimes I’m there, sometimes I’m not.
RC: Is there an obligation to show something?
SP: Look, I’m an artist who’s conceived this. There’s no obligation. I mean Ralph lemon was our first. You know, he drew. I think he drew most of the time. You know we invite them to do things in the town if they want to because part of the issue in raising money is how does the town get to understand what we’re doing. We do other events there—we hold yoga retreats and stuff like that too—but our mission is really research and development because it’s the least sexy thing to sell. Generally a patron can see curtains or costumes or a set and they understand what they’re doing, what they’re giving money to. But the idea of going into the studio and maybe doing nothing is not that fundable. So I am committed to—and that’s the thing that we all need to make work of value—so I’m committed to funding that.
RC: And that’s the best sort of “angel,” broadly construed. One who isn’t requiring that you show something because it may be the seed that gets planted that isn’t gonna blossom for a while. The artificial deadline…
SP: We’re very good when the curtain goes up, performing like a trained seal and we will. But to take that curtain away makes the process that you’re involved with a very different proposition. So it’s called the Petronio Residency Center at Crows Nest.
RC: This is the first I have heard of it.
SP: You should go onto my website: petron.io. You can click on the retreat page and you’ll learn more about it and if anybody out there wants to send some money our way…
RC: Sounds good. To the future and retreating both backwards and forwards so as Balachine used to say, “Forward to Petipa.”