Tease with tension

How does a successful modern dance choreographer go about convincing songwriting wunderkind Rufus Wainwright to compose a score for a new work?

It doesn't hurt to start with his mom. In the case of choreographer Stephen Petronio, Wainwright's mother — singer Kate McGarrigle — was performing music by Lou Reed composed for Petronio's The Island of Misfit Toys. Rufus was at the afterparty. The two chatted. The eventual result was a gorgeous choral and dance collaboration called "BLOOM."

"BLOOM" represents a different direction for the New York-based Petronio, a choreographer who has collaborated with such artists as Yoko Ono and Cindy Sherman. Much of his work as artistic director over the past 23 years has been edgy and aggressive, often hinting at dark themes.

"In recent years I've been making some very dark, disjointed work. So I started to think how nice it would be to do something more hopeful with light-filled energy," says Petronio of the work's genesis.

Indeed, "BLOOM" is primarily a large-scale abstract piece; Wainwright based his choral and musical accompaniment on the poetry of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, lending more air to the pastoral, regenerative theme of transition, of letting the next stage of your life blossom.

"I wanted to work with Rufus," Petronio says, "because his voice is so beautiful and his music is beautiful."

Wainwright's work on "BLOOM" so fired up his sizable and intensely devoted fan base that it moved one of the choir members of the New York cast to leak stories from rehearsal to British Wainwright fansites and blogs. (The Ann Arbor performance features 24 tracks of Wainwright harmonizing with himself.)

But lest you think that the entire evening's work is all sweetness and light, Petronio will also be presenting "Bud Suite" — its four dances are set to previously recorded Wainwright torch songs, created while Petronio was waiting for the songwriter to complete the "BLOOM" score.

"I made the 'Bud' piece to kind of tease him," Petronio laughs.

"The four pieces of 'Bud Suite' are about desire," he continues. "I wanted to make it in a certain way that nothing was fulfilled. It's darker."

Indeed, there's an unsettling tension within each piece of the suite. "Bud Suite" shows people — lovers, partners, friends — dealing with each other, handling each other (or not) and chasing one another. In the opening duet, the two male dancers never let go of each other while eating up the space with raw movement that's powerful and full of nimble grace.

Later in the suite, this connection and push-and-pull is echoed and contrasted by a group of women who never quite connect, never quite catch one another, even through sharp, frenetic gestural movements. Petronio calls it a "dialog with dependency."

There's a danger to choreographing movement to music with lyrics, because the words might overwhelm the gesture. Petronio insists he's not literal about the work because he's not an illustrator.

"What I do first is listen to the songs over and over and over again, then I begin improvising. My movement is slippery. The gestures slide in and out of my consciousness while I'm improvising. You know the person dancing needs and wants something. I do let the lyrics inform my movement exploration."

Rounding out the evening's performances is "The Rite Part," an updated excerpt from his concert-length work "Full Half Wrong" that re-examines Stravinsky and Najinsky's scandalous (for 1913, at least) Rite of Spring.

Petronio's version, though, replaces the virginal women who were sacrificed in the original piece with one empowered, sexually charged woman.

Petronio laughs. "What I like to say about that is, 'That's no sacrifice and she's no virgin!'"


At 8 p.m., Friday, Feb. 16 and Saturday, Feb. 17, at the Power Center for Performing Arts, 121 Fletcher St., Ann Arbor; 734-763-3333.

Chris Handyside is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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