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Essay

by Stephen Petronio (1999 Grantee)

Published in Foundation for Contemporary Arts' 2012 Grants Booklet


It starts like this-one word at a time and a story builds. So too in dance, one step at a time set in motion, ideas become flesh.

I'm restless. The edge of my skin pierces space like a dive into a breaking wave. I flick my head and send a sequence of energy in a rushing wave along my spine, through my pelvis, down my leg and sparking out toe, my body cracking like a whip in space. Pathways and vectors of energy locate me like a compass in space and mark my journey in the room.

I go in to train, rote forms, a routine to offer the body, a dependable, architectural/energetic home base that can be counted on. When things heat up and move toward the creative moment, routine falls away and there is “lift-off." The me that was just the ordinary me, training through a well-known set of practiced moves, habits, inclinations, a chattering mind, that all falls away and there is transformation. I shift into a space that's vaguely familiar but totally unknown, improvising with the intuitive mind, a “mind of the body" that takes over and propels me forward. All the familiar, boring preparation, the tedious repetition of forms I've been tracing for twenty years become “a possibility of revelation," a moment that seems new and right, a moment that has been waiting patiently all this time for me to arrive.

Chasing a movement down in the studio, I step out with my right foot and my knee buckles, sending a ripple through my spine, from the tailbone up to my axis at the top. My head starts to catch up and I sense its inevitable whip forward. Reflexively, I subvert this path, interrupting the natural conclusion. Instead, I arc the top of my head around in a half circle towards my right ear and finally down to my right knee.

I repeat this movement over and over, familiarizing myself with as much of its detail as I can: identify the impulse, initiating body part, order of events, pathway in space, amount of force and rhythmic relationship of parts to each other, emotional tone and overall body rhythm. This movement state is an unknown place and I determine to memorize its flavor down to the subtlest level. There's gross pathway, and then there's the way the foot twists and the finger is held. There is an excitement and adrenal rush to the chase, the thrill of pursuit and discovery, of tracking something invisible. I coax it out and allow it to become knowable. I look at the variations on this movement, and become familiar with all of them and file the variations in my memory. Eventually I select the one that I will employ in the context of the “phrase" I am building.

Pathways in space evolve and accumulate, become fully themselves, real energetic sculptures in space, with character and timber and form. They are real but temporal and visible only when executed. I see them as they unfold but they vanish as their action is complete.

The studio fills up with these movement parcels as a work builds. It becomes a room crazily crowded with information, with movements as real as any notes, drawings or architectural elements. They are like animals or friends, and while the act of finding, building and practicing them is a slippery process, a chasing after phantoms that often escape, there is a certain pleasure in knowing they'll appear there if you call them forth properly and remain calm in the process.

Dances are made like anything. You start somewhere and end up somewhere else. Thought becomes action built step by step. There is no formula per se, just a process that turns into results, then shaped to an end. The mystery understands that the unknown is essential and knowable.

I have no formal compositional training, little idea how anybody else does it. I am self-taught and come out of the world of improvisation, so I know how to generate movement, I am bossy and know how to drive a group forward. The rest is taste, how to make choices and run with them.

A sense, an impression bathes in my mind, eventually crystallizes into a direction that finds a word or phrase that becomes a title. Finding these words is instrumental to me and they become a guiding force. They are a focus, which becomes a place to assemble shards of information: photos, visual or literary references that will drive the work.

When I go into the studio, all this research has been in my mind stewing, sometimes for months, sometimes overnight, or sometimes it's just something vaguely connected that caught my eye in the paper that morning and this drives the improvisational research through which I make movement. I work to build these far beyond an idea, farther down into the marrow of my bones, in order to fashion movement that is past illustration or narration.

For example when making MiddleSexGorge (1990), sexuality, anger and power were my motor for the work. The natural body and principles of efficient motion rely on a posture that is vertically stacked from bottom to top, the body's core at a 90-degree relationship to the earth. Stability and decorum are implied. Much of modern dance has been about tipping off that vertical and falling through space. The dance material generated in MSG pushed the sexual center—the pelvis, the tail and pubic bone—forward off the legs, leading it into the eye of the viewer. If vertical is a plumb line, MSG pushes that sexual center forward and out of line with the head and feet. This simple discovery led to a rich source of movement invention, a physical problem that challenged the notion of efficient movement while unearthing a crucial component of my style.

Vertical shatters as movement rumbles down and forward through my pelvis, slings around to the outside of my right hip, then shoots up my spine in a jolt and out the top of my head. Arms fly out like blades that windmill my torso clockwise in space, a whiplash flight. Stop. One more time now, but faster and to the left.

Stop?

Restless.

I am restless and need to move.

Stephen Petronio is artistic director and choreographer of Stephen Petronio Company in New York. This essay is excerpted from his forthcoming memoir, Notes from a Life in Motion.

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