Stephen Petronio is known for his collaborative interactions with pop culture, high art, contemporary music and fashion. So, it’s no wonder he was able to attract trailblazing photographer Cindy Sherman and genre-crossing composer Nico Muhly, among other artists, into the creative process of building his latest work, I Drink the Air Before Me, which comes to Wesleyan’s CFA Theater this weekend. When I spoke with Stephen yesterday, he was heading out of rehearsal and he reminisced about the last time he was at Wesleyan. It was the Spring of 1998 and he brought NOT GARDEN with music by Bach, Gounod and Sheila Chandra.
His newest work is a “meditation on the speed and power of weather in all its awesome transience.” Wesleyan is in the middle of this year’s Feet to the Fire initiative–an exploration of water in both its power and scarcity. When I heard that Stephen was creating a work that would evoke the movement of water, wind and weather events on stage, it seemed to me that we could offer our audiences a visceral experience of this precious element.
The title of the piece comes from Ariel’s line in Act V of Shakespeare’s The Tempest. In his program notes, Petronio explains that he was struck by “Ariel’s desire to hurl himself through a raging storm, with unthinkable speed and utter certainty, in pursuit of his goal” and that the work was inspired by “the whirling, unpredictable, threatening, and thrilling forces of nature that overwhelm us.”
When I asked Stephen what audiences should look for as they watch the work, he said: “Don’t work hard to find literal meanings in the work: look at how the movement is built…I’m an abstract artist that makes ideas in the body, not in the mind.”
Stephen is a hugely charismatic leader in the American contemporary dance scene. He began to dance at Hampshire College in 1974 and went on to become the first male dancer of the Trisha Brown Dance Company (1979-1986). Founding his own company in 1984, the Stephen Petronio Company is celebrating its 25th Season and has performed in 26 countries around the world. He is noted for works of breathtaking speed, heart-wrenching stillness and great sensuality. He is interested in making compelling contemporary dance that resonates with the moment and culture in which it is made. While he often features pop or rock music in his works, for I Drink the Air Before Me, he turned to composer, Nico Muhly. “Nico is his late twenties; a wildly creative classical composer with an electronic music edge,” states Petronio.
Muhly also wrote sections of the score to be performed by a youth chorus recruited at each tour site. I had just heard Michael Gosselin’s Chamber Choir from Middletown High School perform as a part of Wesleyan Music Professor Neely Bruce’s Ives Vocal Marathon, and it seemed a wonderful way to showcase the high caliber of music education we have in Middletown.
I will also note that this work will open the 10th anniversary of the Breaking Ground Dance Series at Wesleyan’s CFA. To our dance-loving patrons who have returned year after year to see new works by established artists like Bill T. Jones and Trisha Brown or artists you may never have seen before, such as Brian Brooks and Rubberbandance, we thank you for taking this journey with us and look forward to celebrating this season with you.
Director, Center for the Arts