When casting about for dancemaking music, most contemporary ballet choreographers veer toward the classical end of the spectrum. Mark Morris works with Handel and Schubert. William Forsythe has set a few dances to Bach. And Oregon Ballet Theatre's own musically astute Christopher Stowell has an affection for French Baroque music.
But Stephen Petronio isn't having any of it.
The NYC-based choreographer prefers instead to work with musicians like Lou Reed or Rufus Wainwright. "I was raised on pop music, and it's in my soul," he says over the phone from Denver. "I enjoy making work with people in front of me, living people, visual artists and musicians and fashion designers."
That radical notion, in the ballet world, at least, makes Petronio—tall, chiseled and well-inked—something of an outsider: a ballet maverick. Which is why his newish work, Underland, an evening-length modern ballet set to music by Nick Cave and performed next Tuesday in Portland by the visiting Sydney Dance Company, is a must-see.
For more than 20 years now, Petronio has been the artistic director of his own internationally touring company. While he may not be a big name like Morris or Forsythe, he's in demand. When the Sydney company reps asked him for a ballet, he had one request: "Get me anything by Nick Cave, and I'll do it."
Petronio describes Cave as "an underground poet genius," and his music as "dark and subconscious and sinister and at the same time has a religious feel to it. I wanted to deal with the dark side of things—9/11 had happened, and that was fresh on my mind."
He talks excitedly about his dancemaking for "The Weeping Song," a dark Cave tune with lyrics like "O father tell me are you weeping?/ Your face seems wet to touch/ O then I'm so sorry father/ I never thought I hurt you so much."
"I knew that song would be communal. You begin improvising with various gestures, scribbling around the body. I develop some gestures, then perform it for the dancers, and then we turn it around and play with it," Petronio says.
With a penchant for taking risks, pushing buttons and very much dancing to his own raucous tune, does Petronio consider himself a bit of a ballet bad boy?
"Sometimes I'm a very good man, and sometimes," he says, "I'm a very bad man. That's all that needs to be said." STEPHEN MARC BEAUDOIN.