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Stephen Petronio Company
UCLA Royce Hall
Saturday, February 3, 2007
Presented by UCLA Live

Stephen Petronio came to the stage of Royce Hall with a little treat for the audience. In expressing his gratitude to UCLA Live – the university presenter responsible for bringing the company to Los Angeles – for their support of the company, Mr. Petronio explained that while most theaters tolerate his unusual production requests, David Sefton of UCLA Live welcomes it. Always glad to return to Los Angeles, Mr. Petronio offered the audience a glimpse into a work in a progress – a solo performed by Davalois Fearon – as a thank you. Fierce yet controlled, the solo was a constant flow of energy that was a fitting preview of what lay ahead.

The evening consisted of recent premieres by the company – two new works set to, and inspired by, the music of Rufus Wainwright. “Bud Suite” borrowed from the Wainwright catalog of folk-pop songs while “Bloom” featured original music from Wainwright that was commissioned by the company from this work.

“Bud Suite” began with a duet by dancers Gino Grenek and Jonathan Jaffe that featured them more often than not attached to each and manipulating one another in comic, aggressive, and sensual ways. The costumes, in what appears to be a favorite theme of Petronio’s, were a combination of typical dancewear (tight shorts) combined with deconstructed business attire (button-down shirts that covered only half the torso and were held on by straps on the other half).

The rest of the piece featured similar combinations of tights and shirts with ties, suggesting a dilemma between the freedom of dance or art and the confinement of society. A quartet of women followed the duet and then other combinations of dancers took to the stage to attempt to bring to life Wainwright’s music. Attempt is the operative word here, though it was unclear in what way Petronio tried to engage the music. The medley of Wainwright’s hits has little or no relationship to the movement vocabulary.

The second installment of the Wainwright Project, as we may refer to it, can most easily be surmised by calling it Bud Suite Part II for indeed there was little distinction between the two works, save for some aspects of the score. “Bloom” began with a live children’s chorus humming some simple chords in the front of the auditorium before exiting the theater, this at first seemingly their only contribution to the piece. The curtain rose on the company who appeared to pick up where they left off in the previous work.

Petronio is known for his sharp, quick movements and change in directions. His company also contains some extraordinary legs, which he uses frequently with high kicks and snaps of arabesques. The problem is he uses them all too frequently and rather being used as a tool of his style, it becomes more like a repetitive crutch. Yes, every time Grenek throws his leg up a part of me gasps, but the consistency of the use serves only to undermine the effectiveness and create an undesirable thread between all of Petronio’s works, even those made years ago.

“Bloom” ultimately swelled to a gorgeous choral conclusion, which this writer didn’t realize until the end was provided by the same initial children’s choir which had repositioned itself on the balcony. Here Wainwright’s music took center stage with a beautiful and haunting climax that was successfully matched, finally, by the intensity of Petronio’s choreography. Ultimately, the merger of Wainwright and Petronio was mostly underwhelming and generic, but with moments of true synthesis that hinted at something deeper beneath the surface.

Following the nearly half-hour intermission (which I can only hope was the unintentional result of something backstage rather than a conscious attempt to prolong the evening), the company returned with The Rite Part, an excerpt from 1992s Full Half Wrong, that was set to Igor Stravinsky’s classic and much-used score for the “Rite of Spring”. It was a refreshing departure from the high kicks and arbitrary staging of the first two pieces, more grounded and more satisfying in terms of creating a visual picture. It culminated in a stunning and ferocious solo by a dancer not credited in the program. It was powerful and yet vulnerable, and beautifully lit in a confined area upstage. An energetic and emotional ending to an evening that was lacking both throughout.