Like most cutting-edge artists, choreographer Stephen Petronio keeps his eyes trained on the road ahead of him. But a funny thing happened last year. While making plans to celebrate his dance company’s 30th anniversary, he began, instead, to contemplate the path already traveled.
This change in perspective explains why it will be Throwback Thursday at the McCarter Theatre Center, in Princeton, this week. In addition to showing off Petronio’s latest choreography, his troupe will include a dance by the late Merce Cunningham on the program it performs (on Wednesday, too) in the McCarter’s Berlind auditorium. Petronio wants to re-introduce audiences to Cunningham’s “RainForest,” a trail-blazing piece from 1968 created by an artist “who not only influenced me, but whose discoveries have made my career possible,” he says.
Such an homage would have been “unthinkable” years ago, Petronio admits. In a field dominated by solitary geniuses, the model for contemporary dance has always been a company devoted single-mindedly to the vision of its founder. Repertory companies presenting dances by a mix of choreographers (think Ailey and Limón) were successful, yet remained outliers.
The conventional view of modern dance began to change, however, as Martha Graham’s death, in 1991, and Cunningham’s passing, in 2009, revealed the terrible fragility of our most renowned institutions. A bitter copyright struggle tore at the Graham company as it transitioned to the mixed-repertory model, while Cunningham’s troupe shockingly dissolved, placing his legacy in jeopardy.
Petronio’s artistic mentor, Trisha Brown, became incapacitated in 2013, and the fate of her company remains undecided. Petronio danced for Brown in his youth, and if her company were to disappear, he realized, it would take a significant chunk of his own life with it. So he developed an initiative he called “Bloodlines,” to preserve dances of special import to him. Following “RainForest,” Petronio’s company will revive Brown’s “Glacial Decoy” next year.
“As long as I can get support, I will bring as much of Trisha’s work forward as I can,” the choreographer vows, adding that his excitement and commitment to the project are growing hand-in-hand.
“I didn’t expect this to happen,” he says. “I thought maybe it was a good idea to try to embody my personal history. I thought it might be interesting, given the shifting climate in the dance world. But it’s a personal mission now.”
Petronio says he chose “RainForest” at the first dance in the Bloodlines series because this piece — with electronic music by David Tudor and a remarkable set consisting of free-ranging Mylar pillows by Andy Warhol — became a template for Cunningham’s no-strings-attached collaborations with other contemporary artists.
“It was a quintessential collaboration between new music, new art and new dance,” Petronio says.
Although the actions of the dancers, in their torn, flesh-colored leotards, may suggest romantic intrigue, or even the passions of wild animals, “RainForest” is also a strictly plotless work whose mystery is central to its charm. Cautioning viewers not to read a story into it, Petronio says, “What touched me very deeply, and obviously has influenced me throughout the rest of my life, is the non-linear-ness of it … and the love of non-narrative movement.”
Joining “RainForest” on this program will be two new dances Petronio unveiled in the spring. In the first of these companion pieces, titled “Locomotor” and “Non Locomotor,” the performers focus intently on travelling from one point to another, giving viewers an experience very different from the open-ended feeling they may have watching “RainForest.” When the dancers move backward, Petronio says, they suggest his own revived interest in his past.
“The structure was to travel forward as fast as possible or backward as fast as possible, to arrive at a place where we then could reference some historical moments,” he says.
In contrast to the exuberant “Locomotor,” “Non Locomotor” is meditative, exploring the effects of energy traveling within the body. Here, Petronio says, the body becomes the stage.
Both “Locomotor” and “Non Locomotor” also expand the Bloodlines concept by showing what happens when a choreographer with his own inclinations decides not to emulate his teachers. While the title “Locomotor” nods playfully to Trisha Brown’s fluid solo “Watermotor,” Petronio acknowledges that Brown “hated” locomotor steps.
“Trisha very much was about allowing invention in the body to take the body where it should go, as opposed to driving the body through space like a ‘choreographer.’ But I’m a very spatial person,” Petronio says. “And when I restricted myself to steps that traveled through space some very interesting things began to happen.”
The shows take place Oct. 21 and 22 at 7:30 p.m. at the McCarter Theatre Center; visit mccarter.org.