Stephen Petronio Company returns with a new work and a Merce Cunningham classic | Theater | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Stephen Petronio Company returns with a new work and a Merce Cunningham classic

“It was a simple metaphor we made physical.”

Stephen Petronio Company performs Merce Cunningham’s “RainForest.”
Stephen Petronio Company performs Merce Cunningham’s “RainForest.”

Last in Pittsburgh in 2011, New York City-based Stephen Petronio Company returns to the Byham Theater on May 7 with a program featuring local connections. 

The first of the program’s two works is famed choreographer Merce Cunningham’s “RainForest” (1968), as revived by SPC artistic director/choreographer Stephen Petronio. “[I]t is an iconic one in my mind,” says Petronio, by phone from Philadelphia.

“I really consider [Cunningham] as sort of the source of shifting in modern dance up until the postmodern moment,” adds Petronio, himself a former dancer who worked with postmodern pioneers Steve Paxton and Trisha Brown. “He really opened the doors that made my career possible.”

The 18-minute work, which will close the May 7 Pittsburgh Dance Council program, is set to composer David Tudor’s sound score of the same name, to be performed live. It is the first in Petronio’s BLOODLINES initiative, honoring a lineage of American postmodern masters.

The work for six dancers, which evokes the sounds and images of nature, is in Cunningham’s signature minimalist yet technical style. It features set décor by Pittsburgh native Andy Warhol in the form of pillow-shaped balloons Warhol called “Silver Clouds.” The free-floating balloons, originally made from 3M Scotchpak, are filled with a mixture of air and pure helium that allows them to hover near the floor. (An exhibit of them is part of The Andy Warhol Museum’s permanent collection.) 

The program’s other work, Petronio’s 50-minute Locomotor/Non Locomotor (2015), is set to original music by Petronio’s cousin Michael Volpe (a.k.a. Clams Casino) and will be performed by eight dancers including 2012 Point Park graduate Tess Montoya. Its first part, “Locomotor,” is a retrospective of sorts, says Petronio.

“It was coming up on the 30th anniversary of the company when I was conceiving the piece, so I was thinking about the idea of traveling back to revisit past works and then traveling forward to make something new,” says Petronio. “It was a simple metaphor we made physical.”

Where “Locomotor,” as its name implies, explores moving back and forth on stage, “Non Locomotor” looks inward, says Petronio: “Think of the body being the stage and energy being the dancer. Energy tracks throughout the body. In ‘Non Locomotor’ there is a lot about the energy transiting the body while it is in place.”