NEW YORK -- A dancer moves across the stage in what begins as a fluid motion. Just as the motion is about to end, the dancer stumbles, moving into the next motion seamlessly, dissolving it as easily as it started. This is "The Architecture of Loss," a performance that premiered Tuesday at the Joyce Theater in New York by the Stephen Petronio Dance Co.
"You set up a flow of motion then you break it. And when you break it, there is a profound effect," said Stephen Petronio, owner of the company and choreographer of "The Architecture of Loss." "The sexy thing would be to take you to that place where you think you understand, and then to twist it. That I find very pleasurable; breaking the habit of perception."
Petronio's "The Architecture of Loss" is a building and immediate breaking down of art and art form. Petronio pushed the boundaries of dance and choreography by incorporating these missteps and lost footing, and facilitated the collapse of movement and of the dancer.
"It's kind of an homage to dance because dance just disappears," he said. "The moment you see it, it's gone. I meant really to look at the joy of losing the moment. Dance is so special because you can't repeat it, or pin it to the wall, or sell it, or hold it, but it's also quite sad that you can't. You see it once and that's it, and that's very bittersweet."
A dancer for 38 years, and owner of his own dance company for 28 of them, Petronio has worked with celebrities who include Rufus Wainwright as the composer for "Bud," "Bud Suite" and "Bloom," Cindy Sherman as the set designer for "The Island of Misfit Toys," and Rachel Roy as the costumer designer in "Bloom."
For all his experience, Petronio is not classically trained. He studied pre-med at Hampshire College in Massachusetts. After an improvisation class, Petronio realized his love of physicality and creativity -- something that dance could fulfill.
"I remember looking down my body and thinking, 'Oh my God, I have a body,'" Petronio said, recalling his amazement. "Suddenly I had an image of my own body, and it was revelatory to me. I realized my image of myself up until that point was from the chest-up because thats what I could see in the mirror. I gained self-awareness."
Watch below for a video on "The Architecture of Loss":
This lack of formal dance training makes Petronio's work especially primal, emotional and restless, he said. He does not tell audience members where to look. Instead he bombards them with movement, forcing them to chose where to look. This controlled chaos effect is only achievable through the skills of his dancers.
The dancers "are trained to be good, and to land well, and to jump well, and to have proper placement, and that is why I choose them," he said. "But you know, my goal is to disorient them and to watch their super skill resolve these disorienting situations. And that I think for an audience is very exciting. It's like watching a star athlete in an emergency."
During the production, Petronio's father fell ill. He died last month. Though Petronio said "The Architecture of Loss" does not address the loss, he recognized the tragic coincidence of his father's decline. Instead of incorporating the emotion of death, Petronio keyed into the degradation of his father's movements.
"My father was a very physical man -- a great athlete and very comfortable in his body. And, to watch him lose the completion of things was pretty shocking," Petronio said. "As a dancer, you always want to fulfill everything so the audience can see it, but taking away the possibility of fulfillment right at the end is intriguing. He got up as if he were to strike out into space. But that sense of having no ground or no base really struck me. I took that into motion -- his willingness to go forward without knowing what was going to happen, and his inability to support himself with his legs. So I kept giving the dancers things that would take the bottom out, take away the resolution of the movement."
"The Architecture of Loss" runs through March 11 and will be accompanied by three of Petronio's previous pieces, "Intravenous Lecture," "City of Twist" and "Ethersketch." The performance features original music by Valgeir Sigurdsson, artwork by Rannvá Kunoy, costumes by Gudrun & Gudrun, and visual design and lighting by Ken Tabachnick.