Stephen Petronio's Dance Revolution

Controversial choreographer Stephen Petronio caps his eponymous company’s 25th anniversary season by revisiting his ACT UP involvement and putting his bare-assed male dancers back in corsets.

BY Brandon Voss

April 26 2010 3:05 PM ET

The anniversary may be silver, but the internationally renowned Stephen Petronio Company is commemorating its 25th season with golden oldies from its repertoire. From April 27 through May 2 at New York’s Joyce Theater, artistic director Stephen Petronio remounts his acclaimed early works “#3,” a solo that Petronio will perform, and “MiddleSexGorge,” a landmark 1990 piece inspired by his work with ACT UP. To balance his past with the present, the heavily tattooed 54-year-old choreographer also stages the world premiere of “Ghosttown,” a group piece set to a score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, and the U.S. premiere of “Foreign Import,” a trio originally created for the Scottish Ballet and set to an acoustic version of Radiohead’s “Creep.” After a recent rehearsal, Petronio retraced his own steps from outspoken gay activist to somewhat mellower married man.

Advocate.com: You’re celebrating your 25th anniversary season. What does that milestone mean to you?
Stephen Petronio: Well, it’s shocking that I could stay focused on something for 25 years, because I think of myself as someone with a very short attention span, but I guess I’m also pretty stubborn. It represents an incredible journey of working with some of the most amazing artists. I’m just thrilled that we’ve survived through the most difficult of times.

Doesn’t a big number like 25 make you feel a bit old?
Absolutely not! [Laughs] I’m just getting warmed up, dude. It took me 25 years, but now I got it right.

If nothing else, these numeric milestones in an artist’s career seem to provide an easy opportunity for looking back and reflection.
I’m more of a forward kind of guy — more punk rock. I’m not big on nostalgia. This anniversary has spanned a year, and we started the anniversary dumping all of our money into a brand new work, “I Drink the Air Before Me,” with Nico Muhly, who’s an amazing composer. We are finishing the anniversary with some works from the past, but I’ve also made a new work, “Ghosttown,” inspired by a haunting score by Radiohead’s lead guitarist, Jonny Greenwood, so I really am looking forward. But there is one important moment of looking back for me — one I’m eager to talk to you about — and that’s a work I’m bringing back called “MiddleSexGorge,” which I made in 1990.

So it’s a happy 20th anniversary for “MiddleSexGorge.” And that’s the one set to music by the British punk band Wire, right?
Yes. I actually started making it in 1988-’89, when I was very involved with ACT UP, which was in its heyday. That was also the time I was crystallizing the aggressive, sensual, side of my language, so that sexuality really came to the forefront, but my work with ACT UP had a big influence on it. I was being arrested at protests, being carried off to police vans and stuff. For me, as a dancer, to be doing an act of civil disobedience and letting my body go into the hands of these cops for something I really believed in was one of the most powerful experiences I’ve ever had. I thought, Well, if I can’t make this next dance have some sort of connection to that power in my real life, I’m just going to give up and do activism. So I begin making “MiddleSexGorge,” which is a lot about taking control, the loss of control, and how groups of people handle each other. It’s a very important piece to me, and very much of that period in New York history, so I thought it was very important to bring that back.

Tags: Dance

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