Stephen Petronio's Dance Revolution

By Brandon Voss

Originally published on Advocate.com April 26 2010 4:05 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.

STEPHEN PETRONIO MAIN X390 (CHRIS NASH) | ADVOCATE.COMThe male corsets in that piece caused quite a stir at the time.
It’s funny because for me the corsets were great, perfect. I remember opening up The New York Times after the premiere, and there was a two-page spread review with a giant caption that read, “Why Corsets?” But sometimes the world does catch up, doesn’t it?

So the corsets are back?
Yes, the corsets are back. The men wear corsets and no bottoms — they just have dance belts — so their asses are out. Here’s my quote for The Advocate: If we’re going to get our asses out, I want the gay community to get their asses out and come to the show.

Are you a slave to your original vision and choreography when you remount an older work like “MiddleSexGorge,” or do you allow yourself to reshape or contemporize it a bit?
No, I don’t touch it, and I definitely haven’t touched this particular work. I was working in such an incredibly passionate, instinctual state when I made it, and I love the way the piece turned out. I just got it right. It was kind of a primer or a turning point for me, so I hold up this work as a model for the works I made after that.

One could argue that AIDS and gay activism has fallen out of fashion in the artistic consciousness — contemporary artists, writers, and filmmakers just aren’t dealing with those subjects in the same way or to the same extent as they used to. Does the modern audience’s changed perceptions make “MiddleSexGorge” a period piece?
I’m not so convinced it’s out of fashion. Sean Penn just won an Oscar for Milk — I love Sean Penn, but I wish he were a gay actor — so I don’t think it’s completely out of fashion. I thought the anniversary was a good moment to bring back that work and reexamine what life was like back then, but I don’t think it’s a period piece because we’re still fighting battles. I do know, though, that in my life I got very tired of being a gay poster boy. There was a time in the early ’90s when, because I had gotten a certain level of recognition, I didn’t even talk about the actual dancing — I’d talk more about my love life. I felt it was my duty to insert my sexuality and whomever I was sleeping with at the moment into all the dance interviews I was doing. Then I got very sick of that after three or four years, when I felt I was becoming more of a poster child for a cause than an artist. I let that part of myself become more of a subtext to my work as opposed to the thing I was screaming.

So your sexuality still informs your work, albeit in less obvious, less political ways.
Absolutely. I came of age as an artist being a very loudmouthed gay person, and that’s always there, but it just manifests itself at different times and in different ways in my career. I don’t say I’m a “gay artist,” but I am an artist who is gay and has a life partner, so those things are very much at the tip of my tongue whenever I’m interacting in any aspect of my life.

Some fans might miss your more overtly queer work.
I possibly had more gay fans when I was doing the more balls-out work, but there was also a ghettoizing of my work that I was not comfortable with. I’m making work from my heart that I feel should be in the world, so I want it to be seen by as many people as possible. I don’t need to be preaching to the gay community, because no one needs me to tell them what to think. My work is not about reinforcing expectations; it’s about subverting them. I believe that subversion is a deeply gay sensibility, so whether I’m subverting you with my sexual politics or with another aspect of my craft, it all comes from my soul.STEPHEN PETRONIO 2 X390 (SARAH SILVER) | ADVOCATE.COMYou and your partner, Jean-Marc Flack, were married in California in August 2008. Has marriage mellowed you or your work?
I’m an Italian boy, so marriage was really important to me. It’s made me incredibly happy, but Jean-Marc and I were together for 13 years before we got married. Marriage has allowed me to relax, and I think I’m making the best work of my life right now. I certainly wouldn’t say I’m complacent, but there are times when the work does seem more mellow or has a different kind of maturity because I’m much more relaxed about everything else.

You’ve collaborated with many other gay artists in the past — Nico Muhly and Rufus Wainwright, just to name a couple. Is that a happy coincidence, or did those collaborations have anything to do with your shared gay experience?
That’s hard to say. I mean, it does seem like I have a database of gay artists that I look through, but Rufus Wainwright blows my mind and Nico Muhly is one of most talented composers I’ve ever met. I didn’t know Nico all that well, so I didn’t really know he was gay until we started working together. First and foremost, I’m drawn to the most provocative artists I can find.

There’s never been a shortage of gay dancers in your company. Do you find yourself specifically drawn to gay dancers?
I’m drawn to sensual and sexual dancers. I’m drawn to animals on stage. If someone can let their animal out, I don’t see it in gay or straight terms. I’ve never had a straight man in the company that offended me — let me put it that way. I have lost a couple dancers for religious reasons, which is kind of odd. Once they got into the work, when they realized it was deeply sensual and subversive to whatever their straight framework was, they became so uncomfortable that they left. My jaw dropped. I never ask anybody to represent sexuality; I ask them to dig into their own and let it out on stage. If that’s uncomfortable for someone, they need to move on.

The quitters were straight?
Actually, one was gay with a very religious family, and his moment of reckoning came when his parents came to the show, so he freaked out. The other one was of questionable sexuality, so I don’t know what the real story was there.

You’re also dancing in this upcoming 25th anniversary program, which is the first time you’ve performed your work in New York since 2005.
Yes, I’m excited to get back on stage. I’m doing a work called “#3.” It’s based on photographs of people who use their voice in public — great divas of opera, the pop world, politicians — people who were in the news at the moment and some of my favorite people like Elvis Presley and Judy Garland. I made it in 1986, when I was too poor to have a rehearsal studio. I couldn’t move my feet, so I made the dance in fourth position, which is like one leg in front of the other. It’s just for my upper body, so as long as I can stand, I can still perform it.