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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Confessions of a Motion Addict

Photo of Trisha Brown and Stephen Petronio by Lois Greenfield

Excerpt from a memoir by Stephen Petronio. Trisha Brown Dance Company appears at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House January 28—30, 2016. 

I met Trisha Brown in 1979 while working as stage manager for a Movement Research benefit performance. When she arrived, I greeted her at the theater door. She smiled as I took her white metal make-up case and led her to the dressing room. I hadn’t seen her work yet and I can’t remember the conversation—nothing much was said—but on that brief walk she completely won me over.

That night she danced Watermotor and a short excerpt of the work-in-progress that would become Glacial Decoy. I was floored by what I saw, not only for its exhilarating beauty. Her language was startlingly new—a twisted blend of wild-ass, intuitive sensuality, and cool rigor that I understood on a genetic level. I was instantly hooked and knew I’d found a home.

I was the first male in the Trisha Brown Dance Company where I stayed for seven years, from 1979 to 1986. A sweating, snorting bull in a china shop alongside of one of the most intelligent and silky bodies on the planet, I was duly challenged. Fortunately, Trisha had a kind of alchemical effect on me from the beginning. (I’m not alone in this respect). She continually asked me to think and dance beyond my grasp. More often than not, and to my great surprise, I found myself doing it.

Trisha’s technique is more upright than the contact improvisation work that led me to her, but it has that same alert openness, the same malleable continuum. FLUID. It’s unwillful and more like bodysurfing in gentle rolling heaves, or riding on swift, soft jets of air. Surprising. Unpredictable. Muscle tone is relaxed, alert to signalling deeply folding joints through fluid calligraphic journeys.

In those days, the company was filled with smart, ambitious individuals, and Trisha reined it in masterfully. I come from working class Italian roots but she worked harder than anyone I had ever seen. When she was after something in the studio, she was relentless, patient, and worked with a curious calm. She created an environment of trust, humor, and ownership. Each dancer felt the tangible results of contributing to the creative process.

Photo of Set and Reset (Petronio at left) by John Waite

The language Trisha has built is methodically written, yet maddeningly elusive. She couples it with improvisational problems that demand that each dancer employ her language on a primary creative level. It’s a dancer’s dream challenge.

We worked hard and laughed loudly through creative periods (Opal Loop, Son of Gone Fishin’, and, most notoriously, Set and Reset). I vividly recall lingering in a kind of feverishly inspired state throughout the rehearsals for Set and Reset and well after, into the night, only to wake up and jump back in the next day. It was sheer bliss for a 25-year old to go to work and find himself dancing next to an artist in the fullness of her creative power, to be making something with her that we all sensed was momentously potent. Dancing with her always seemed like an endless series of doors. If you were up to the challenge of walking through them, the rewards were immense.

Trisha is generous and open on so many levels, from the way she makes work, to the intimate environment she has fostered in the studio, to the friends and collaborators she has introduced us to, to the consistent encouragement with which she supported my early attempts at dancemaking. Trisha arranged for me to use the enormous basement of her building as a workspace for next to nothing; my first dances were made and performed there. She watched those works, spoke with me about them (she never rolled her eyes, at least when I was looking), and since then, she has always come with her family, friends, and supporters to see what I’m up to.

Trisha smashed the mold both artistically and personally, forging a new movement model all her own. It’s a spherical, snaking, and elusive language, more subtle than anything before it. During my years in her company, my eye was trained to see the intelligent invention that the body is capable of. Years later, as a choreographer with my own company, I leave her performances amazed again and again by the invention she continues to unearth.

Stephen Petronio is artistic director of Stephen Petronio Company, which he founded in 1984. With Wendy Perron and John Rockwell, he will participate in the Iconic Artist Talk on Trisha Brown's work on February 2 at 5pm ( for info). (Reprinted from January 2013 BAMbill.)

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