To mark the 25th anniversary of his company last year, the New York-based dancer and choreographer Stephen Petronio created a perfect storm with I Drink the Air Before Me, a work inspired by the architecture of extreme weather patterns. NOWNESS caught up with Petronio on the eve of its performance at London’s Barbican.
What qualities do you look for in a dancer who wants to join the Stephen Petronio Company?
The dancer needs to have a technique so good it’s almost impossible. But they also need to be unafraid, and they have to have something to dance about. They can’t just be beautiful dancers––they have to have something inside them, whether it is conscious or not, to dance about. And that means having experience in life.
Do you find it easy to recognize a dancer when you see one?
Oh yes, I can spot a dancer in one second! It really has to do with a sense of poise and grace, and a kind of inner glow. You can also tell by the shoes—they usually have shoes that are not fashionable, shoes they can move in.
Is dance something that you live, rather than a profession you shrug off when you leave the studio?
Well, most of my career I spent trying to hide the fact I was a dancer. For instance, if I was at a club I used to try to hide it. I would tell people I was a doctor or a lawyer and see if I could get away with it. But it is hard to hide—even if a dancer doesn’t always want to look graceful, they just do, you know?
What are your rehearsal hours like?
We only work 12 to 4pm every day because that is what our budget allows, so we pack a full eight-hour day into a four-hour day. That is kind of an American phenomenon: there is no state support for the dance world so we have to economize.
What do you do to relax?
I don’t relax! Okay, actually I have been working on a memoir. I found that my life in dance is invisible because if you are not dancing, it is simply not there. So I find it very satisfying writing with words that are on a page and don’t disappear.
What about the dancers in your company? What do they do in their spare time?
Here is the interesting thing about being a full-time dancer in New York––unless you are in a major ballet company, you have another job. So as nice as that ideal of a dancer’s life in New York sounds, most dancers finish practice and have to run off to the hairdresser’s shop, or bank, or to their waitressing job. A lot of them also practice and teach yoga.
I Drink the Air Before Me was made for the 25th anniversary of your company. Why did you decide to create a new dance, rather than a retrospective?
Firstly, I adore Nico Muhly and I wanted to work with him. Secondly, we have a fixed amount of money each year to spend, and so I had a choice between looking back or looking forward. I want to look forward. I set the stage—Cindy Sherman dressed me as kind of a “salty dog” character, who unmoors the dance from its anchor and lets it float out to the unknown sea. I thought that was an interesting analogy for where we hope to go as artists with a new work—we hope to get unmoored from our normal intellectual anchors and find something new. For the choreography I was thinking about extreme weather and storms, which are a part of life, whether they are emotional or physical.
How was it working with Cindy Sherman?
This is my third collaboration with Cindy. I met her 20 years ago. She understands performance—her work is really a two-dimensional performance and, although she loves dance, she is shy of three-dimensional work, so I am always trying to engage and involve her in something because no one twists my mind like she does.
The Stephen Petronio Company will perform
I Drink the Air Before Me at the Barbican Center, London, on October 5 and 6