A recent work by dancer/choreographer Stephen Petronio, “I Drink The Air Before Me,” pulls its inspirations from storms in reality and throughout literature, particularly that in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” a line from which Petronio uses as the name for his dance performance.
“I thought that was a really beautiful metaphor for the kind of aspiration that a dancer has to have to reach the unattainable in terms of speed and execution,” Petronio said in an interview this week. “We certainly do that. So I stole the title from Shakespeare, which is not a bad thing to do.”
In preparing for the piece, Petronio spent a lot of time going through news items about storms and studying the graphics on television and video that were related to coverage of storms.
“I was looking at those pictures and internalizing and absorbing the architecture of these storms that were being splashed all over the place,” he said.
What he settled on was not a narrative dance about a storm — he didn’t feel that would be a good idea at all — but an abstract one that was influenced not only by storms, but also by the emotions revolving around them and life in general.
“I wanted something that was somehow influenced by the kind of hysterical realizations we were going through a few years back about what could possibly be happening to the planet,” he said.
Part of Petronio’s job was to reflect storms in the movement of the dancers, with the understanding that these were somehow indicative of what was going on within their bodies as well. He became very intrigued by the metaphors surrounding meteorology and applying them to the movement he was devising.
“There is lots of whirling and swirling and funneling and hot masses moving against cold masses,” Petronio said. “Those are the kinds of images that I was coming into the studio with. Some of that got into the body and some of it got into the space. For example, the idea of having a tornado up your spine became a very interesting idea, and then also to put that funneling architecture in space with the bodies in space is a very interesting idea for me as well.”
His ultimate goal became to make the two intertwined on stage, representing all forms of storms in the dance.
“There are two ways for me to make use of this imagery choreographically,” said Petronio. “One is to devise movement that is influenced by it, and that would be something more internal — the funneling of the hurricanes up the spine and the windmill whipping legs and arms, and those kinds of things are more movement based.
“In terms of the actual space, there’s a sense of geometry and design of space, for example the funnel — the swirling, counter-clockwise funnel of bodies that continues on and on and on in one section. That’s an external manifestation or more spatial manifestation of the same idea.”
Petronio also found storms could mirror dance — each phenomena had commonality with the other.
“I think the thing that’s really beautiful about storms and weather in general is that you take it for granted until it changes — and it’s never the same really,” he said. “It’s constantly shifting and I love that about dance — especially for me. We barely stand still on my stage.”
Petronio’s plan was to create a dance production that gave the same energy as a storm itself — furious and immediate and demanding the audience’s full faculties.
“One of the things that’s really exciting about a storm is that once it shifts, it shifts fast,” he said. “It can be very disorienting, so I tried to create a sense of disorientation for the audience. I deliver information to the audience, but I don’t like them to understand how it got delivered, so I do try to create a sense of confusion.”
Petronio prefaces the show with a performance as the Salty Dog, a persona that photographer Cindy Sherman created with him. If the stage is a ship, then Petronio’s appearance is the act of battening down the hatches as it sails into the coming storm.
One other major influence on the choreography has been the partnership with Nico Muhly, a Vermont-born contemporary classical composer who has also worked with Bjork and Philip Glass, and of whom Petronio was a major fan. Petronio also immediately recognized that Muhly’s music could be surprising and challenging in the exact way storms could.
“Part of the reason I fell in love with it is because it changes very, very fast. It jumps genres very fast, and I thought that was really interesting and unpredictable,” Petronio said. “I think of myself as someone who does that, but when I listened to his music, I thought, ‘Wow, this guy’s doing it in a more accelerated way,’ and I found that very exciting. To me, that was very much like the weather, you can’t predict it, really. You can try — there’s a great science that’s build up around it, but he can go from very symmetrical, classical-sounding composition to something that’s incredibly screechy and atonal and hard to predict. I found that really, really exciting and in line with what might have to happen on stage with this work.”
It was pure accident — or perhaps fate — that Muhly even got involved at first. But he ended up providing Petronio with the general structure that the music would guide the dance to take.
“I just bumped into at the gym. I recognized him, so I accosted him and asked him to write an hour for me,” said Petronio. “He liked the idea of the storm very much, and there’s a great tradition of storm music in classical compositions, so he found that interesting. When we got together, he drew an arc for me from a very small point in the lower left-hand side of the page to a high arc on the opposite side of the page, and he was like, ‘This is what the storm is going to be — it’s going to be this arc, and it’s going to take an hour to do that.’ I thought that was really exciting.”
In Petronio’s view, all themes converge in this production — it’s as much about the excitement of dance and creativity as it is about the storms in the air and the soul.
“Every good dance is about a journey into something that is wild and unknown and unpredictable, and that, for me, is the fun of it,” he said.