These times call for Stephen Petronio's coiled energy

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These times call for Stephen Petronio's coiled energy
Ernesto Breton in Stephen Petronio’s “#GimmeShelter.” The choreographer took to YouTube to present “#GimmeShelter,” a dance film to the Rolling Stones song that has resonance lately. Stephen Petronio Company via The New York Times.

by Brian Seibert

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Oh, the thrill of a world premiere by a major choreographer. You take your seat at the appointed time and wait in anticipation for the big new vision. And then it comes: a four-minute video of people dancing in their homes.

That’s where we are now in dance. And as is generally true these days, we should be grateful for what we have. On Friday evening, a day after Mark Morris debuted four short video dances over YouTube and Zoom, Stephen Petronio took to YouTube to present the premiere of “#GimmeShelter,” a dance film as long as the Rolling Stones song to which it is set.

That film wasn’t all there was to the online event, titled “#LoveSpreadsFaster” (accessible through Friday). Petronio also broadcast new footage of Jaqlin Medlock, a dancer in his company, performing the final solo from “Full Half Wrong,” his 1993 version of “The Rite of Spring.” Framed a bit too long and wide in her Jersey City apartment, Medlock gave a strong, focused rendition. In the COVID-19 context, many of Petronio’s signature movements — the coiled energy of tightly crossed legs releasing in hip rolls and explosions of arcing limbs — read as resilience.

Curiously, though, the context also made the normally perfunctory stuff around the dancing — the introductions, the thank yous — rise in importance and effect. In his remarks, Petronio, often at the edge of tears, spoke of this moment as one in which “distance is enforced, touch is forbidden, and we dancers can’t do what we’re meant to do.” He told how the company, which had been rehearsing in March for a run at the Joyce Theater that should have happened last week, parted in fear and confusion and came together over Zoom to take class and rehearse and “be who we are.”

Simple and common as the story is, it’s worth hearing now. It’s good, too, to see the dancers (who Petronio described as “racehorses locked in their stalls”) introduce themselves, one by one, telling us where they are. This is the basic, essential message of quarantine: Where are you, and how you weathering it?

And that is what these livestreamings of prerecorded dance videos seem really to be about. Even as the internet infinitely increases the potential audience for these performances, they feel in some ways more intimate than regular stage events, more like reunions, with viewers excitedly greeting one another in the chat feed. Making “#GimmeShelter,” Petronio said, started as a way for the company to be together. Broadcasting “#GimmeShelter” is a way for the company to be together with its audience.

One of a new crop of dance videos rehearsed over Zoom, “#GimmeShelter” is thankfully not presented in the already tiresome format of a Zoom grid. Instead, Petronio and the film’s editor, Blake Martin, quickly cut from one dancer in his or her sheltering space to another and then another — each given, as it were, a word or two in a dance phrase. These images, in turn, are juxtaposed with unpleasantly familiar images from the news — President Donald Trump, health care workers in scrubs, that puffer ball magnification of coronavirus.

As a method of making topical art, this is awfully easy, so much documentary shorthand for history we’re still living. Same with the Stones song and its ready-made associations of historical emergency. The dance vocabulary, along with ripped T-shirts and underpants as costumes, is recognizably Petronian, an expression of continuity rather than some rupture of originality. And so the video says: “Amid all this, we’re still doing what we used to do.” It says: “Forced apart, we can dance together.”

If this is treading water, aesthetically, it’s still affecting to watch the company staying afloat. And while preserving his past and present, Petronio has also found a way to gesture toward the future. Since 2015, through his “Bloodlines” project, his company has been performing work by his artistic predecessors. On Saturday evening, he presented a work by someone he considers an artistic successor: young choreographer Johnnie Cruise Mercer.

Mercer’s “_AShadowPrince,” originally conceived as a stage work for the Petronio run at the Joyce, has become a remarkable short film. It finds Mercer in a red hoodie, cutoff jeans and a face mask, skipping in a circle in front of the bandstand at Jackie Robinson Park in Harlem. He isn’t alone. Bystanders huddle in groups, mostly doing their own thing: looking at their phones, celebrating somebody’s birthday.

It’s how they don’t pay attention to Mercer that gives the nine-minute film much of its eerie power. The closed-off guardedness and the missing social interaction capture more about our current moment than any of the media grabs of “#GimmeShelter.” As rumbles and moans in Monstah Black’s sound score amp up the intensity, Mercer (aided by the fluid camerawork of T.J. Jacobs) builds suspense with little more than skipping and a staggering momentum.

At the climax, everyone else disappears. Tying on a fantastic new mask, long and fringed and red like a Viking beard, he does something resembling vogueing. He’s a spirit, a fierce one. And then, as images of those bystanders fill his silhouette, he’s the shadow prince of the title, a window between worlds.

Such effects (by Torian Ugworji) might have been striking in any context. In the context of right now, the masked man who becomes an invisible man is uncanny.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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