March 14, 2008

Gender Bends, Dips and Turns

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The Stephen Petronio Dance Company swept into the Schwartz Center on Wednesday and Thursday nights seemingly dripping with sex. But what kind of sex was it? In the contemporary idiom of dance, does same-sex partnering allude to a homosexual subtext, or is a thoroughly postmodern dance — which freely builds up, breaks down, samples, and inverts its routines, music, and narratives — intent on deconstructing the dichotomies of sexual and gender distinctions, too? Petronio’s choreography, through its elastic and gender-blurring partnering, evinced a pansexual joie de vivre that revels in ambiguity.
“Bud Suite” opened with two male partners propelling though spins and lifts in a series of push-me/pull-me motions to the romantic ballad of Rufus Wainwright’s “Oh What a World.” Their sensual balancing act brought out the title’s double meaning as they appeared like friends whose relationship was perpetually suspended on the cusp of (de)flowering into something more. Identical red spandex shorts and opposite halves of a single suit jacket with leather straps arrayed along their bare arms and legs, designed by Tara Subkoff, indicated their paradoxical feeling of being bound in their own skins as well as mutual dependency
Next, Wainwright’s “Vibrate,” featured four women in pink tutus, by Imitation of Christ. The dance played off the costumes when the women turned their backs to the audience and mimicked stretg at a ballet practice bar. The dancers then writhed in sensual agony before lunging into each other’s arms in a fluid interchange between different partners.
Wainwright’s “This Love Affair,” ironically framed an investigation into another feminine relationship, one which elided the solace of touch. Two females — one wearing a tie — shadowed each other’s moves, rarely entangling, and then only for a brief embrace.
The last sequence used the tension of a female dancer crouching on the floor in a lotus position, whose static pose contrasted with other dancers shuffling in and out from the wings in quick succession behind her. Occasionally, their lyrical gestures were interrupted by a gruff counterpoint, such as a male’s playful head-butt or a female pair holding each other up as they hobbled. Eventually, a man lifted up the woman from her lotus position, as Wainwright’s melismatic “Agnus Dei” crescendoed and a deep bass thump kicked in. By the end, the troupe crumpled on each other like wilted petals.
The flower metaphor continued in “BLOOM,” which began with a cluster of women in sea-foam baby-doll dresses (designed by Rachel Roy) laying on the floor while pointing their legs up in the air like stamens, slyly inverting their sexual roles. Their outstretched legs fluxed, touching one foot’s toes to the other’s, while a bevy of dancers swirled around them. Layered over Wainwright’s piano and vocals, the Lux Aeterna’s transcendent longing resounded as lighting cast the dancers into silhouettes. The backdrop gradually warmed up to a succulent orange as upbeat club rhythms took over before fading to a dusky purple. During this ebb, Jonathan Jaffe and Shila Tirabassi portrayed the heartbreak of relationships that end in failure, sometimes before they even begin. With their backs to each other, Tirbassi blinded Jaffe with her hands, then gripped his bald head. They spun out into a fast-paced ricochet of embraces and escape, concluding an inch from each other’s faces center stage. After pausing to gaze for a moment that refused to culminate, they walked off slowly in opposite directions. An asymmetrical composition of soloists afterward shuttled from exit to entrance, some of whom seemed to leap on stage by bounding half across it, as the piece reached a fervent climax.
The last dance, “The Rite Part,” started with four females doing synchronized floor-work in multicolored jumpsuits by Manolo. They squirmed, lifted their hips off the ground, and held splits. The depiction of orgasmic rapture became humorous when a voice-over interrupted the “Rite of Spring” to deadpan: “Though this may look like torture, it is quite the contrary: no one will come to harm.” A cacophony erupted in which heavy breathing could be heard while men and women whipped around in ravishing gyrations, chest throbs, and pelvic thrusts. Two women manipulated male dancers like limp puppets, bowing them down. When Stravinsky’s score resumed, each member of the company locked arms behind them, high-kicking and quaking their legs.
Finally, the dancers collapsed as five spot-lights blazed on the curvaceous figure of Mandy Kirschener in nude Lycra. Kirschener pumped her fists and tossed her long hair, before sinuously writhing and pushing forth her breasts, hands on hips. She then spun with slow leg lifts before doing a full split facing out to the audience. The captivating performance hovered between parody and passion — I wondered if the over-the-top solo portrayed a real woman vogue-ing as a drag queen.
The performance raised the question whether any such overt display of sexual frenzy could avoid lapsing into camp or burlesque even as it reached its erotic apotheosis. The dance deliberately refused answers, suggesting that it’s more tantalizing to leave one’s sexuality an open question.