INTERVIEW: Stephen Petronio & Janine Antoni

 

 

 

The depiction of resurrection is inherently one of spectacle whether violent or rapturous, but perhaps none yet have captured the multifaceted cross-cultural substance of the story wherein the soul returns to the body. Choreographer, Stephen Petronio and performance artist, Janine Antoni, along with collaborators Son Lux, Francisco Núñez, H. Petal, and Ken Tabachnick, will attempt to bring such an ambitious vision to the stage of The Joyce Theater this week in a pastiche that includes Petronio’s all but body-breaking movements and Antoni’s sharp, visceral conceptual sensibilities. The complex -- and demanding -- arrangement will feature Antoni suspended on a helicopter stretcher in meditation above the audience before and during the dance performance. Hung around her figure will be some 25 milagros, replicas of her skin and bones that are posed in positions and gestures Petronio’s dancers will take. The dance performance itself will present symbol of regeneration as well as glimpses of resurrection narrative, sultry, tortured compositions to American slave hymns as well as fracturing juxtapositions.

Most striking about the undertaking, however, is the uncanny weave of the phoenix with Lazarus, Catholicism with Eastern meditation, the visual plane with the emotional that culminates in a highly orchestrated synaesthesia of earthly human faculties. The audience experience becomes a sort of out of body episode in the collective consciousness of the theater space, a resuscitation to one’s awareness of what any individual reality – the life that happens somewhere between a birth we don’t recall and a death we can’t comprehend – is. 

Like Lazarus Did opens April 30th at The Joyce Theater. 

Choreographed by Stephen Petronio

Performance by Janine Antoni

Music composition by Son Lux

Music performed by The Young People’s Choir of New York City under the direction of Francisco Núñez (April 30th and May 1st only)

Costume Design by H. Petal

Lighting Design by Ken Tabachnick

Interview by Rachel Cole Dalamangas

Why are you meditating on a helicopter stretcher?

JA:  I was thinking about what objects in the world are for the supine body and I came to the stretcher. When I found the helicopter stretcher I realized it was perfect because it is also used to lift the body. Even further, I think of my body in this work as representing the middle ground between life and death so the stretcher becomes an appropriate metaphor for this state.

It makes me think of illness or injury.

SP: Or rescue.

JA: But also that moment when you are faced with your mortality, which I

think is important.

How does meditation relate to your practice as an artist?

JA: It’s interesting that I probably came to meditation through my making practice before I was taught formally. A lot of my work is repetitive so I spend a significant amount of time in the studio doing the same thing over and over again. I’ve been meditating formally for the past 15 years and I will definitely draw on that practice in this performance.

And, Stephen, in an interview with Time Out New York in 2011, you actually compare dance to meditation. Can you speak about your process and how your work relates to meditation?

SP: All my work is made through an improvisational state. I go into a state of “something,” which is altered and from that place there is an intuitive flow of movement that comes out of my body and that is a meditation. I practiced formal meditation when I was younger and various kinds of sitting, but I don’t do that anymore. Stillness is not my specialty, but I realized that everyday I go from the state of a normal human being who’s got physical and emotional needs and is whiny and is cold, hot, grumpy or happy, and I go into the studio and that falls away in the process of warming up into the choreographic state, which for me is a meditative state and so I try to mine that state. Whatever comes up in my body in that moment I try to bring back, like wrangling wild animals, for the audience to see. It’s harder for them to see the mental or spiritual or emotional state you get into … some people can, some people can’t, but you can always see the form. So just the like helicopter stretcher has a lot of deep meanings behind it, it’s still just a stretcher, and the forms that you see on the stage are formally crafted in what I consider an interesting way, but there’s a lot of mental states that linger behind them if you are able to perceive them.

It sounds like for both of you there’s this interesting take on mind/ body duality, though it’s not necessarily so strict, and the mind and body get mixed up.

SP: I will say my art making is not a meditative practice. I slip into meditative states in the process of creating and the audience can slip into any state they want or they can while they’re watching, but I’m not a spiritual disciplinarian, I’m an artist who’s making art and Janine will tell you nothing about me is strict except for the fact that I’m rigorous. I will look at a structure and use it for my own means and I won’t let it complete itself for the sake of completing itself. I’ll use it for whatever means I need it, so I’m very mercurial in that way.

JA: I’m waiting for that duality to slip away and it happens most to me when

I’m making art. It’s when I’m most embodied and I’m thinking through my body. But there is definitely a moment to step away and take on the position of the viewer. This is when a more critical thinking mind takes over. For me the creative process is about stepping back and forth between these two states.

SP: When I’m moving in practice, as a choreographer, I’ve trained myself to watch myself when I’m in that intuitive state because that’s the only way that I can bring stuff back. Do you struggle with that?

JA: Well I’m trying to go in, in, in, in, in, in, in, but in my movement practice, which is not performative, there’s the teacher who is the witness. So they take care of the outside for me and create a kind of safe space for me to go that far in.

SP: For me it’s always a very tricky balance of letting go of me, Stephen

Petronio, who I am and what think about myself as an art-maker or a person or a husband or a lover, slipping away from that into a state of surrender, but also being able to assimilate information and watch it on some level.

JA: What’s funny is that when you make a discovery by going so deep in, you immediately step out to try to see it.

SP: You have to catch it.

JA: You have to catch it, and to do so I have to do it again. “What was that that just happened to me?” and so I do it again and again in order to know it.

 

 

 

Is artistic practice an alternative to or akin to spiritual practice?

JA: That’s a big thing to claim.

SP: I don’t want to make that claim, but I do want to say that part of the reason I’m attracted to the theme of resurrection as a fallen Catholic, is because when I was conceiving this piece I was sitting at my father’s funeral in the church where I went to parochial school, this church was built in the

60s, and it was 2012 when my father passed away, and on the altar, was this guy talking about my father’s rapture, how joyous that my father would be back and we can’t wait for that. It just hit me when I was listening to these songs, it just hit me that that is the thing that every spiritual practice has marketed – redemption. It’s intangible and un-provable. What a great product. I’m not going to say that my dancing is a spiritual practice, but it has made me a much more enlightened person.

JA: I wasn’t going to the use the word “enlightened,” but I was going to say that art makes me live with more integrity or at least at a deeper level. It makes me more alive and to be making is to locate myself in the world.  Are those spiritual concerns? And then there’s the question of why are we here and what’s going to happen to us. Spirituality tries to answer those questions and so does art. I could also say that I make in order to feel connected to others. That’s probably what motivates me the most. Dare I say that it makes me a more loving person.

And the project is actually dealing with a lot of cross-cultural references. Lazarus comes from the Bible, but we’re also talking about meditation.

SP: The idea is rising above. Coming out of the body and regeneration and rebirth. Every culture has a story about regeneration from phoenix to Lazarus to reincarnation. I would say that my interest is that process of dying and being reborn.

JA: And that comes up in different forms throughout the piece.

SP: The phoenix is crucial at one point. Formally, I use retrograde and accumulation to move through simple physical states over and over again just for the experience of seeing the same material coming back and coming back and how your perception changes when you stay with something that’s limited over and over again. But, musically, the whole piece really was inspired by a songbook of American slaves from the mid-1800’s, previously only passed by oral tradition. My composer Son Lux (aka Ryan Lott) brought it to me and I was just really moved by the faith of the most oppressed people using this music to get out of their body for a promise that was elusive. It just really hit me how elevated those songs were and the people who were singing them were the most tortured people on the planet, but they got into this most beatific, elevated state through these songs and I really was struck by that.

Is this the first time you two have worked together?

JA: Yes.

SP: In this life.

JA: We realized right away that we have a lot of affinities because of our fallen Catholic status.

SP: An age range.

JA: A certain point in our creative trajectory.

SP: I wanted to work with the Janine because I knew she was working with her body and that would be the most unlikely thing I would ever collaborate with because I am all about knowing my language and my world and claiming that world. It’s taken me 25, 30 years to make that mark and make it be identifiable, and then I was like, “Well, now what?” Janine is working with her body in a very different way. I was interested in Janine because I thought she could crack my bell basically and let some light in.

JA: And I’m looking for the same thing. That’s where my most recent interest in dance come from. It has opened up a new world for me. I came to it through moving myself and I found that it inspired my art practice and gave me access to unconscious information.  Usually I sit in the studio and wait for lightening to strike. I have learned that through my moving body, I can dislodge content that is somehow stored in my body. When I discovered this I was little disturbed because I didn’t want to go to the studio any more I just wanted to dance. I thought, I have to integrate this? So I laid a dance floor in my studio and started to move around my unfinished work. At that point things started to merge. Then Stephen magically arrived.

 

 

 

What’s interesting to me is that the production sounds so very constructed and considered right down to fractions of movement, but boundaries are also breaking down, even with the performance beginning in the street and being brought into the theater. You’re both performers and I’m curious what, to your minds, is the boundary between reality and performance?

JA: I feel like you have a body and you already know in your body what it would be like to stay still for two hours and that puts you immediately in a place of empathy, so I don’t think I’m doing anything so spectacular up there. I’m just committing to stillness for that time and I feel like I’m being still for the audience or even with them. I hope they will feel connected to my still body. That is reality. If you want to think of me symbolically, then you can go from there.

SP: Some people think that way and some people don’t really.

JA: But I think the reality of the body brings it back to something very basic. I think in a way, with the dancers too, they’re moving for us. When they jump, when they elevate, we feel it.

SP: You go up.

JA: Even if you can’t do it physically.

SP: Or you notice how down you are, which I hear a lot from people. I want to disagree with Janine in a way because I don’t think people really understand what it’s like to be still for two hours. They could understand the idea of it, but who could be still for two hours? I would be very hard pressed.

I would have to work up to that for months and months and months to be able to be still for two hours. But I also hear from people who come to the shows, “Oh my god, I’m just exhausted watching the dancers.” What they’re exhausted by is focusing and they’re exhausted by the shifts in energy I’m giving them.

JA: I think when you watch the dancers do what they do, when you get up to walk out of the theater, you walk away differently. You’re not doing what they’re doing, but you experience your body differently.

SP: I always see people out on the street trying to do it too. That’s always really fun.

What comes next with this piece?

JA: The piece is going to take different forms.

SP: The piece was conceived not for a proscenium space. It was moved into a proscenium space for various reasons. I’m thinking of this as a series of editions that started in a ballroom where there were only about a hundred people sitting around it and Janine wasn’t in it, but we were already talking about working together. It was a very intimate experience. Having four sides, everything was an action instead of an image. When you put something on stage it becomes an objective image because actions are framed and they’re far away. This is this edition. Then we’re moving down into St. Paul’s Chapel by the Trade Center at the end of June through the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council so again it will have more than one side.

All photos by Sarah Silver, courtesy of Stephen Petronio Company.