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Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2011

Alverno Presents Travels to the 'Underland'

Stephen Petronio Company dances to Nick Cave

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“This is a weeping song, a song in which to weep, but I won't be weeping long.” —Nick Cave, “The Weeping Song”

Alverno Presents will bring the exciting Stephen Petronio Company to the Pitman Theatre on Saturday, Nov. 5, in a dance performance of Underland, a full-length work set to the dark ballads of celebrated Australian singer-songwriter Nick Cave. A good way to prepare for the show, according to the choreographer, is to listen to Cave's infectious songs, which I've been doing.

“The mercy seat is waiting, and I think my head is burning. And in a way, I'm yearning to be done with all this measuring of truth.” —Nick Cave,The Mercy Seat”

Cave gave Petronio permission to use any and all tracks of his songs, and lent him his producer to remix material to create bridges and shape a score, which Cave then approved. The dance was created in Australia in 2002 with the Sydney Dance Company, which held sole rights until 2009, when Petronio remade it with his own smaller company of 11 dancers.

The work was planned shortly after 9/11, Petronio says, when “I was pretty paranoid about the world. I wanted to make a hiding place beneath the surface world, a hidden world. Nick's music deals with a dark underworld. This dance is really about a journey to a very dark place, an 'underland,' and finally arriving at a light place. It's a classic progression.”

The company's home is New York City, but Petronio watched the events of 9/11 on television while on tour in London. “I felt trapped in another country,” he remarks sadly. “Being on the road since my 20s, I'm absent from so many important events.”

“Come sail your ships around me and burn your bridges down. We make a little history, baby, every time you come around.” —Nick Cave, “The Ship Song”

“Don't expect a literal rendition of the songs,” Petronio says. “The work is basically abstract. It's fast, sexy, continuous motion: a tumbling continuum of energy. I use the stage as a sphere, not a flat plane; the arms will move in several directions at once. For example, the choreography for “The Mercy Seat” is inspired by the sense that the prisoner facing execution in the song doesn't have to worry anymore.

“That's not what you expect in a song about going to the electric chair,” he continues. “There's a sense of spiritual release. In the dance, I try to give that sense of freedom and elation—dancers go flying through the space, a release up through the air.”

Another section uses Cave's ferocious rewrite of the folk ballad “Stagger Lee.”

“There are many versions of the tale, but Nick's is the worst,” Petronio says. “In Nick's version, he's a serial killer who comes to the bar and shoots the bartender; the girl invites him home, but says he'll have to leave before her boyfriend comes; the killer says he'll have her and her boyfriend both. The choreography is a rough-and-tumble duet between a soldier and a whore.”

Petronio speaks of loving the paradoxical quality of the songs in regard to spiritual and moral issues. “It's an interesting question in Nick's songs: Is he serious?” Underland ends with Cave's version of Bob Dylan's “Death Is Not the End.”

Petronio takes movement very seriously, working to subvert preconceptions and expectations about what will happen next. The result is beautiful, unusual and sexy. Petronio seems as interested in what it's possible to wear as how it's possible to move. The Underland costumes are by Tara Subkoff, whose fashion line is “Imitation of Christ.” She's an artist who transforms vintage clothing into contemporary statements. She was a major collaborator in the making of Underland, which incorporates costumes ranging, as Petronio puts it, “from porno to cocktail-party wear to tutus.”

“It's a wild world…and you're a wild girl.” —Nick Cave, “Wild World”

Stephen Petronio Company performs 8 p.m. Nov. 5 at Alverno's Pitman Theatre, 3431 S. 39th St. For tickets, call 414-382-6044 or visit alvernopresents.alverno.edu.


John Schneider was a leading member of Theatre X. He is a member the
Shepherd Express editorial staff and teaches theater at Marquette University.