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On the way to the Boston ICA to see the latest from the Stephen Petronio Company, I walked past Our Lady of Good Voyage Chapel. Nothing could have better suited Petronio’s ambitious I Drink the Air Before Me, which takes its title and inspiration from a line in The Tempest. Shakespeare’s late play centers on the emotional and political maelstrom unleashed by a shipwreck engineered by Prospero, an exiled Duke turned magician, and his confidante, the spirit Ariel. Terror and comfort, grief and joy, revenge and reconciliation are Shakespeare’s themes, but Petronio abstracts The Tempest, refracting its complex plots to embody fundamental emotional and social impulses. The resulting choreographic masterwork alternatively batters and rocks its viewers with the ineluctable and seductive powers of the sea.

I Drink the Air Before Me premiered at New York’s Joyce Theater in 2009 as the centerpiece of the 25th anniversary season of Petronio’s company. Known for unique and densely athletic choreography, he commissioned a complex and revelatory score from wunderkind Nico Muhly. One minute the mordant, deep chords of a piano set a sea of dancers in motion while in the next flutes and bassoons haunt the stage only to give way to the music one expects at a rave. Muhly perfectly conveys that quality Shakespeare evoked on his mysterious deserted island, which, as one character declares, is “full of music” with no visible bodies to produce it.

Fortunately, the stage was packed not with immaterial spirits but with the exuberant flesh of Petronio’s magnificent company. At first, a figure with a cape carves through the space of the stage, dancing to her own reverie while others, striped like sailors or prisoners, struggle with buffeting winds and waters. Gradually, the sailors seem to fall under the spell of this figure who seems both Ariel and Prospero at once. Indeed, it is Ariel who speaks the signature line “I drink the air before me” before speeding off to do Prospero’s bidding. The line is lyrical and exuberant but also desperate: imagine trying to drink the air as you rocket through it at inestimable speeds.

Reviews of the premiere of I Drink the Air Before Me note Petronio’s own role in the production, dressed by Cindy Sherman as a sea captain who stomped around the audience before the performance proper began. It’s hard to say what effect this might have been, but the choice to leave behind the overly literal put Petronio’s talented company center stage. Like bullfighters, they stalked the stage, occasionally (and almost combatively) partnering but more often in wonderfully synchronous events. These dancers have studied at the feet of Petronio, for whom the spine is another limb of the body, which explains a fascinating swivel of hips at the most unexpected of moments.

The company moved more like one complex organism, but I found it impossible not to be hypnotized by the sinuous elegance of Julian de Leon and the exuberant attack of Tara Lorenzen. Gino Grenek’s extended solo displayed not only a complete mastery of technique but the maturity of a performer who’s dedicated his life to dance. Watching the performance, you feel that these dancers have chosen Petronio as much as he has chosen them: the synergy is perfect. The upstage window of the ICA’s performance space allowed the dancers to compete with and draw strength from the visible activity of the harbor behind them. Nothing can defeat the sea, ultimately, but for sixty-plus minutes these dancers soared above it.

Walking away after the performance, and passing, again, Our Lady of Good Voyage Chapel, I found myself thankful in so many ways. First, Petronio is an artist who dazzles with athleticism. His dancers complete lifts, flips, and catches as easily and smoothly as they walk, so this is never showy or trick-laden work. Petronio demands our attention to complex movement elaborated in a coherent, evening-length work rather than the diversion of a collection of short repertory pieces. Secondly, he adapts something wonderfully Shakespearean precisely because his ambition was not to reproduce a narrative version of an old masterpiece. Rather, Petronio embodies in movement something even more deeply Shakespearean: complex group and social psychology that requires no plot to be manifest. The dancers are like characters or spirits who rocket about the stage with constantly shifting intentions of love or murder, collusion or competition.

Finally, while Petronio has had powerful artistic and personal relationships with Michael Clarke and Trisha Brown, the ghost on the stage, for me, was Merce Cunningham. As in Cunningham’s work, the action of I Drink the Air Before Me seemed an element of a larger cosmos, making structure, not drama, paramount. And while Cunningham evolved toward an entirely random relationship to music, Petronio choreographed a work with its own unmistakable rhythm that powerfully worked with and against Muhly’s score. The Tempest’s famous song “Full Fathom Five” imagines the transformation of a dead king into an undersea wonder. So did Petronio seem to both raise the dead and lavish upon his audience “something rich and strange.” Maybe, then, it wasn’t the harbor but the dance that explained the mingling scent of sweat and sweet sea air.

The Stephen Petronio Company

"I Drink the Air Before Me" was performed at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston March 19-21, 2010.

If you missed Stephen Petronio at the ICA, you can catch the company's performance at MassMoCA on April 9 or 10, 2010.

All images are courtesy of the artist and World Music/CrashArts.

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