Singer-songwriter Valerie June has been knocked down, but never out, by heartbreak, illness, and hardship. Now in his early 60s, choreographer and dancer Stephen Petronio has built a life and a body of work by deciding whose rules he is prepared to follow.
Valerie June is a celebrated singer and songwriter whose style spans a wide range of musical genres, from traditional roots through modern R&B and Afrobeat.
Born in 1982 in Jackson, TN, she began singing in her church. She moved to Memphis in 2000 and played in the duo Bella Sun with her then-husband before becoming a solo artist after her marriage ended. She first gained national exposure in 2009 as a featured artist on the MTV online series $5 Cover. Soon after, she recorded her third album, Pushin’ Against a Stone (2013), with money raised on a crowd-funding platform. It reached the top 50 in the Billboard charts and earned her a nomination for a Blues Music Award.
A skilled player of ukelele, guitar, and banjo, June is recognized for her distinctive vocal stylings, combining the emotive edge of the blues with the power of gospel. She describes her style as “organic moonshine roots music.” Her fourth album, The Order of Time (2017), was listed as one of the best albums of the year by Rolling Stone. She released her latest record, The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers, in 2021.
Stephen Petronio is an acclaimed choreographer and dancer, best known for his work as artistic director of the Stephen Petronio Company (SPC).
Born in 1956 in Newark, NJ, Petronio attended Hampshire College in Amherst, MA. Initially a pre-med student, he was inspired to pursue a career in dance by experimental choreographer Steve Paxton. After training with Paxton, Petronio became the first male dancer of the Trisha Brown Company. He founded SPC in 1984, while still a company member of improvisational ensemble Channel Z.
Petronio has created over 35 works for SPC and received commissions by some of the world’s most prestigious companies, including Sydney Dance Company, the Washington Ballet, and National Dance Company Wales. He is known for his interdisciplinary collaborations with musicians (Rufus Wainwright, Lou Reed), visual artists (Robert Longo, Cindy Sherman), and fashion designers (John Bartlett, Benjamin Cho).
His accolades include a Guggenheim Fellowship, a 1987 American Choreographer Award, and two choreography fellowships from the NEA.
Welcome to Articulate, the show that explores how creativity is the very bedrock of what makes us human. And on this episode, “The Indefatigables.” The singer-songwriter Valerie June has been knocked down, but never knocked out, by heartbreak, illness, and financial misfortune.
Valerie June: So that’s what I’m constantly trying to do with my life, in every moment, ’cause there’s a lot of sadness, but it’s like how can you use it as fuel?
And now in his early sixties, choreographer Stephen Petronio has built a life and a body of work, by fighting to control whose rules he’s prepared to follow.
Stephen Petronio: Very early on in my dancing, one of my teachers said, well, you’re like a faucet that turns on, and you need to learn to modulate it. And I went home, and it was meant to be like a teaching lesson, and I’m very stubborn, and I thought that, I was in bed that night and I was thinking, I’m gonna take that thing that he just criticized and I’m gonna make that my thing.
That’s all coming up on Articulate.
Walking home from school one day, 14-year-old Valerie June Hockett saw black smoke rising into the sky in Humboldt, Tennessee. As she got close, she realized that it was her own home that was ablaze. The fire took everything. But her family had already been saving for their dream home. And following the blaze, a new job offer kept her family’s dream alive.
Valerie June: The stars aligned for my father to get this job building a church. And that money from that job, he went down to this auction of this house we’d driven by all my life, it was a beautiful house, it was this big old house in the country, and he won the auction.
But she says that what she learned from the purposefulness of her parents was that you don’t always get what you want, or what you need.
June: I think about my dad and, he knew the rules of what it meant to be a black business owner, small business owner in the South, and how much he had against him, and he rewrote that story every day, with the weight of five kids on him and a wife.
Valerie June has rewritten her story many times, fearlessly, and in ways that defy easy categorization. The New York Times has called her, “simultaneously rural and cosmopolitan, historically minded and contemporary, idiosyncratic and fashionable, mystical, and down to earth.”
June: It’s just like dealing with that idea from Robert Frost when, when you know, he was saying, we get two roads and you choose one. And we have to do that all the time and I’m like, but what about the other road? I don’t wanna choose. Clearly I don’t wanna choose. I can’t choose a genre in music, I can’t choose one way, I don’t wanna just go one way.
She credits her parents, dad Emerson, and mom June, for much of her fearlessness.
June: They broke down those doors for us, so I never felt like there was anything I could, I wouldn’t achieve, or go for, just because of the color of my skin. I always felt like, sure, I can do that, why not?
Valerie June began composing melodies and lyrics at an early age. At 18, she left Memphis with her soon-to-be husband and much parental disapproval. They performed together as the soul duo, Bella Sun. But it never felt quite right to her.
June: I did try to sing more soulfully. I tried to sing more like in a way that, would be digestible for people because of the way I look. But, it just, I knew it wasn’t working, I knew it wasn’t me, and so, I just stopped. It really felt like I was wearing a different body suit or something. Like I was being someone else.
By 2005, the marriage was over. In Memphis, June wrote songs at night and cleaned houses by day. She began performing these new songs in small venues, but for all her persistence, success took its fine old time.
June: When I first started I wanted things to happen fast, but, I enjoy just, this whole, like just every day moving towards something versus like it all being here for me. I wrote a poem about it, and it’s just dealing with, like the old growth trees.
(A Life’s Work by Valerie June)
I worked and waited for something grand, but it never came. A bead of sweat, my accolade, my work speaking for my name. The winter of my journeys here, collectively I see, the treasure of a life’s work, like the rings of an old growth tree.
June finally began learning guitar, and then went to Andy Cohen, the seasoned blues man for lessons. They mostly just sat and talked about music history, the blues, gospel, Appalachian folk.
June: And what I got from him was a list of amazing musicians to listen to. ‘Cause he loved to talk about people like Reverend Gary Davis, or Mississippi John Hurt, or Elizabeth Cotten, and just falling down this rabbit hole. I’ve went through many holes, rabbit holes in music. There was of course the Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, all of that and, where I like listening to stuff like Sun Ra, or Bowie, or Alice Coltrane, transcendental sounds that are more spiritual, but really hard to explain at the same time.
In time Valerie June would become a very fine guitar, banjo and ukulele player. But her parents didn’t understand the ways in which she was changing. They thought she was forgetting her roots, but Valerie June had a vision. In 2006 and 2008, June cashed in her savings to make two self-produced albums. She was putting money aside for a third, when she was diagnosed with diabetes. The medical bills left her penniless.
June: There’s just a point of surrender. Like why go to aggression? Just let go. Just be like, okay, yeah. The way I look at it is, I did everything I could. My savings is wiped out, I’ve lost everything. I’m at the bottom. What next? You know what I mean? Like I can only go one way and that’s up, so.
And just as when her family lost their home, June found opportunity in adversity. In 2010, she released the EP Valerie June and the Tennessee Express. By 2011, she was touring and had swapped Memphis for Brooklyn, preparing for bigger stages and bolder opportunities.
June: I used to be so scared, to get up on stage in front of people. I focus my energy on, the songwriting part and the inner side, and that involves a lot of soul.
2013’s Pushin’ Against a Stone was her breakthrough record. It was a hit in the US, Europe, and beyond. The songs told the story of her life, of hard times, hard work, and good-for-nothing men. The title was drawn from the myth of Sisyphus and his eternal attempts to push a great stone up a slope.
June: And I feel like, we all have stones in every day. That is a reality. I’m not delusional, and I’m not telling myself it’s not there. Yes, it is heavy, and it’s gonna be hard, and it’s gonna feel like it’s gonna roll back on me, and I’m gonna get knocked over, but, shift that perspective for a second, and think about the possibility of it, actually getting up the hill.
Her relationship with her parents had never been the same after she left home. But in 2015, the whole family came to New York to see her perform at Carnegie Hall. Security had to be called to stop her dad, who was ill at the time, from dancing in the aisles.
June: But I said no, don’t grab that guy, that’s my dad. And then, everyone in the whole place got up and started dancing. And this is like the stuffiest place that you can play. And so he’s like dancing, and everybody was dancing and yelling after that. It was a real rock show after that.
Less than two years later, her father Emerson Hockett died. In 2019, she lost her best friend Mary Burns to cancer. To grieve and to heal, she turned to poetry, writing almost incessantly. It turned into a book, 2021’s Maps for the Modern World.
June: This one’s called “A Life of Meaning”.
(A Life of Meaning by Valerie June)
I was, I came, I went. I loved, I lived, I lent. I gave, I took, I spent. Look back, what has it meant?
To be in these bodies, to be able to smell a flower, or play an instrument and feel the strengths and feel the vibration of it against your chest, that’s what it’s meant to me. Just having those moments of, living, being here. Getting my chance.
And Valerie June is taking her chance every day. She describes what she does as organic moonshine roots music, and it’s constantly growing, evolving. Her latest record, 2021’s, The Moon and the Stars Prescription for Dreamers, was released to critical acclaim, with fans calling it musical medicine, and the journey of healing. And no one has appreciated that journey, more than Valerie June herself.
Stephen Petronio has always been keen to control which rules he wants to follow. He’s a perfectionist with a wild streak, and a history of questioning authority.
Stephen Petronio: If you do it with a smile, people don’t notice what you’re doing.
Over the past 30 years, he’s built the legacy of a rock star choreographer, crafting works that honor the traditions of dance, while breaking its conventions. The drive to be all that he really is, without constraint, has kept Petronio going. And at 65, he’s at the top of the mountain, drawn there by curiosity.
Petronio: I’m very good at jumping off a cliff, and thinking I might land.
Most recently, he’s landed in the Catskills, at the Petronio Residency Center, a retreat for dancers that became a sanctuary for many during the pandemic. And this idyllic 175 acre mountain side offers to others a luxury that Petronio had been given earlier in his life: the freedom and space for self discovery.
Before Stephen Petronio ever dreamed of dancing, he watched his parents move together. He was captivated by the way his usually stern father would become tender and carefree as he glided with his mother to the music.
(Excerpt from Confessions of a Motion Addict by Stephen Petronio)
His relationship with my mother is romantic. They flirt and laugh as if they were kids. And like so many in the 1950s, they can social dance like pros. My jaw drops when they break out into alien personas whose bodies speak this foreign language, assume a deeply charged poise, his box office physique, molding perfectly to my mother’s zaftig grace.
It was the 1960s in suburban north Jersey. Little Stephen was wide-eyed and bookish, his family large, Italian-American, disciplined, but he wasn’t quite like them, or the other kids at school.
Petronio: When I was growing up, I was friends with every group, but not part of any group. So I could move very fluidly through the jocks and the punks and the freaks and the geeks and, you know, I was comfortable with all of them, engaged with all of them, but never really part of any one of those so I know, I like to move.
In his teens, left to his own devices, he pushed boundaries, experimenting with sex and drugs. And in college, his practical plan to pursue medicine, was quickly derailed by romance. He met a girl, and when she suggested he take a dance class, he did. Within weeks he had ended up as a student of the choreographer Steve Paxton, who was turning heads with a new dance form that combined the movements of gymnastics, martial arts, and sensual duets. It was called contact improvisation. The dance was primal, experimental. For the first time, Petronio saw a way to express his wild side creatively. Through Paxton, Petronio discovered a world he wanted to be a part of, but it made him want to create his own. Having come to dance so late, he had to catch up. His fiery zeal kept him going through self doubt, but sometimes, it threatened to burn him out.
Petronio: Very early on in my dancing, one of my teachers said, well, you’re like a faucet that turns on, and you need to learn to modulate it. And I went home, and it was meant to be, like a teaching lesson. And I’m very stubborn, and I thought, I’m gonna take that thing that he just criticized, and I’m gonna make that my thing.
Petronio was in the right place at the right time. His first mentors were giants in the postmodern dance world, visionaries who rebelled against the traditional formality of dance, through a collective called, the Judson Dance Theater, which celebrated the body’s presence in the here and now. For the first time, Petronio felt like he belonged. He’d only been dancing for four years and still had a lot to learn. But his first iconic mentor, Steve Paxton, led him to another, Trisha Brown.
Petronio: I had this vision, of me upright but tumbling through space and reaching out into space, in a much more stretched way. And that was the genesis, when I first saw Trisha, I walked into the theater and I saw her and she was doing something very much like that. And I felt like, oh my God, I’ve seen this, although it hadn’t existed before, but I had seen it in my mind. So, maybe I was visioning my future. But I saw Trisha dancing, a piece called Water Motor in ’78 or ’79. I was a stage manager for a benefit where she was performing. I met her at the door, we smiled at each other, I took her to her dressing room. She went into the dressing room, I went to the audience, and she did Water Motor and my jaw dropped open and I was like, this is amazing, and not that I know it, but I know it. And so, I felt that I had to be around her.
Not long after, Petronio became the first male dancer in the Trisha Brown company, and the choreographer’s creative progeny. In Trisha Brown’s company, Petronio went from being a boy, awkward and unsure of himself, to a seductive virtuoso. He had found his purpose, but in downtown New York, he’d also, once again, found decadence. Wild parties, sex, drugs. He wanted to have it all.
Petronio: I had a very lucky body, that could do whatever I asked it to do. Everything I wanted to do, I just did.
All the while, Petronio was finessing his own style. It would soon become a company, Stephen Petronio Dance. But it was the 1980s, and just as Petronio’s newly discovered life as a choreographer and a gay man began to flourish, AIDS began to ravage his community. Unable to just stand by, he joined ACT UP, a coalition of activists and artists demanding government action. The energy of the movement charged and changed him. He felt an urgent need to articulate this, through dance.
Petronio: That chaos is just, that came with me. I can’t take any credit for that, that’s what I came with. What you do with it is another proposition. The course of my life has been, learning how to channel that craziness.
Chaos was the language he used to express his anger and grief about AIDS, in his iconic work, Middlesex Gorge. It helped define Petronio as a choreographer, unafraid to depict sex, sensuality, and controversy, with deft skill and speed.
Petronio: It started with, how do you make things, and how do you make the next thing, and then how do you make the thing after that? And then there’s 35 years of that.
These past three decades of leading his own company have finally pushed Petronio to his limits. It’s been everything he’s ever wanted, but it hasn’t come with peace or comfort. And as he hit middle age, his indulgences began catching up with him.
Petronio: The amount of alcohol I was drinking really began to take its toll on me. But up until that moment, I was like, a couple bottles of wine every night, and you know, I never missed rehearsal.
AJC: No hangovers?
Petronio: Hangovers constantly, but that to me was normal. I just woke up with a headache, and thought, that’s what I did. And my body never failed me.
AJC: And was there a tipping point?
Petronio: Oh yeah, so it was around 50. I had like, you know, one of those crazy blackout experiences in public, at a birthday party. And the devil showed up, and I went nuts, and, the next morning I realized that I was, I could keep that in, previously, and then suddenly I couldn’t and I think that was a, it was a physical thing. So, one of my friends began counting days with me, and I haven’t had a drink since.
And as Petronio got sober, his vision broadened and brightened. But he saw a country in the process of radical change. By 2019, he had started to question what his role might be.
Petronio: I made something called Hardness 10. And it was the most abstract, geometric, methodical thing I’d ever done. It was my only response to what happened, because I couldn’t, I was just like speechless. So I thought, let me make something as hard as a diamond, and as beautiful as I can, and that’s all I can do.
AJC: Without expressing any emotion.
Petronio: Yeah, without expressing anything. And then, my voice opened up, and I wanted to look, a little bit more, at what I saw. And I learned a lot of things that I didn’t wanna learn.
AJC: Such as?
Petronio: Because I was an artist, and a queer, I thought that I was on the right side of the story, and I began to, become aware, of how complicit I was, in a game that helped to propel me up on to this mountain. So, that was a hard thing to happen. In the middle of that creative process, I was not expecting that discovery. I was expecting, you know, I’ve always been on the right side of the argument. So, I was expecting to be on the right side of the argument, and that piece was the crack open, of a whole ‘nother world of learning for me.
At a time when others of his age are thinking of retirement, Stephen Petronio is rising up, jumping at the challenge of becoming an elder. But sticking the landing isn’t always easy.
Petronio: I’ve noticed, that, some of the things that I, I was always just making things, making do, making it work that year, and making it work that year. And for me now, it’s more, I will always be about making work, but it’s also about how do I encourage the next generation to do what I was encouraged to do? So, I don’t think that would be, a non-sober goal.
Over the years, Stephen Petronio has managed to marry excess and excellence. Now he’s channeling those earlier patterns of addiction into a healthier obsession, encouraging a new generation of dance makers to achieve, even exceed their potential.
Petronio: The constant lesson in my life of about dance, is that you can go into a room, not knowing anything, and with enough experience, you can come out with something that can be interesting. That’s kind of spilled into the rest of my life. If I don’t know something, I’m very drawn to it. There’s no language in the contract, that I have to like what that is. And so, that’s the lesson I’m learning now. And it’s a very interesting lesson, and it’s so exciting. It’s thrilling to have that be out of my control because how could you possibly control it?
Stephen Petronio has forged an extraordinary path, in life, and in dance. Full of backs and forths, ups and downs, sometimes planned, often improvised. And he’s found a sense of self, of home, of purpose, sticking close to the edge, and sometimes, jumping off.