Stephen Petronio Tells It From a Mountain
Now in his early 60s, choreographer Stephen Petronio has built a life and a body of work by deciding whose rules he is prepared to follow.
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.
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.