Above: Taylor Boyland, Mac Twining and Tess Montoya in Stephen Petronio Company’s “American Landscapes.”
Photo: Sarah Silver

When esteemed choreographer and dancer Stephen Petronio first came in contact with the work of legendary Merce Cunningham, leader of the American modern dance movement, he wasn’t immediately convinced of his genius. He laughs about it now, as he prepares for his “Cunningham at 100” show at Hudson Hall. From July 12-14, his New York City-based company will perform a pair of the master’s works from 1970—“Tread” and “Signals”—as well as his own new piece “American Landscapes.”  

Petronio was introduced as a college student, through experimental dancer and choreographer Steve Paxton, the inventor of contact improvisation, who had been a member of the Cunningham company for three years during the ‘60s.

“I was more of a hipster dancer at that moment,” Petronio says. “I didn’t think it was so cool. His physicality was kind of he opposite of what I was pursuing; it was more rigid and held with extended legs while I was more tumbling and rolling.”

But in order to broaden his understanding of the craft, he frequented Cunningham’s shows.

“First I went to stick my nose up in the air but then I began to go because I sensed something bigger than I understood. I began to see his mind, and at moments, the vocabulary and the language was not as important to me as what he was doing in the space, conceptually. He totally fractured the center stage into a million pieces and opened the doors for so much experimentation.”

A major part of Petronio’s tribute to the artist and the colleagues of his time will take form in the multidisciplinary performance style, pairing choreography, visual art and live music.

“Tread” will feature “For 1, 2, or 3 People” by Christian Wolff, performed live by Composers Inside Electronics and a visual set design by Bruce Nauman. “Signals” will also be scored live by Composers Inside Electronics.

“Cunningham, [John] Cage, [Robert] Rauschenberg—all those visual artist and choreographers in that moment didn’t really consider having their forms on their own, they put them all together,” he explains. “It was the tradition I was raised in and I’ve been doing that my whole career.”

In addition to the visual art contributed by Robert Longo, Petronio’s “American Landscapes” is scored by the experimental and esoteric musical collaborators lutist Jozef Van Wissem and guitarist and filmmaker Jim Jarmusch. 

The pair released their first album in seven years this February, An Attempt to Draw Aside the Veil, but their “American Landscapes” piece was made especially for Petronio’s choreography.

The choreographer first heard the duo’s work in Jarmusch’s 2013 award-winning vampire film “Only Lovers Left Alive.” He was utterly distracted by the soundtrack, he had to know the artist. When he caught Van Wissem’s name in the rolling credits, he found his website and shot him an email proposing a collaboration but not expecting anything in response.

“It was haunting me. I couldn’t sleep that night…It totally blew me away,” he says. “ I never do stuff like that but for this, I thought, ‘What the hell.’ I’m not the kind of person that’s going to choreograph Bach, I want something that is alive and new–with people I can talk to.”

Van Wissem says he was familiar with Petronio’s work and thrilled to start on a project, he’d pull in Jarmusch. They began working “virtually” as each of the artists were on different tours. Petronio sent Van Wissem a slow, sad version of the poem “America The Beautiful” to set the tone.

“The benefit of working from a distance is that you are more inclined to work from a strong idea,” Van Wissem says. “I like strong ideas in music, like I like conceptual art. First comes the idea, then the execution. This benefits the work, I believe.”

“We’re looking at giving a feeling of America both in its beauty and in it’s raw, sometimes twisted moments,” Petronio says of the work. “The lute almost sounds like a banjo in the way he’s using it so it really does have an American feel.”

Jarmusch came into the project towards the end, lending Van Wissem’s delicate and pretty lute weavings some heavier, darker electric guitar to elicit the harshness of America’s climate, an important element for Petronio’s concept.

“My idea was to compose mirror images, palindromes,” Van Wissem says. “The piece would have a A-B-C-B-A structure but also the lute notes and chords are performed in mirror image…an updated take on the classical Baroque Lute suite form with silence in between the parts. Jim’s part however, the electric guitar is not a palindrome. Also the mood in the piece would go from ecstatic to resolute, mean and back to ecstatic.”

Petronio says he wasn’t always on board with Van Wissem’s vision of the performance arc.

“I didn’t want it to end up where we started and we started in a very beautiful and innocent place in the piece and in the music, and in the country in some ways. America is troubled…so I wanted, or I was anticipating, a troubled knot in the end, but Jozef insisted on the form. I’m just so glad he did because it presented a problem to me that I found challenging and it ended up being an amazing way to finish the piece.”

But finding the trouble wasn’t as challenging for the composer as Petronio imagined. 

“It was pretty dark for me, personally,” Van Wissem explains. “I was not able to attend the NYC premiere and perform the piece live because of immigration, issues with the delay of my work visa. Like art imitates life. America is not so beautiful at the moment.”

Van Wissem says he hopes the audience can fully absorb the layering of the choreography and musical composition paired with the dark imagery of Robert Longo. 

“I’d like the audience to be entranced by the ecstasy of the lute prelude and then to be taken on journey of mean live electric guitar feedback and melody,” Van Wissem says. “At the end it’s back to the ecstasy.”

See Stephen Petronio Company perform “Cunningham at 100” at Hudson Hall Friday, July 12 at 7 PM; Saturday, July 13 at 7 PM and Sunday, July 14 at 5 PM. Tickets are $40.