In a post-performance discussion at The Joyce Theater on Wednesday evening, Stephen Petronio said he hopes that the audience and his dancers feel like they’re getting swept into the tornado that he creates in I Drink the Air Before Me, his new full-length work that takes its name from a line in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. This is undoubtedly true of the piece’s twelve men and women, who are fully immersed in and dedicated to Petronio’s relentlessly rapid movement. Who could blame them? They’re in the company of composer Nico Muhly and his small orchestra (along with his laptop, for electronics) performing a brooding, multilayered score on stage, and the Young People’s Chorus of New York City lend their angelic voices to the piece. But witnessing a tumultuous storm isn’t nearly as exciting as being a part of it. Unfortunately, nothing sucks in the audience for very long.
Dancers rush on and off the stage in unpredictable waves. Sharp diagonals counter dizzying swirls of movement, and a duet morphs into a trio in the blink of an eye. The dancers’ fluidity and ability to remain in control during the most frantic moments is astounding. Muhly’s spiraling score reflects a storm’s unpredictability by emphasizing different sounds – the flute, electronics, trombone, or piano, for example – at random. It is not particularly memorable or rhythmic, but it allows Petronio to explore movement that highlights the music’s intricacies.
Although the choreographer successfully creates volatile atmospheric storms, the emotional ones are rather foggy. No matter how thrilling it can be to watch lightning-speed bodies in space, they are even more powerful when emotional elements come into play. The dancers are swept up in the piece’s physicality, but they appear emotionally empty. Surely a work inspired by inclement weather is related to turbulent feelings. This is worth exploring.
The most bizarre part of the performance comes during the preshow, in which Petronio appears as a ship’s captain, grunting and muttering while walking up the aisles or climbing onto scaffolding. As his company celebrates its twenty-fifth anniversary, Petronio makes clear that this is his voyage and he’s steering the ship. But he surreptitiously exits shortly after the dancers appear on stage, allowing them to be in the spotlight. Even when his work is not particularly compelling, his endless creative energy is evident in the dancers’ daring performances.
I Drink the Air Before Me continues at The Joyce through Sunday, May 3. Order tickets online or call 212.242.0800.