Stephen Petronio’s inspiration for his company’s latest work, Like Lazarus Did, performed last week at the Joyce Theater, was a book of American slave songs sent to him by composer Son Lux. Lazarus’ resurrection became a point of departure for the piece, whose title is a line taken from one of the songs.
As is expected with Petronio’s work, there is constant motion – limbs whipping through space at myriad angles, bodies collapsing to the floor and being lifted overhead, torsos pushing and pulling in every direction. Yet, most compelling of all was not the movement in Like Lazarus Did, but the stillness.
Upon entering the theater, Petronio is seen laying on his back on stage, eyes closed, wearing a suit. The curtain is raised only inches above him. Hanging high above the audience is a living set, where artist Janine Antoni lays in a helicopter stretcher. Above her body is a frightening array of plastic limbs and bones. Antoni remains there, in stillness, for the duration of the hour-long performance, while Petronio soon rises from his meditation and only returns momentarily later in the piece.
Accompanied by Son Lux’s score and the Young People’s Chorus of New York City standing in the aisles and balcony, the ten dancers are deftly skilled performers that are hardly ever still. The formations, patterns, and complexities of the choreography are exceptional, but the dancers never reached the ecstatic, transcendent feeling that was expected and hoped for. In fact, some of the movement felt far too literal. There was also some manhandling; the women never really shine, but rather are always partnered with or manipulated by men.
The piece closes with what looks like a ritual rebirth – a man in briefs rolls on the floor, his torso convulsing and limbs curving and extending in awkward ways. He finally rises to his feet, balancing shakily. When the curtain drops, the viewer is left with Antoni – still suspended above us, meditating – and a small card given to each audience member at the beginning of the performance. On one side is a photo of part of Antoni’s body laying the stretch, her hand gripping the cord of a light. On the other it says, “Should I look among the living, should I look among the dead, if I’m searching for you?” Petronio’s quest isn’t over.