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    L-R: Reed Luplau, Julian De Leon, Natalie Mackessy in Petronio: Underland
    Photo by Julie Lemberger
    L-R: Reed Luplau, Julian De Leon, Natalie Mackessy

    Good Smoke

    Stephen Petronio Company debut Underland in NYC


    Underland, from magical opening and cinematic beginning to stunning first sections, clearly threatens to break new ground in Stephen Petronio's world. It may or may not be making a larger point by the end, but it would feel complete and utterly beautiful if it ended midway, before the aesthetic begins to shift abruptly and things start to feel frankensteined together, in this NYC premiere of a piece originally choreographed for the Sydney Dance Company and toured around Australia in 2003 and inspired by the music of Nick Cave.

    Choreography by: Stephen Petronio.
    Dancers: Julian De Leon, Gino Grenek, Barrington Hinds, Tara Lorenzen, Natalie Mackessy, Emily Stone, Shila Tirabassi, Joshua Tuason, Amanda Wells, with Reed Luplau and Davalois Fearon.
    Music by: Nick Cave.
    Costumes by: Tara Subkoff.
    Lighting design by: Ken Tabachnick.
    Production stage manager: Lynda Erbs.
    Video: Mike Daly.
    Soundscape: Paul Healy.
    Visual design: Ken Tabachnick.
    Joyce Theater
    April 13-17, 2011

    A dark man crawling headfirst down the rigging of an old ship conjures so much. Hints of slavery/bondage/misery mix with sensuality to convey mystery and an aura of sexual fantasy. Smoke, darkness and a projected movie version of the onstage man add layers, and the slow crawl from ceiling to floor takes several minutes. As the man reaches the floor in blackness, a wisp of smoke writes "underland" on the screen, in a pace as unhurried as his crawl.

    When dancers finally appear, they are wearing variations of black. The ambience stays dark and smoky, thanks in part to beautiful background video by Mike Daly and lighting by Ken Tabachnick, but the action gets fast and intense. The whole thing very much feels like an alternate, magical place — an underland.

    The dancers in these first sections are flawless, stimulating and seamlessly fast. Veterans Shila Tirabassi, Julian De Leon, and Gino Grenek stand out early, and Reed Luplau and Joshua Tuason build up the heat until Amanda Wells explodes in one of the solos she is blowing audiences away with lately. And Tara Lorenzen emerges on fire this year, like a red-hot missile every time she is onstage.

    Tara Lorenzen and Joshua Tuason, Reed Luplau on floor in Petronio: Underland  
    Photo by Julie Lemberger  
    Tara Lorenzen and Joshua Tuason, Reed Luplau on floor
    The choreography in the opening sections of Underland feels new and exciting. It is beautifully drenched in the vocabulary and aesthetic of Petronio, but little surprises keep popping up, such as legs that shake or flick in midair, as if there is so much energy in the air and the dancers' bodies that little charges of electricity are either hitting them or escaping from them.

    Things stay black and beautiful through probably the first six of Nick Cave's songs, culminating in Wells' solo to "Prelude to Weep." To this point, Cave's music has been entirely integral, driving and feeding the dancing but never sticking out or distracting, as if black and smoky is its proper setting. Even in "The Carny," when women show up with red tutus and garters, there is a thread of aesthetic continuity. But when military uniforms begin appearing, it is jarring.

    Equally jarring and, in a way, the end of one show and the beginning of another, is the song "Stagger Lee," in which the lyrics just suck all the air out of the room and leave little room for dance. By the end, with white costumes and some sort of nuclear winter or postapocalyptic afterworld, we are in a completely different place than the original underland. There is little appeal to this place or to much of the choreography that gets us there, either, unfortunately. A stunning, electric solo by Reed Luplau is an exception, but this is one case in which white costumes and light feel less clean than the blackness things began in.

    APRIL 28, 2011

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  • Underland   from Bresee, Feb 16, 2012

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