For Stephen Petronio Company’s 25th anniversary, the choreographer commemorated the year with a new work — a life-affirming piece that reminds viewers that this modern dance ensemble has weathered its own storms (mainly its grim view of the world after 9/11 and funding battles). But as seen on Friday night at Mass MoCA, the company has emerged intact and hearty.
The evening-length piece, “I Drink the Air Before Me,” was presented at the art museum over two nights. And while it’s not Petronio’s best work — as it simmers without cooking a bit too long — “I Drink the Air Before Me” does intrigue.
Interest was piqued the moment audiences stepped into the theater. There, Petronio himself was dressed like a hardened ship’s captain — in graying wig and beard, a brimmed Navy hat and rubber boots that rose to his knees. He maneuvered through the aisles pulling and tightening ropes that hovered above our heads and ran from the stage to the last seat in the house. Onstage, a triangular white tarp — looking like a sail — obscured the view of dancers warming up. And as the title is taken from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” everyone was primed for a ride.
As the lights dimmed and the white sail collapsed, Petronio climbed a scaffold and recited, “I won’t be your man at all if I can’t be your salty dog. Do you think it is going to rain?” With that, the churning dance unfurled.
One dancer, appearing like a ship’s masthead with her extended chest and sweeping cape, led a trio who swirled and tossed — the personification of waves. Their dance was calm, awash in gentleness. The masthead stayed above and in front of their stirring.
She departed and then came the storm, which was the heart of the dance. Ten dancers built a hurricane of movement — from a slow rain to a raging, windy, wet assault simply with their force of their own natures. Physically, Petronio’s women were the impetus. They ripped through the space, strong, unstoppable and mesmerizing.
By comparison, the men looked tame. And on Friday night, this tainted the potency of the dance. The men were out of synch and looked unprepared, which is surprising as Petronio’s ensemble is one of New York’s top-tier troupes.
Because of the men’s hesitancy and weakness, the center portion of the dance felt interminably repetitive. Of course, that could be what Petronio was going for, as the most wicked of storms do frighten with their seeming endlessness. But here, it was not fear of a storm’s violence but a fear of tedium. It threatened to kill audience attention.
The dance, too, gave the impression that it would drown in a crescendo of movement. But Petronio is much wiser, winding the dance down, just as storm might wane. This last and final section swept away the urgency and pleading that came before, replacing it with a sense of confident triumphant.
All in all, “I Drink the Air Before Me” is a perfect way to celebrate Petronio’s years in the tenuous business of dance.