Kick-boxing and chaos theory

Stephen Petronio Company | Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
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The Independent Culture

Stephen Petronio is one of Dance Umbrella's regular American visitors, and to celebrate his company's 15th birthday he has decided to go British. The artist Anish Kapoor and the composers Michael Nyman and James Lavelle have all done their British bit. The result, allied to Petronio's choreography, is a two-part programme with a brief introductory Prelude and a title, Strange Attractors, derived from chaos theory for reasons too brainy for me to understand.

Stephen Petronio is one of Dance Umbrella's regular American visitors, and to celebrate his company's 15th birthday he has decided to go British. The artist Anish Kapoor and the composers Michael Nyman and James Lavelle have all done their British bit. The result, allied to Petronio's choreography, is a two-part programme with a brief introductory Prelude and a title, Strange Attractors, derived from chaos theory for reasons too brainy for me to understand.

Although the age of 44 is no big deal for hyperactive Americans, Petronio restricted his own performing to the Prelude. This seemed to me the best section, because of its monolithic image of a serried horizontal line of dancers, heaving and dipping. Petronio and his bald, pale head was in the centre; the closeness of disparate writhing flesh had a bold, almost decadent intensity. The rest of the evening confirmed that Petronio's principal strength lies in organising vivid lines of dancers that collect and dissolve.

The other reason for the Prelude's success was that it was short, whereas the rest of Strange Attractors streamed ever onwards, like one of those endless psychedelic films of speeded-up clouds chasing across the sky and plants bursting into flower. James Lavelle's score for Part II is dense but anodyne, although Anish Kapoor's twin metal discs have a lovely simplicity, suspended against a changing wash of colours and reflecting the stage activity.

The choreography, too, has the merit of a pared-down clarity and exudes a blatant combativeness. Legs slashing out, Petronio's characteristically rigid extensions become martial-arts kicks; arms pummel boxer's punches. A couple's extended encounter erupts into moments of aggression, half-hidden among the other dancers. At one point, he nearly throttles her; at another she plays dead, her lifted body limp, only suddenly to tense and break free.

The choreography for Part II is quintessential Petronio, where hectic movement exists to display its own difficulty. Michael Nyman's commissioned score, gentle string chords rocking back and forth, brings some calm. But the visual dimension is dominated by effortful impulses segmenting each body into dissociated parts; by dance shapes switching to other dance shapes painfully, without any anatomical or visual logic.

Watching the dancers as their arms stressfully scythe the air as if they were removing hanging vegetation, you wonder 1) how they can memorise such perversely linked movement and 2) why they bother.

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