The Stephen Petronio Company performed at the Institute for Contemporary Art this weekend as part of World Music/CRASHarts’ fall program. Mr Petronio’s latest work, Like Lazarus Did, tackles themes of death, resurrection, and spirituality – inspired not only by the biblical story of Lazarus’ resurrection, but also by a book of previously unpublished slave songs from the 1800s. The words from these songs are incorporated into a hauntingly beautiful score by Son Lux – spiritual, moving, and at times hopeful, the lyrics themselves are resurrected from an oppressed people who dared to believe that there was something better awaiting them in the next life. The title of the piece is drawn from the lyrics of the performance’s opening song, which repeats, “I want to die like Lazarus did.” Lying motionless, center stage in a full suit, feet bare, seemingly evoking his funeral, is artistic director and choreographer, Stephen Petronio. He remains motionless for the full song as the lyric is repeated and the lights in the theater are slowly dimmed.

The Stephen Petronio Company © Sarah Silver
The Stephen Petronio Company
© Sarah Silver

This is the only moment of stillness in the hour-long whirlwind of quickly moving bodies, swirling formations, and entrancing music that abstractly represent the space between death and resurrection. Following Petronio’s exit from the stage, the entire ten-dancer cast emerges from the wings in gauzy white shirts and dresses and performs sinuous, twisting and slowly building movements to a chorus of “hallelujah”. Petronio’s choreography is characterized by quick passages with sweeping leg extensions and sporadically expressive arm movements. His sensitivity to the relation of dancers to each other and in space makes his work engaging to watch – the eye never wants for an intriguing visual.

The remainder of the show is broken down into a series of solos, trios, quartets and full company movements, changing with each section and showcasing the range of Petronio’s incredibly athletic dancers. The aforementioned quartet of three males and one female is a mesmerizing exhibition of partnering work. The quartet seems to stay connected throughout the entire sequence with ever-building lifts, entwining limbs and bucking torsos. The minimal costuming allows the dancers’ bodies to be nearly fully-exposed in the intimate theater – every muscle movement was evident, every bead of sweat visible. It is clear that these dancers are putting every effort into this demanding piece, but their fatigue is never obvious – this is no small feat.

At one particularly memorable moment in the show, two thin pieces of fabric cascade down from the ceiling and a male dancer grasps on to the fabric as his body begins to undulate, first from side-to-side – every vertebrate highlighted in the overhead lighting – and then building in range and intensity until the illusion is created that his movement is the result of the fabric’s pull. The show peaks during a full-cast section, with dancers cascading across the stage to a chaotic, multi-layered song with the lyrics, “I’m done with this troubled world”. The final movement of the show follows – a floor solo performed by Nicholas Scisscione. He moves as a newborn baby exploring his body’s capabilities – he contorts and regulates, extends and contracts, writhes and softens, bringing Petronio’s vision full-circle.

Like Lazarus Did was originally staged earlier this year at the Joyce Theater in New York, with the Young People’s Chorus of New York City performing live, and performance artist, Janine Antoni, incorporated into the set. It was an engaging show at the ICA but must have been truly affecting in its original form.