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Stephen Petronio's Underland: A Journey From Darkness to Light Set to Nick Cave's Music

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Back in the early 2000s, the Sydney Dance Co. commissioned dancer/choreographer Stephen Petronio to develop a dance work. Using the pop music of Australian Nick Cave, the American Petronio came up with Underland, which he calls a journey from darkness to light.

In 2011, Sydney released its rights to the work, Petronio scooped them up and performed his creation in New York City. Now he and the Stephen Petronio Dance Company are coming to Houston in early January with a modern dance work that he says is set in "a dark world, a dark place beneath the surface - maybe post Apocalyptic place and maybe some place where the sun's not always shining."

He said he wanted to tell this story because: "Everything can't be pretty and beautiful. And dance can speak to many different parts of us. Having said that, it runs the gamut from dark to light."

Although Petronio has been in dance for 30 years and traveled to 26 countries, this will be the first time he has been to Houston, something he says, he's been looking forward to so when Houston's Society of Performing Arts contacted him, he was more than ready to say yes.

"I'm carrying several different programs right now. It's a tougher piece; it's a rougher piece. I do have some more gentle romantic things in my repertory."

But Underland is what the SPA wanted. It runs continuously at just under 70 minutes, Petrino says. It is built around seven Cave songs that already existed and then they built musical bridges between the works. There will be 11 performers on stage, including Petronio himself who makes an appearance in the beginning that involves the help of an aerial crew.

"It's not a chipper ballet for sure. I'm a modern choreographer. I draw heavily on many different idioms. There's a lot of very quick very fast legwork so there's more of a balletic feel to it."

Cave's music I wanted to really do service to his music first and foremost. And some of his songs are from a period in the '80s called the murder ballads. He's an amazing story teller. He sings these songs about pretty evil people. I don't interpret the songs but I do build dances to try to capture the essence of that."

Petronio says most of his company hails from the New York City area now. "There's such an amazing influx of talent that comes through New York every year. And every fall there's a whole new crop of kids that comes through. When I have a woman's audition for one position, sometimes 300 women show up for one job. I've been doing this for 30 years they get better and better."

In addition to commissioning the work, the Sydney dance company supported Petronio in his efforts, giving him support staff and, at his request, getting him Nick Cave. The dance company there was very strong, he adds. "For me it was a dream job. They gave me everything I needed. I could not screw up; it would be only my fault."

Petronio says the chance to work in another country was incredibly freeing. " had a chance to redefine myself. I ended up making a great piece that I really loved and they kept it for seven years and then when the rights ran out I grabbed it back."

When he mounted his production in New York, Sydney gave him costumes from the production and he was able to get a Masterpiece grant from the National Endowment to help reconstruct the work since it had been several years since he'd done it.

Petronio says the work appeals to a very broad audience ranging from anyone who likes Nick Cave to people who are very interested in movement. It's not a narrative work, but it has a narrative arc, he says.

Underland will be performed at 8 p.m. January 11 in the Wortham Center's Cullen Theater, 501 Texas Avenue. For information visit the SPA website, or call 713-227-4772. $35-$70.

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