Steven Petronio Crafts Haunting Dance From Nick Cave's Music in Underland

The Setup In 2003, Sydney Dance Company commissioned Steven Petronio to create a ballet for them. Inspired by the music of Australian musician Nick Cave, his collaborator on this work, Petronio conceived Underland, a chilling piece exploring the dark motifs of Cave's music. The Sydney Dance Company's license on Underland recently ended, and last Friday evening, thanks to the Society of the Performing Arts, Petronio's own company brought this world to life in the Wortham Theater Center.

The Execution A web of ropes hangs from the rafters, motionless. Three rectangular screens loom in the background. As light creeps onto the stage, so creeps a man slowly down the web, his legs bent out like a frog's. The screen farthest from him shows a close-up of him in his descent, while sped-up clips of fire, marches, funerals, and streets sputter across the adjacent two. It's enchanting, yet disorienting - it's our welcome to Underland.

Petronio's world beckons us in with mystery and inhumanity, and from there, it only takes us farther down the rabbit hole. Dancers enter in torn shirts, their movements sharp and staccato as they ride the rhythms of Nick Cave's deep, resounding voice. Their bodies are long and their lines are permanent - they walk, turn, spin, and tilt with straight arms and legs, their gestures firm, not relaxed enough to be natural. This mechanistic movement allows us to focus emotionally on the grit and depth of Cave's lyrics, yet it remains visually striking.

This same sharpness in the movement at times helps unify the music, video, and dance. As drinking glasses tumble down the screens and shatter, Cave's music retreats to electronic cacophony, and we see the pieces skid across the floor, as the dancers bustle on the stage, facing in various directions and moving through jagged, broken phrases.

Petronio exaggerates the lack of human connection to the distorted toy piano of Cave's "The Carny," a ballad about a carnival worker left behind. Pairs of dancers, with ladies donning red tutus, enter the stage for what at first appears to be a formal dance. What we get is a waltz of marionettes, of humans whose appendages move at the whim of invisible strings. The dancers give into it, their gazes dull and the glances shared with their partners few and far between. This is a parody, an empty shell of romance.

The partnering that Petronio includes is powerfully athletic yet also void of empathy. At a point, a woman stands rigid downstage center, and a man steps behind her, grabs her by her triceps, and lifts her straight up, suspending her for a moment before lowering her to the ground. Later, the same woman is picked up and spun like a propeller, first in one direction, then in the other. Elsewhere, groups of men carry women above their heads into plank and chair positions, all with the definitiveness of lifting weights.

While Petronio's company lingers on this inhuman aesthetic for the first half of the show, things change when "The Ship Song" begins. Four dancers enter and face the audience, standing close in a line. Slowly at first, they begin to move together. They share weight, or they move independently; regardless, the line never breaks. Kisses are attempted and missed, positions are switched, and snapshots of poses emerge from this fluid quartet and hover in the mind. Their interactions are often confused and clumsy, but the dancers, for once, seem like people.

They soon reemerge in pseudo-military garb, wandering aimlessly. Images of explosions still serve as the backdrop, but the tenseness, the electricity that extended so many arms and legs is no longer there. As controlled and firm as the dancers seemed earlier, they now seem equally weary.

The energy returns in a different form. Instead of the movement becoming sharp and intentional, it now becomes sporadic and messy, and the dancers throw themselves violently across the stage. As they exit and enter, they wear increasingly more red, shredded fabric as a guitar shreds through solos and a siren wails incessantly. One wonders whether the darkness of Cave's stories have driven these souls to torment themselves.

As disturbing as these images are, the final piece is perhaps the most terrifying of all. After the dancers in red have exited, one woman enters in white. She glides through a solo to Cave's "Death Is Not The End," a gospel ballad played too slowly for comfort. As the solo continues, the rectangular screens are lifted out of sight, then the back curtain, then the wings. Other dancers, also in white, join the soloist, and we watch as they move through a space now completely bare. The image is beautiful - one of purity, one free of the pain, fire, and turmoil we have experienced so far. But as Cave's song mournfully reminds us to "Remember that death is not the end," it's difficult not to wonder what Cave and Petronio are implying. Is it that death is an escape from the depths of Underland? Or is it the opposite - that there is no escape, and that this final image is just a heartbreaking mirage?

The Verdict With Cave's gritty, often mournful music as the foundation, Petronio used eclectic videography, movement, and costume to build a world onstage. He challenges us to live in this world for a while, and then set us free to reconcile it with our own realities. It's a 70-minute dose of culture shock, and Petronio brings vivid emotions and images to life by both unifying his media and setting up stark contrasts among them. It's a raw, nightmarish landscape and soundscape, and it's fair to say that no one escapes Underland without feeling a little bit haunted.

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Alex Randall
Contact: Alex Randall