‘Like Lazarus Did’ expertly mixes dance, music and meaning

Stephen Petronio and Son Lux mix songs from slavery into a masterful performance

Stephen Petronio Company in "Like Lazarus Did"/Photo by David Rosenberg

Stephen Petronio Company in “Like Lazarus Did”/Photo by David Rosenberg

The Steven Petronio Company’s Like Lazarus Did (through March 9 at the Newmark Theatre) starts with the music of Son Lux, who calls out “I want to die.” From the orchestra pit, the Pacific Youth Choir sings their haunting response: “Like Lazarus did.” The curtain rises just a few feet to reveal the body of Petronio, lying in repose, still as a corpse.

Death acts more as an origin in this show than a terminus—it is sought, seduced, and considered as much as it is feared and opposed. Through Janine Antoni’s sculpture and body, it literally hangs over the heads of the dancers — Antoni’s chandelier of plaster casts of body parts hang like cuts in a butcher’s window, twisted in poses that are both graceful and garish. The ten dancers carry this sense of dismemberment and transformation throughout the show, moving with a disquieting mix of precision and brutality.

The soundtrack is as fully realized as the dance, mixing the aesthetic and presence of the music with the dance deeper and better than almost any comparable collaboration. The previously unpublished slave songs that form the kernel of Son Lux’s elegiac soundtrack also lay the narrative and thematic foundation of the choreography. Son Lux has collaborated with rappers and singer-songwriters at once, and is beloved by NPR. Structurally his studio tracks and the songs in Lazarus compare well to peers like Gold Panda and Four Tet in their ability to push sampling and beats into new compositional territory. His soundtrack to Lazarus takes its historical inspiration seriously enough to strip down most of the songs into aching, hymn-like librettos, but also invites a wide range of other influences and occasionally crosses back into familiar EDM territory. If it’s ever released as a stand-alone album, I’d love to give it an afternoon by itself on my headphones.

The “story” is about bodily violation, yearning for release and rebirth, struggle for freedom, and the individuals adrift together under oppression. But it would be wrong to say that it is a narrative work about slavery. The topic isn’t ignored, but this is dancers’ dance, not theatre dance. Camille Brown’s Mr Tol E. RAncE is an excellent example of how vastly different artistic strategies can approach similar, problematic material; Brown’s raw material shares roots with the slave songs of Lazarus, but she gets deep into the historical signifiers and cultural baggage that comes with it.

Petronio and Lux give us an object lesson in postmodernity by weaving many strands of influence around the central themes of the material. The result is very rich. It’s beautiful material handled by masters of their craft. Sometimes, however, it’s too much all at once, and the multiple directions and patterns cancel each other out.

This is my only criticism of an overall compelling and intense show, and I think it applies to both the execution and the underlying concepts. The myriad of influences, methods and material sometimes gets in its own way. The point at which I felt this the most was when Lux’s music shifted into much louder, much more contemporary territory for a few passages with great conviction, but without many clues to unite that move with what was happening on stage. For most of the show, the deliberately kaleidoscopic aesthetics lend a meaningful sense of confusion and overwhelming forces to nonstop, visceral choreography. It’s probably a very subjective question whether or not this confusion ever seems to cancel itself out rather than drive the work forward.

Davalois Fearon in Stephen Petronio's "Like Lazarus Did"/Photo by Sarah Silver

Davalois Fearon in Stephen Petronio’s “Like Lazarus Did”/Photo by Sarah Silver

I think what matters more is the process of looking at why that happens (if it happens to you) and the very interesting questions that this makes you ask. I like what Barry Johnson says in his review of the show about equating concepts about being human with historically specific experiences. Ghastly things happened in the time and place that produced the songs at the heart of this play, but does employing the specific aesthetic of that time and place give us better ways to talk about that ghastliness than composite, contemporary sounds and images?

You might as well ask if dance can say anything about slavery in the first place. But that’s not the right question, is it? History and narrative can tell us about what happened and when, but dance can tell us about bodies, and what they do, and what they want, and what happens to them. Lux’s well-placed dissonance that interrupts familiar 19th-century chord progressions can transmit a sense of foreboding and brokenness that dates and names can’t.

Though I personally found some of the overlapping choices to muddy the waters occasionally, I recognize and admire the risks that may have led to those moments. Like Lazarus Did engages with haunting, beautiful material with an enormous amount of energy and avoids any opportunity to propagandize or appropriate, instead digging deeper into an artist response to the past. What it finds there doesn’t belong to a specific place or time, it belongs to people, in society, with bodies.

 

A previous version of this article claimed that Ms. Antoni occupied her sculpture during this performance. While she has done that in other venues, she was not present at the Portland performances.

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