“Like Lazarus Did”

‘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 The previously unpublished slave songs that form the kernel of Son Lux’s elegiac soundtrack also lay the narrative and thematic foundation of the choreography.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.

Stephen Petronio dances for resurrection

The choreographer's "Like Lazarus Did" poignantly and gracefully investigates re-birth

Stephen Petronio’s dance Like Lazarus Did (through March 8 at the Newmark Theatre) marries a neo-balletic movement style to a mostly somber score by Son Lux, both inspired by slave songs that Son Lux (his real name is Ryan Lott) came across and sent to Petronio. Peculiar, on the face of it, but the choreography and music are so well made and the echoes of those songs so powerful, that I found it transporting, maybe not to the transcendent state that Petronio seeks, but somewhere…different, maybe sacred, definitely beautiful.

Lott has used excerpts from the songs (I wish I had their complete texts, but my online search was unsuccessful) and embedded them in an electronic score. Crucially, his own recorded singing of lines from the songs has a plaintive, folk-song quality that undermines the electronic perfection, and even better, the touring production employs a live choir. In our case, that meant Mia Hall Miller’s Pacific Youth Choir, and they delivered well enough to make me wish they had a bigger role in the score.

Davalois Fearon  in the middle of Stephen Petronio's "Like Lazarus Did"/photo by Julieta Cervantes

Davalois Fearon in the middle of Stephen Petronio’s “Like Lazarus Did”/photo by Julieta Cervantes

The songs (and they aren’t really songs, more like samples) don’t connect in a linear, literal narrative. They are more like implications of stories, than stories themselves, mantra-like (as Andrew Boynton wrote in The New Yorker), though that’s not quite how they functioned.

So, Like Lazarus Did starts with the line, “I want to die like Lazarus did,” repeated many times. The curtain rises just a bit to reveal a man in a suit (Petronio) lying prone and still upstage, the choir rises into the sight of the audience, we see the legs of dancers moving in place. And then we hear, “Come out!” repeated several times.

Here, you have to know your Bible, I’m afraid. Jesus was summoned to heal Lazarus, but by the time he arrived, Lazarus had been dead for four days, and his family was distraught that Jesus had taken so long. Jesus says to Lazarus’s sister, “ I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die. Believest thou this?”

And then he orders the stone to the cave where the body of Lazarus lies to be moved aside, and yes, exhorts in a loud voice, “Come out!” (Or per the King James Version, “Come forth.”) Which Lazarus does.

The curtain rises and the dance begins in earnest with an exquisite set of movements performed by three sets of three dancers, combining in different ways, dancing in unison very deliberately, arms swinging and torso turning elegantly. And then we are off into the rest of the dance.

Stephen Petronio's "Like Lazarus Did"/David Rosenberg

Stephen Petronio’s “Like Lazarus Did”/David Rosenberg

Some of the sections of Like Lazarus Did are electronic only, no words, but frequently they come with lyric snippets song by Son Lux or the choir and usually both. “Done with this troubled world at last.” “No one but Jesus heard me.” Sometimes the lyrics are a little hard to understand, but this is how I heard one set: “I had so many children pulled out of me and into chains.” Another: “The world will be on fire, and you’ll hear the saints say Alleluia.” And then a lullaby at the end.

The choreography in those sections ranges from the soft stateliness of that opening scene to an almost raucous foursome, three men and a woman (Davalois Fearon), that has sexual undertones. Petronio’s vocabulary has the posture and rhythmic bounce of ballet, though he shatters the high carriage and twists the dancers into the ground, creates difficult angles and turns. The solos are all challenging and brilliantly executed. The last one, featuring Nicholas Sciscione dressed only in trunks, sticks in my mind best: a man collapsing in on himself, fighting to recover.

Until Petronio brought Like Lazarus Did to Portland, I had no idea that slaves in the American South used Lazarus as symbol of liberation. I had always thought of the story (as the Pharisees did, per the account of John) as a demonstration of power, and left it at that. And if pressed, I would have said that another Lazarus, the one in Luke (not John), a beggar who dies and is “carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom.” The rich man who turns him away? He dies, too:

And in hell he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazarus in his bosom.
24 And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.
25 But Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented.

Maybe the song is a conflation of the two? And the second story illustrates Petronio’s concerns a little better anyway, “cycles of reincarnation” (he says in the program). I’m not going to belabor this: Pretty soon we can be equating the human condition as a whole with slavery in the American South, and obviously, they are not equivalent. But another point emerges from Petronio’s dance: We have lessons to learn about that human condition from American slaves, preserved in the songs they sang themselves.

I felt my attention a couple of times during the wordless sections of Like Lazarus Did, a product of its repetition of movement vocabulary, perhaps. The words always snapped me to attention, though, sung by the choir or by Son Lux, words and sentiments made “strange” by the condition of slavery. Petronio shows us one way to make sense of them, phrase by dance phrase, and gives us the chance to interpret them ourselves in our own way, a door nudged ajar.