In the 1980s, Stephen Petronio had a corner on the role of brainy, gender-bending, corset-hugging choreographer able to jam complex, fractured action into a movement phrase. His vocabulary fused equal parts balletic line, postmodern flow and dance club funk -- a movement language that was simultaneously elegantly composed and in a state of decomposition.
Thanks to San Francisco Performance's long-standing relationship with the company, local audiences got to see Petronio's transfixing "Like Lazarus Did" at the Lam Research Theater at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Friday night. The hour-long performance repeats Saturday.
On its own terms, "Lazarus" is a gorgeous, atavistic dance less interested in its own fracturing than in transformation. The cast's 10 supple dancers vary from tiny to tall, willowy to beefy, yet they share an authority that allows them to attack movement like members of a Greek chorus, each one of them part of a larger story of fate.
This quality is amplified through Petronio's collaboration with the San Francisco Girls Chorus, composer Son Lux and designer Janine Antoni. Together they imbue "Lazarus" with the quality of a modern rite of sorrow and transcendence, hinging on American slavery and spilling outward from there.
As the work begins, 34 young singers of the Girls Chorus enter the stage in front of the slightly raised curtain, stopping left of Petronio's prone, suited and barefoot body to sing "I want to do what Lazarus did...." This is one of Lux's compositions for relatively unknown slave songs from the 1800s that exist as text in a book.
Soon the curtain opens to reveal a red wire helicopter rescue basket hung from the flies holding another prone body (Antoni), plastic fragments of a human form dangling above the figure, and below the basket, a small rescue light. This is raised above the action for the duration of the work -- representing the dead, the afflicted, the resurrected.
From the outset of the dance, we know we're on iconic territory. Echoing figurative poses from Renaissance paintings, the dancers step forward onto demi-pointe in fifth position, the palms of their hands facing out, wrists vulnerably softened as Jesus' are so often depicted, then angle and swoop over in suggestions of invitation and of sorrow. Three groups of three dressed in tunics move as in a kind of chant.
They perform swift grand plies from fifth position, forearms held vertically like surgeons who have just scrubbed, and rise again to repeat, vary and descend again.
The effect is soon trancelike. From death to childlike birth or rebirth that hints at a personal trajectory as well as an impersonal one, we enter a mythic realm. At one point, the dance descends into an orgy where gorgeous Davalois Fearon is a cog in a human sex machine and on into a mourning scene of falling and carrying, suggestive of mass loss, then culminating in a nearly naked solo dancer moving with the awkward geometry of a baby. Each section explores the human capacity to enter into and outwit sorrow and death -- and does so with heart-squeezing mystery.
Ken Tabachnick's brilliant baroque lighting taking us from smoky light into hues of crushed berries and glowering browns, and Antoni's tunics morphing from fragments of shrouds to vestments, join Petronio and Lux in creating a place of metaphor. It bounds past analysis and plunges us into the ineffable.
San Francisco Performances presents "Like Lazarus Did"
When: 7:30 p.m. March 15
Where: Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 700 Howard St., San Francisco
Tickets: $35-$50, 415-978-2787, sfperformances.org