Golden light

Janine Antoni & Stephen Petronio

In the video “Honey Baby,” it’s hard to tell which way is up.

In the video “Honey Baby,” it’s hard to tell which way is up.

Column note: “Honey Baby” is on exhibit through Oct. 22 at UNR’s Sheppard Gallery, 1664 N. Virginia St. A Q&A with the artists will be held at 7 p.m., Oct. 21 at UNR’s Davidson Math and Science Center, Rm. 110.

How might a choreographer and a sculptor/performance artist collaborate on a single work of art?

If that sounds like an awkward fit, meet Janine Antoni and Stephen Petronio. Their realms of investigation fit together like puzzle pieces.

Petronio is the leader of the Stephen Petronio Company in New York. His dancers exude all of the elegance and athleticism of ballet, but they exist in a world far from tutus and Swan Lake. Often they make abruptness, intensity and grace look like natural bedfellows. In a 2013 piece called “Like Lazarus Did,” dancers achieve circus-like contortion and vulnerable, corpselike quietness. A woman lies motionless on a platform near the ceiling, meditating throughout the performance.

The motionless woman is Antoni. Her resume includes MacArthur and Guggenheim fellowships—and many museum exhibits. She explores notions of how the body works as a symbol, as a tool, as a physical representation of historic gender roles. In a well-known piece titled “Loving Care,” for example, she dipped her long, dark hair into hair dye and dragged it across the floor, using her head to paint broad, swirling strokes, mimicking the action paintings of Jackson Pollock and his peers, creating similar imagery to theirs, only from a posture of submission rather that the postures of strength that pictures of Pollock in action convey.

Petronio—who has collaborated with musicians such as Lou Reed and visual artists such as Cindy Sherman—explained to the PBS program Art 21 that visual art, for him, fills in some of the gaps that dance leaves open.

In dance, he said, “[A] moment is precious because it goes away. You just get a glimpse of a movement, and you have to chase it or try to hold it in your memory. But a sculpture you can look at from all sides as long as you want, to stay in the room with it. I’m very jealous of that.”

Likewise, Antoni is quoted in an Art 21 blog saying that Petronio’s work has “this kind of exuberance and complexity. … What I would like to do is offer him stillness.”

The two made a piece in 2013 that incorporates all of those desires. It’s a 14-minute video titled “Honey Baby,” and it’s currently on exhibit in the University of Nevada, Reno’s Sheppard Gallery.

In the video, a nude, muscular, male dancer moves inside a confined, cylindrical space. He’s coated in a viscous liquid and silhouetted against a golden light. We hear sounds resembling those of muffled ocean waves. There are just enough shreds of narrative evidence that it’s tempting to want to piece them together. Is he trying to escape? Does he want to achieve a particular posture in a space too small to stand in? The sound becomes heartbeats. Does that indicate danger? Birth? Vitality?

All of these remain possible, but a narrative never coheres. And it becomes clear that you will not figure out which way is up—literally. For the dancer, the rules of gravity keep changing—it’s never clear which surface is his “floor,” and at times he appears to be floating.

Like Petronio’s dance, “Honey Baby” is intimate and disorienting. Like Antoni’s work, it invites us to examine physical processes as symbols. As a team, they make sculpture, dance and video seem like mediums that were meant for each other.