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Stephen Petronio’s “Underland was built as a non-narrative, non-linear look at Australian artist Nick Cave’s music; the choreography grew from and represents the emotional tones of the work, not its exact lyrics. At least, that’s what the program notes say.  But having seen the show, I beg to differ.

Petronio’s evening-length work presented Cave’s songs as individual vignettes; each musical episode created a unique visual landscape through the use of video accompaniment and costume changes. Slow-moving video images featured close-ups of human bodies, atomic bombs and antiques; costumes ranged from fatigues to bejeweled bras and tutus, but always showcased the dancers’ legs.

Photo credit: Sarah Silver

But though the video accompaniment and dancers’ costumes changed significantly between musical episodes, the choreography and emotional dynamics – or lack thereof – remained the same. Leaps, arabesques and turns, despite their perfect execution by the company members, became stale after many iterations, and though Petronio diversified his dancers’ groupings between vignettes, new energy and interpersonal relationships rarely formed onstage.

The most glaring shortcoming of Petronio’s work was its lack of clear choreographic impetus. Besides the obvious through line of being set to Cave’s music, dancers’ phrases did not seem to stem from a place of emotional depth and complexity. Often the same major choreographic components – leaps, turns, high legs and straight lines in the arms – were used to represent moods as different as dark whimsy and grief, which made emotive content unbelievable.

All in all, I found “Underland” to be a disappointment – both as an individual work and as a member of the ADF’s 79th Performance Season. If you saw the concert, I would love to hear your feedback! Leave me a comment and let me know what you thought.


Concept and Choreography: Stephen Petronio

Assistant to the Artistic Director: Gine Grenek

Music: Nick Cave

Presented by The American Dance Festival

Durham Performing Arts Center, Durham, NC

June 16, 2012