Ralph Gardner Jr: Dancing To Nature

Aug 17, 2019

Stephen Petronio at Crow’s Nest, the Petronio Residency Center in Roundtop,NY
Credit Ralph Gardner, JR.

There are studies coming out every day about the therapeutic benefits of nature. A walk in the woods, besides being pretty and good exercise, increases mental health, not to mention spiritual development.

That probably goes double for artists – specifically dancers who may spend time on the A train shuttling between rehearsals and restaurant jobs.

What psychological and creative effect a stand of birch or a babbling brook has on movement and choreography is undoubtedly challenging to quantify but the choreographer Stephen Petronio is confident that it’s significant.

It’s also the idea behind Crow’s Nest, the 175-acre dance residency center he recently created in the Catskills.

Petronio sponsors one-week residency programs where choreographers and their dancers are given the exclusive run of the place, including full room and board and locally sourced meals by an on-site chef.

A regional development grant has also allowed Petronio to hold weekend dance workshops and ballet classes for local children and teenagers.

“When a choreographer comes up here,” said Stephen whose eponymous dance company has toured the world for the past thirty-five years, “I want you to feel like you’ve died and gone to heaven for a week. Well maybe not died.”

He was showing me around the place, which is at the end of a winding dirt road in Roundtop, NY.

Much of life, sadly, fails to live up to one’s romantic expectations. This place exceeds it in rather quirky ways.

It’s basically a pre-fab palace with lovely touches such as a 3,300 bottle wine cellar, a flamingo pink bathroom and majestic fireplaces the previous owners imported from France.

There are two wings – one for the choreographer, the other for the dancers.

After attending Hampshire College and realizing that pre-med didn’t really call to him, Stephen became the first male dancer in the Trisha Brown Dance Company in 1979 and founded his own company five years later. His collaborators have included Rufus Wainwright, Laurie Anderson and Yoko Ono. As well as visual artists such as Cindy Sherman and Anish Kapoor.

The sale of a Kapoor work helped fund Crow’s Nest as did a $75,000 contribution from Sherman for an organic garden named in honor of her pet macaw, Mr. Frieda.

The garden’s maze of 24 planting beds, blooming with beans, broccoli and tomatoes, was designed by Jean-Marc Flack, Mr. Petronio’s husband.

The garden serves two or more purposes. It provides nourishment for the dancers as well as an organized space – one might go so far as to describe it as choreographed – for participants to ease into nature.

“A lot have never been in nature,” Stephen explained of the dancers. “It scares them.”

There’s also an air-conditioned dance studio and a screened-in terrace known as “The Perch” with stunning views across the Hudson Valley of three states.

By the way, while the recipients of the residencies are determined by an All-Star group of choreographers, funders and curators the place is also for rent. And naming opportunities remain rampant, funding being a constant challenge in the dance world and, sadly, most other human endeavors that prioritize creativity over commerce.

“I’d name a blade of grass,” Stephen said unapologetically.

I also found interesting his explanation for why famous painters and photographers are among his most passionate supporters. “There’s a long history of visual artists investing in the dance world because our work is ethereal,” he explained.

It’s an interesting notion. While the creative process is its own reward – if not you should be looking for some other field of endeavor because the financial rewards can be temperamental, to put it mildly – at least the end result is an artifact: a book, a painting, a piece of sculpture.

With dance it’s almost as ephemeral as the breezes rustling the leaves surrounding The Perch.

Well, perhaps not quite. The Stephen Petronio Company’s recent run at Hudson Hall in Hudson, NY included two 1970 works by Merce Cunningham. It was part of “Bloodlines,” a five-year project that honors not only the lineage of post-modern dance but also Stephen’s creative roots.

The Petronio Residency Center in the Catskills doesn’t just qualify as Stephen’s next act – he divides his time between there and an apartment in Manhattan’s Hamilton Heights neighborhood – but also as an investment in the future of dance.

He explained that a talented choreographer can put together a piece on short notice, say three weeks. But that’s a lot different from what emerges if he or she has a few months to muse on the work. And the Petronio Residency is aimed at early stage collaborations between choreographers and their dancers -- free, at least for one blissful week, of the demands and pressures that tend to be an inextricable aspect of dancers’ lives. With more breathing room, both literally and figuratively, the language of the piece becomes more fully formed.

“I think the value is spending time together in solitude,” Stephen told me. “Eating, drinking, thinking about the work you’re doing. It’s molecular.”

Our tour also included the professional grade kitchen, which can feed fifty at a single sitting. Never underestimate the importance of nourishment to the creative process.

“For a dancer the needs of your body are food and water. And sometimes wine,” Stephen said. “The remuneration is very small and a dancer’s life is very short. When you treat someone extra special they behave extra special. And that’s exactly what you want.”

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

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