The Stephen Petronio Company has returned to the Joyce Theater this week, getting back into its pandemic-interrupted habit of performing there every spring. “We are still here,” Petronio writes in a program note. “We want to remind you of what we can do and of the possibility that we can challenge you and lift you up.” The show does remind, but the challenge remains more of a possibility, and the lift is a bit weak.
Despite the doubling in its title, “New New Prayer for Now,” which had its premiere on Tuesday, doesn’t feel very new. It starts with three bodies splayed facedown on the floor. As they rise, the recorded voice of Monstah Black, who provided the score, begins to sing “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” The dancers, half-dressed and stretching in Christian martyr poses, could be divers ready to jump. When the “lay me down” lyric arrives, they lie down.
“Prayer for Now” originated as a film earlier in the pandemic, and those origins seem evident in its static, in-place beginning. As much as the dance is about rediscovering interpersonal connections, it’s also about rediscovering stage space and more complex ways of activating it. The dancers hold hands and arrange themselves in complex daisy chains that are both louche and elastic, extending into straight vectors at odd angles. They take turns elevating and upending one another.
The score turns to “Balm in Gilead” and then to a very square-sounding choir singing “Troubled Water” in a different key. The lyrics allude to weariness and healing, but the tone of the music and dance is oddly sleepy, almost drugged, for a comeback piece. There’s a going-through-the-motions quality to how Petronio and his agile dancers show what they can do. It’s like much that they’ve done before.
The remainder of the program is more frankly retrospective. Following Petronio’s recent practice of including work by his predecessors, his dancers perform “Group Primary Accumulation” by Trisha Brown, in whose company Petronio danced. This work from 1973 is the only challenge on the program.
The Stephen Petronio Company dancers in Trisha Brown’s “Group Primary Accumulation,” from 1973.Credit…Julie Lemberger
It also begins with dancers lying on the floor — four of them, supine, their heads and feet pointing to the wings, their bodies arranged in a line from the front of the stage toward the rear, like reflections in a hall of mirrors. Accumulate is what the dance does, in silence and unison. First an arm is raised from the elbow, then from the shoulder. Later, heads and hips twist, but what’s crucial is that the sequence starts over after each move is added.
As in a lot of early Brown, a sensual surface is draped over an exposed structure of rules. It looks like a systematized abstraction of tossing and turning in bed. If there’s something numbing about the dogged insistence on starting over before moving on, there’s something delightful about the ingenuity of small variations. A late twist shifts the dancers’ orientation so that we see the sequence from different angles. It rotates so we don’t have to.
In the program closer, “Bloom,” from 2006, Petronio goes for accumulation’s less challenging cousin: escalation. In Rufus Wainwright’s inspirational setting of “Lux Aeterna” and poetry by Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson about buds and hope, the singer’s multitracked voice keeps rising. Petronio style is made for this — the pulled-up, tightly crossed bodies that collapse momentarily only to stretch and turn and leap some more. This is one of Petronio’s works that wears its heart on its fashionable sleeve.
It even features heart-string-tugging voices of youth, the Young People’s Chorus of New York City — that square-sounding choir recorded for “New New Prayer for Now” but singing live for this work from one of the Joyce’s balconies. Liveness matters. When the singers take off their masks and burst into song, the evening gets its biggest lift.
Stephen Petronio Company
Through Sunday at the Joyce Theater; joyce.org.