But to mark the 30th anniversary of his company, Petronio casts a more introspective eye toward the human body in “Like Lazarus Did,” which premieres on the West Coast this week at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.
The dance, a reflection on death and rebirth, has a sensuous line of movement and narrative thread that is more contained than typical for the dancemaker.
“Speed and motion is a very natural state for me,” Petronio says. “I understand how to move quickly. When you go faster you turn into butter — so we turned into butter.”
“Lazarus” draws on influences from multiple spiritual traditions, and specifically refers to the Biblical tale about a righteous man’s resurrection.
Petronio, who wears a large crucifix (“It was my father’s … I wear it to be closer to him,” he says), saw in the tale of Lazarus a theme that resonated both personally and artistically.
“Thirty years is a lot of resurrections,” he says, laughing. To establish the sense of life here and hereafter, he enlisted sculptor and performance artist Janine Antoni, whom he considers the “consciousness” of the piece.
As the dancers move onstage, Antoni will be suspended above them, motionless and meditating inside a hanging sculpture of her own creation.
“I thought — what can I offer the piece?” Antoni says. “I thought stillness would be an interesting thing to offer.”
The acoustic and electronic score by Ryan Lott, also known as post-rock, alt hip-hop musician Son Lux, draws from American slave spirituals and Eastern meditative drones.
Vocals, provided live by the San Francisco Girls Chorus, create a poignant counterpoint to the dance, and hint of angelic beatitude. A line from one of the slave songs they sing, handed down through oral tradition, inspired the title of the piece.
“The fact that these spiritually elevating songs were sung by the most oppressed of people offered a new key to getting out of body through music,” Petronio says.
It also provided its own kind of mystery. He adds, “Almost every religion promises some kind of rebirth or resurrection. How odd that the only thing you can’t prove is the thing that drives the marketplace of all these religions.”
IF YOU GO
Stephen Petronio Company
Where: Lam Research Theater, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 700 Howard St., S.F.
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday
Tickets: $35 to $50
Contact: (415) 978-2787, www.sfperformances.org