Janine Antoni and Stephen Petronio’s Honey Baby
Janine Antoni and Stephen Petronio’s Honey Baby
Artist Janine Antoni and choreographer Stephen Petronio’s Honey Baby is a knockout, a warped dance piece designed to give viewers a window into the in-utero world. In the 14-minute video, we experience a fully grown-up “baby,” dripping with honey, moving slowly, somewhat tortuously, squirming and tumbling and stretching against a circular enclosure that is bathed in a yellowish light. The mesmerizing, provocative spectacle plays with our notions about birth, the body, movement, and eroticism.
Honey Baby has its origins in Trevor, an earlier piece by Petronio; both were performed by Nicholas Sciscione, a member of the New York-based Stephen Petronio Company. The dancer’s naked “birth solo” was built on images from the sonogram of one of Petronio’s relatives.
Antoni said she and the choreographer met “at a time when we were both interested in change and rethinking our creative processes.” Their first project together was 2013’s Like Lazarus Did. “I’ve been exploring different forms of somatic dance practices,” she explained. “I always have some kind of parallel practice going on, some physical practice that’s inspirational to my making practice.”
“I had been working on this idea of reincarnation and bringing things back to life, which was right up her alley,” Petronio told Pasatiempo. “We began a long and passionate series of conversations that became
Like Lazarus Did.” For that piece, the artist suspended herself above the dancers and the audience for the duration of the hourlong performance.
She then had the idea of altering Trevor by having the dancer perform in honey, which would serve as an equivalent of amniotic fluid. “When Stephen first came to me, I wanted to interact with the dancers’ bodies,” said Antoni, who is known for using her own body in her art pieces — for example, painting with her hair and eyelashes, peeing off the Chrysler Building via one of its gargoyles, and immersing herself in a tub of lard. “I didn’t want to make a set that was just an object behind the dancers. I wanted to really get in there, in the way that I work with my own body. I suggested a few interventions, and one was the honey, but I guess putting honey all over a dance floor is dangerous business.” The idea was put on the shelf until she got a show at the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh. She and Petronio then designed a vessel within which a honey-soaked Sciscione performed.
Antoni worked with composer Tom Laurie and with cinematographer Kirsten Johnson to capture the stunning piece on video. “We wanted to make Nick look like he was suspended in space like we imagined the baby would be in utero,” she said. “The thing that excited us about that is that when you think about it, dance is all about gravity. So could we create an illusion that would make you rethink the body moves completely by removing gravity? The way that’s done, really, is by the orientation of the camera.
“This is a womblike environment, and the movements are coming from early development,” said Antoni, who is a birth mother and considers the process to be miraculous. “But Nick is clearly a man, so there’s a really interesting space of sensuality, and it’s about the mother and the womb as a female space. Also, the camera goes closer and closer in, so you’re in the womb with him.”
In their process, both Antoni and Petronio tried to blur the lines between their respective areas of expertise. He let her into the choreographic process with the dancer, and she worked closely with Petronio on the more sculptural aspects of the piece. “I was really into the idea that we could get something that Stephen can’t usually work with on the proscenium stage, which was the level of detail and also the slowness that happens in the video,” the artist said.
“What’s beautiful about this story,” Petronio said, “is that I’ve been collaborating for many years, and Janine is the first person to invite me into her world. So we designed the vessel together, and we figured out the entire film together, and we moved the baby together. What was also really exciting is that having the camera that close to the subject allowed me to work at a much more microscopic level. Usually I try to exaggerate things for the stage, and this was kind of the opposite process.”
Since Honey Baby, the two have been collaborating and doing some role-switching, in sculpture and performance. They are currently working with dance and choreography pioneer Anna Halprin on a piece for the Fabric Workshop Museum in Philadelphia. “Anna wrote a piece for Stephen and I and another piece for me. The result will be a performance, sculpture, a book, and a documentary. It’s a monster,” Antoni laughed.
Janine Antoni and Stephen Petronio: Honey Baby, 2013, video (stills); performer: Nick Sciscione, videographer: Kirsten Johnson, composer: Tom Laurie © Janine Antoni and Stephen Petronio; courtesy the artists and Luhring Augustine, New York.