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Dancing to Dylan; US choreographer Stephen Petronio was planning to pay homage to the Welsh choral tradition in his newly-commissioned dance. But he explains to Karen Price how Dylan Thomas' influences crept in.

IT was during a bus journey from London to Wales that American choreographer Stephen Petronio began coming up with ideas for a new piece of work.

He was travelling to the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff to see Bloom, which he'd collaborated ted on with US musician Rufus Wainwright.

He had just been commissioned by Ann Sholem, artistic director of National Dance Company Wales (NDCWales), to create a new dance for them.

"We were crossing over from England to Wales and I was struck by the countryside," says the celebrated New Yorker of his bus journey.

"It also hit me that Wales has a huge choral tradition, so I really wanted to make a piece related to that tradition.

"I mentioned it to Ann when I got off the bus and she liked it."

Sholem - keen to commission work from Petronio after NDC Wales staged his Strange Attractors - would send him recordings made by choirs to help him with his research.

But Petronio's plans started moving in a new direction and he found himself turning to Welsh poetry, which drew him into Dylan Thomas' work.

"The traditional choral work was not really quite right for me, but the Dylan Thomas text was amazing to work with," he says.

However, he admits that he rebelled against it for a while.

"I thought, there's no way I could do Dylan Thomas when going to Wales, how could I possibly do Dylan Thomas? "So I pushed it aside and kept reading, and then Dylan Thomas kept coming back to me.

"If you know his work, then you know how haunting it is, and how much is written in the sense of language and in the emotional rhythm that gets under your skin.

"And I thought well, you know, it's a big job but somebody's got to do it.

"I also feel like I'm at a stage in my life where I've seen the arc of work I've had for 25 years, and I'm now thinking more about what I want to add to that body of work.

"I really want to have something that I've done with Dylan Thomas, so that was the thing that really made me decided."

By Singing Light was born, and now NDCWales dancers will be staging it as part of the new autumn tour, which is previewed to invited audiences at the Dance House, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, tonight, before opening at The Riverfront in Newport next week as part of the city's Discover Dance festival.

Petronio, who started dancing in 1974, worked with composer Ryan Lott and the music features two pieces by late Welsh composer Mansel Thomas - Pe Cawn Ni Hon and Ar Lan Y Mr - combined with text from Thomas' In My Craft - a hymn to the vocation of the poet.

Some dance fans have already had a glimpse of By Singing Light, as Petronio held a number of open rehearsals as part of NCDWales' new initiative to allow audiences to go behind the scenes.

"It was very exciting," Petronio says of the first open rehearsal.

"It's always interesting to show your work to someone outside the inner circle for the first time.

"My only problem is that I can't curse," he laughs.

So how would Petronio describe the finished version, which runs for about 25 minutes? "It's Wales meets New York meets the past meets the present," he says.

When we speak, Petronio is taking a break from rehearsals and he says that the Cardiff-based dancers have responded "incredibly well".

"Today we had our first glitch - it was a difficult transition period. But it's all part of the process.

"If it was all smooth sailing, then I would be worried."

By Singing Light is touring alongside a revised performance of Romance Inverse from Netherlands-based choreographer Itzik Galili.

Next Spring, By Singing Light will be performed on the main stage of the WMC, which Petronio describes as "absolutely amazing". The New Jersey-born choreographer, who founded the Stephen Petronio Company 25 years ago, is clearly happy with the end result of his commission for NDCWales.

"I was thinking I wish I'd commissioned this for myself," he admits. "The music is amazing and the text is amazing."

National Dance Company Wales will visit Dance House, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, tonight (closed preview), The Riverfront, Newport on Tuesday, Theatr Hafren, Newtown on October 21-22, Venue Cymru, Llandudno on November 4, and Theatr Brycheiniog, Brecon, on November 18-19 For details on Newport's Discover Dance festival, which runs until October 5, visit www.newport.gov.uk/theriverfront

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Choreographer Stephen Petronio, left, and dancers in By Singing Light, above
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Sep 24, 2010
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