Singer-songwriter Valerie June has been knocked down, but never out, by heartbreak, illness, and hardship. Now in his early 60s, choreographer and dancer Stephen Petronio has built a life and a body of work by deciding whose rules he is prepared to follow.

AIRED: October 29, 2021 | 0:26:46

- [Narrator] Articulate with Jim Cotter,

is made possible with generous funding,

from the Neubauer Family Foundation.

(bright music)

- Welcome to Articulate,

the show that explores how creativity,

is the very bedrock of what makes us human.

And on this episode, "The Indefatigable".

The singer songwriter Valerie June has been knocked down,

but never knocked out, by heartbreak, illness,

and financial misfortune.

- [Valerie] This is what I'm constantly trying to do,

with my life, in every moment,

'cause there's a lot of sadness,

but it's like how can you use it as fuel?

- [Jim] And now in his early sixties,

choreographer Stephen Petronio has built a life

and a body of work, by fighting to control,

whose rules he's prepared to follow.

- [Stephen] Very early on in my dancing,

one of my teachers said,

well, you're like a faucet that turns on,

and you need to learn to modulate it.

And I went home,

and it was meant to be like a teaching lesson.

And I'm very stubborn, and I thought that,

I was in bed that night and I was thinking,

I'm gonna take that thing that he just criticized

and I'm gonna make that my thing.

- [Jim] That's all coming up, on Articulate.

(bright music)

(tense music)

(upbeat music)

Walking home from school one day,

14 year old Valerie June Hockett

saw black smoke rising into the sky

in Humboldt, Tennessee.

As she got close, she realized that it was her own home

that was ablaze.

The fire took everything.

But her family had already been saving for their dream home.

And following the blaze,

a new job offer kept her family's dream alive.

- The stars aligned for my father

to get this job building a church.

And that money from that job,

he went down to this auction,

of this house we've driven by all my life.

It was a beautiful house,

it was this big old house in the country,

and he won the auction.

- [Jim] But she says that what she learned

from the purposefulness of her parents,

was that you don't always get what you want

or what you need.

- [Valerie] Think about my dad and, he knew the rules,

of what it meant to be a black business owner,

small business owner in the South,

and how much he had against him,

and he rewrote that story every day,

with the weight of five kids on him and a wife.

♪ Some are going with you

♪ Some you can't put down

♪ Some that you're leaving

- [Jim] Valerie June has rewritten her story

many times, fearlessly,

and in ways that defy easy categorization.

The New York Times has called her,

simultaneously rural and cosmopolitan,

historically minded and contemporary,

idiosyncratic and fashionable,

mystical, and down to earth.

♪ Two roads

♪ But one you took

- [Valerie] It's just like dealing with that idea

from Robert Frostman when you know, he was saying,

we get two roads and you choose one

and we have to do that all the time and I'm like,

but what about the other road?

I don't wanna choose.

Clearly I don't wanna choose.

I can't choose a genre in music, I can't choose one way,

I don't wanna just go one way.

♪ Two roads

♪ Two roads

♪ But one you took

♪ Two roads, two roads, two roads ♪

- [Jim] She credits her parents dad, Emerson,

and mom, June, for much of her fearlessness.

- [Valerie] They broke down those doors for us,

so I never felt like there was anything I could,

I wouldn't achieve, or go for,

just because of the color of my skin.

I always felt like, sure, I can do that, why not?

(acoustic music)

- [Jim] Valerie June began composing

melodies and lyrics at an early age.

At 18, she left Memphis with her soon to be husband

and much parental disapproval.

They performed together as the soul duo, Bellasun.

But it never felt quite right to her.

- [Valerie] I did try to sing more soulfully.

I tried to sing more like in a way that,

would be digestible for people, because of the way I look.

But, it just, I knew it wasn't working,

I knew it wasn't me, and so, I just stopped.

It really felt like I was wearing a different body suit

or something.

Like I was being someone else.

- [Jim] By 2005, the marriage was over.

In Memphis, June wrote songs at night

and cleaned houses by day.

She began performing these new songs in small venues,

but for all her persistence, success took its final time.

- [Valerie] When I first started,

I wanted things to happen fast, but,

I enjoy just,

this whole,

like just every day moving towards something

versus like it all being here for me.

I wrote a poem about it, and it's just dealing with,

like the old growth trees.

I worked and waited for something grand,

but it never came.

A bead of sweat, my accolade,

my work speaking for my name.

The winter of my journeys here,

collectively I see,

the treasure of a life's work,

like the rings of an old growth tree.

- [Jim] June finally began learning guitar,

and then went to Andy Cohen,

the seasoned blues man for lessons.

They mostly just sat and talked about music history,

the blues, gospel, Appalachian folk.

- [Valerie] And what I got from him was,

a list of amazing musicians to listen to.

'Cause he loved to talk about,

people like Reverend Gary Davis, or Mississippi John Hurt,

or Elizabeth Cotten, and just falling down this rabbit hole.

I've went through many holes, rabbit holes in music.

There was of course the Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins,

all of that and,

where I like listening to stuff like Son Rower, Bowie,

or Alice Coltrane, transcendinal sounds

that are more spiritual,

but really hard to explain at the same time.

(soft gentle music)

♪ Well if you're tired

♪ And you're feeling so lonely

♪ You wake up at night

♪ Thinking that only if you had somebody ♪

♪ Well I'll be somebody

♪ Somebody to love

- [Jim] In time Valerie June

would become a very fine guitar, banjo and ukulele player.

But her parents didn't understand

the ways in which she was changing.

They thought she was forgetting her roots,

but Valerie June had a vision.

In 2006 and 2008,

June cashed in her savings to make two self-produced albums.

She was putting money aside for a third,

when she was diagnosed with diabetes.

The medical bills left her penniless.

- [Valerie] There's just a point of surrender.

Like why go to aggression just let go.

Just be like, okay, yeah.

The way I look at it is, I did everything I could.

My savings is wiped out, I've lost everything.

I'm at the bottom. What next?

You know what I mean?

Like I can only go one way and that's up, so.

- [Jim] And just as when her family lost their home,

June found opportunity in adversity.

In 2010, she released the EP,

"Valerie June and the Tennessee Express".

By 2011, she was touring

and had swapped Memphis for Brooklyn,

preparing for bigger stages and bolder opportunities.

- [Valerie] I used to be so scared,

to get up on stage in front of people.

I focus my energy on, the songwriting part

and the inner side, and that involves a lot of soul.

♪ Yeah I got soul on me

♪ Yeah I got soul on me

♪ Yeah I got

♪ Sweet

♪ Soul

- [Jim] 2013's "Pushin' Against a Stone"

was her breakthrough record.

It was a hit in the US, Europe and beyond.

The songs told the story of her life,

of hard times, hard work, and good for nothing men.

The title was drawn from the myth of Sisyphus

and his eternal attempts to push a great stone off a slope.

- [Valerie] And I feel like,

we all have stones in every day.

That is a reality.

I'm not delusional,

and I'm not telling myself it's not there.

Yes, it is heavy, and it's gonna be hard,

and it's gonna feel like it's gonna roll back on me,

and I'm gonna get knocked over, but,

shift that perspective for a second,

and think about the possibility of it,

actually getting up the hill.

♪ When the race is run

♪ And the goal is won

♪ Look how far we've come

♪ Dancing

♪ In the sun

♪ It is then I know

♪ I can't let you go

♪ It is then I know

♪ It's not suitable

- [Jim] Her relationship with her parents

had never been the same after she left home.

But in 2015, the whole family came to New York

to see her perform at Carnegie hall.

Security had to be called, to stop her dad,

who was ill at the time, from dancing in the aisles.

- But I said no, don't grab that guy, that's my dad.

And then, everyone in the whole place got up

and started dancing.

And this is like the stuffiest place that you can play.

And so he's like dancing, and everybody was dancing

and yelling after that.

It was a real rock show after that.

♪ Is there a light

♪ You have inside you

♪ You can't touch

♪ A looking glass

♪ Can only show you

♪ So much

- [Jim] Less than two years later,

father Emerson Hockett died.

In 2019, she lost her best friend Mary Burns to cancer.

To grieve and to heal, she turned to poetry,

writing almost incessantly.

It turned into a book, 2021's "Maps for the Modern World".

- [Valerie] This one's called "A Life of Meaning".

I was,

I came,

I went.

I loved,

I lived,

I lent.

I gave,

I took,

I spent.

Look back, what has it meant?

To be in these bodies, to be able to smell a flower,

or play an instrument and feel the strengths

and feel the vibration of it against your chest,

that's what it's meant to me.

Just having those moments of,

living, being here.

Getting my chance.

♪ Reach out for the sky

♪ Black thoughts might come to bear you ♪

♪ And have you always asking why ♪

- [Jim] And Valerie June

is taking her chance every day.

She describes what she does

as organic moonshine roots music,

and it's constantly growing, evolving.

Her latest record, 2021's,

"The Moon and the Stars Prescription for Dreamers",

was released to critical acclaim,

with fans calling it musical medicine,

and the journey of healing.

And no one has appreciated that journey,

more than Valerie June herself.

♪ Why don't you do

(soulful music)

(bright music)

(upbeat music)

- [Jim] Stephen Petronio has always been keen to control

which rules he wants to follow.

He's a perfectionist with a wild streak,

and a history of questioning authority.

- If you do it with a smile,

people don't notice what you're doing.

- [Jim] Over the past 30 years,

he's built the legacy of a rock star choreographer,

crafting works that honor the traditions of dance,

while breaking its conventions.

♪ I've born so many children

The drive to be all that he really is,

without constraint, has kept Petronio going.

And at 65, he's at the top of the mountain,

drawn there, by curiosity.

- [Stephen] I'm very good at jumping off the cliff,

and thinking I might land.

- [Jim] Most recently,

he's landed in the Catskills,

at the Petronio Residency Center,

a retreat for dancers that became a sanctuary

for many during the pandemic.

And this idyllic 175 acre mountain side,

offers to others a luxury that Petronio had been given

earlier in his life,

the freedom and space for self discovery.

Before Stephen Petronio ever dreamed of dancing,

he watched his parents move together.

He was captivated by the way his usually stern father,

would become tender and carefree,

as he glided with his mother to the music.

- [Stephen] His relationship with my mother is romantic.

They flirt and laugh as if they were kids.

And like so many in the 1950s,

they can social dance like pros.

My jaw drops when they break out into alien personas

whose bodies speak this foreign language.

Assume a deeply charged poise,

his box office physique,

molding perfectly to my mother's off to grace.

(jazz music)

- [Jim] It was the 1960s in suburban north Jersey.

Little Stephen was wide-eyed and bookish,

his family large, Italian American, disciplined,

but he wasn't quite like them, or the other kids at school.

- [Stephen] And when I was growing up,

I was friends with every group, but not part of any group.

So I could move very fluidly through the jocks and the,

the punks and the freaks and then geeks and, you know,

I was comfortable with all of them,

engaged with all of them,

but I'm never really part of any one of those

so I know, I like to move.

- [Jim] In his teens, left to his own devices,

he pushed boundaries, experimenting with sex and drugs.

And in college, his practical plan to pursue medicine,

was quickly derailed by romance.

He met a girl,

and when she suggested he take a dance class, he did.

Within weeks he had ended up as a student

of the choreographer, Steve Paxton,

who was turning heads with a new dance form,

that combined the movements of gymnastics,

martial arts and sensual duets.

It was called, contact improvisation.

The dance was primal, experimental, for the first time,

Petronio saw a way to express his wild side creatively.

Through Paxton, Petronio discovered a world

he wanted to be a part of,

but it made him want to create his own.

Having come to dance so late, he had to catch up.

His fiery zeal kept him going through self doubt,

but sometimes, it threatened to burn him out.

- [Stephen] Very early on in my dancing,

one of my teachers said,

well, you're like a faucet that turns on,

and you'll need to learn to modulate it.

And I went home, and it was meant to be,

like a teaching lesson.

And I'm very stubborn, and I thought,

I'm gonna take that thing that he just criticized,

I'm gonna make that my thing.

- [Jim] Petronio was in the right place

at the right time.

His first mentors were giants in the postmodern dance world,

visionaries were rebelled

against the traditional formality of dance,

through a collective called, the Judson Dance Theater,

which celebrated the body's presence in the here and now.

For the first time, Petronio felt like he belonged.

He'd only been dancing for four years

and still had a lot to learn.

But his first iconic mentor, Steve Paxton,

led him to another, Trisha Brown.

- [Stephen] I had this vision, of me upright,

but tumbling through space and reaching out into space,

in a much more stretched way.

And that was the genesis,

when I first saw Trisha,

I walked into the theater and I saw her

and she was doing something very much like that.

And I felt like, oh my God, I've seen this,

although it hadn't existed before,

but I had seen it in my mind.

So, maybe I was visioning my future.

But I saw Trisha dancing,

a piece called Water Motor in '78 or '79.

I was a stage manager for a benefit

where she was performing.

I met her at the door, we smiled at each other,

I took her to her dressing room.

She went into the dressing room,

I went to the audience, and she did Water Motor

and my jaw dropped open and I was like, this is amazing,

and not that I know it, but I know it.

And so, I felt that I had to be around her.

- [Jim] Not long after,

Petronio became the first male dancer

in the Trisha Brown company,

and the choreographers creative progeny.

In Trisha Brown's company,

Petronio went from being a boy,

awkward and unsure of himself, to a seductive virtuoso.

He had found his purpose, but in downtown New York,

he'd also, once again, found decadence.

Wild parties, sex, drugs.

He wanted to have it all.

- [Stephen] I had a very lucky body,

that could do whatever I asked it to do,

everything I wanted to do, I just did.

- [Jim] All the while,

Petronio was finessing his own style.

It would soon become a company, Stephen Petronio Dance.

(upbeat music)

But it was the 1980s,

and just as Petronio's newly discovered life

as a choreographer, and a gay man began to flourish,

AIDS began to ravage his community.

Unable to just stand by,

he joined ACT UP, a coalition of activists and artists

demanding government action.

The energy of the movement charged and changed him.

He felt an urgent need to articulate this, through dance.

- [Stephen] That chaos is just, that came with me.

I can't take any credit for that, that's what I came with.

What you do with it is another proposition.

The course of my life has been,

learning how to channel that craziness.

- [Jim] Chaos was the language he used

to express his anger and grief about AIDS,

in his iconic work, Middlesex Gorge.

It helped define Petronio as a choreographer,

unafraid to depict sex, sensuality, and controversy,

with depth, skill, and speed.

- [Stephen] It start with,

how do you make things, and how you make the next thing,

and then how do you make the thing after that?

And then there's 35 years of that.

- [Jim] These past three decades

of leading his own company,

have finally pushed Petronio to his limits.

It's been everything he's ever wanted,

but it hasn't come with peace or comfort.

And as he hit middle age, his indulgences,

began catching up with him.

- [Stephen] The amount of alcohol I was drinking,

really began to take its toll on me.

But up until that moment, I was like,

a couple bottles of wine every night,

and you know, I never missed rehearsal.

- No, hang overs?

- [Stephen] Hang overs constantly,

but that to me it was normal.

I just woke up with a headache, and thought,

that's what I did.

And my body never failed me.

- And was there a tipping point?

- Oh yeah, so it was around 50.

I had like, you know,

one of those crazy blackout experiences in public,

at a birthday party.

And the devil showed up, and I went nuts,

and, the next morning I realized that I was,

I could keep that in,

previously, and then suddenly I couldn't

and I think that was a, it was a physical thing.

So, one of my friends began counting days with me,

and I haven't had a drink since.

- [Jim] And as Petronio got sober,

his vision broadened and brightened.

But he saw a country in the process of radical change.

By 2019, he had started to question what his role might be.

- [Stephen] I made something called Hardness 10.

And it was the most abstract, geometric,

methodical thing I'd ever done.

It was my only response to what happened,

because I couldn't, I was just like speechless.

So I thought, let me make something as hard as the diamond,

and as beautiful as I can, and that's all I can do.

- [Jim] Without expressing any emotion.

- [Stephen] Yeah, without expressing anything.

And then, my voice opened up,

and I wanted to look, a little bit more, at what I saw.

And I learned a lot of things that I didn't wanna learn.

- Such as?

- [Stephen] Because I was an artist, and a queer,

I thought that I was on the right side of the story,

and I began to, become aware, of how complicit I was,

in a game that helped to propel me up on to this mountain.

So, that was a hard thing to happen.

In the middle of that creative process,

I was not expecting that discovery.

I was expecting, you know,

I've always been on the right side of the argument.

So, I was expecting to be on the right side of the argument,

and that piece was the crack open,

of a whole nother world of learning for me.

- [Jim] At a time when others of his age

are thinking of retirement,

Stephen Petronio is rising up,

jumping at the trials of becoming an elder.

But sticking the landing, isn't always easy.

- [Stephen] I'd noticed, that, some of the things that I,

I was always just making things, making do,

making it work that year,

and we're making it work that year.

And for me now, it's more,

I will always be about making work,

but it's also about how do I encourage the next generation

to do what I was encouraged to do?

So, I don't think that would be,

a non sober goal.

(theatrical music)

- [Jim] Over the years,

Stephen Petronio has managed to marry excess and excellence.

Now he's channeling those earlier patterns of addiction,

into a healthier obsession,

encouraging a new generation of dance makers, to achieve,

even exceed their potential.

(man shouting)

- [Stephen] The constant lesson in my life of about dance,

is that you can go into a room, not knowing anything,

and with enough experience,

you can come out with something that can be interesting.

That's kind of spilled into the rest of my life.

If I don't know something, I'm very drawn to it.

There's no language in the contract,

that I have to like what that is.

And so, that's the lesson I'm learning now.

And it's a very interesting lesson, and it's so exciting.

It's thrilling to have that be out of my control

because how could you possibly control it?

(dramatic music)

- [Jim] Stephen Petronio

has forged an extraordinary path, in life, and in dance.

Full of backs and forths, ups and downs,

sometimes planned, often improvised.

And he's found a sense of self, of home, of purpose,

sticking close to the edge, and sometimes, jumping off.

For more Articulate,

find us on social media, or on our website,

On the next Articulate, writer Tochi Anyibuchi

imagines worlds that never were,

but always grounds them in this one.

And Steven Powers wants the murals he creates

to be democratic,

and reflections of the communities they occupy.

I'm Jim Cotter, join us for the next Articulate.

(bright upbeat music)

- [Narrator] Articulate with Jim Cotter,

is made possible with generous funding,

from the Neubauer Family Foundation.

(bright music)


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