Stephen Petronio aims to surprise.
The New York-based choreographer, whose eponymous company makes its Olympia debut Thursday, is a creature of contradictions, a man whose work was described by the New York Times’ Roslyn Sulcas as “jarring and just right.”
Petronio’s work incorporates both abstract ideas and pop-culture icons — from Superman to “Sex and the City” — yet he aims to bypass the workings of the logical mind.
“I like to reach for the things that the body knows that the mind doesn’t,” he told The Olympian. “I like to make constructions that allow people to drift away from their normal rational experience and get involved in the kinesthetic world.”
Take his latest, “Hardness 10,” which debuted Tuesday in New York City and will make its West Coast premiere here.
He was inspired by the transformation of coal into diamonds — an esoteric process that you might have glimpsed, as Petronio did, in cartoons.
“I was thinking about the Superman cartoon, about how he compresses coal in his hand and turns it into a diamond,” the choreographer said. “That is a caricature of what happens.
“I like that something went from gritty and dirty to super powerful and then got faceted into this sparkling multidimensional thing of extreme value.”
In “Hardness 10” — a title that refers to the hardness rating of the diamond — the process becomes a metaphor for the transformation of the simplest movements into a dance.
“First you’re breathing, then you’re walking, then you’re running,” he said. “That’s basic movement. That turns into this highly specific and virtuosic movement that I’ve been making over the years.”
He also intends the dance to reveal the strength and power of women — a diamond in this case representing women’s inherent value rather than being a token of a man’s esteem.
It’s a timely theme in the #MeToo era and a perennial one for Petronio, who has been influenced professionally and personally by powerful women, including the late Trisha Brown, in whose dance company he was the first man to dance.
“I have always appreciated powerful women,” he said. “I started dancing as a contact improviser where men and women were equal. Women were as strong as men, because our bones are equally strong, and that’s what we use to lift each other in contact improvisation. So I’ve always felt that way.”
The costumes for Petronio’s piece were created by “Sex and the City” costume designer Patricia Field and Philadelphia designer Iris Barbee Bonner, also known as These Pink Lips. “There is feminist graffiti scrawled across the bodies,” he said. “You’ll see things like ‘Look don’t touch’ or ‘She’s the boss.’ ”
Petronio is known for his collaborations with a long list of cutting-edge fashion designers, artists and musicians — among them Laurie Anderson, Lou Reed, Cindy Sherman and Rufus Wainwright.
For 2017’s “Untitled Touch,” also on Thursday’s program, he worked closely with composer Son Lux (aka Ryan Lott), whose music has been described much the way Petronio’s dances have: distinctive, dynamic and surprising.
The dance, a response to our increasingly digital and divided culture, explores touch from the familiar — handshakes, hugs, romantic and sexual touches — to the wildly unexpected.
“We began to find other ways of touching each other, measuring and outlining and rubbing up against and butting parts of bodies that don’t normally get butted together,” he said. “It looks at another language of touch that might be possible.”
Costumes for “Untitled Touch” are created from fabrics covered with handprints — some of them Petronio’s own.
While he’s long been known as radical, Petronio has been honoring those who’ve influenced him, including Brown and Steve Paxton, which whom he studied contact improvisation.
Thursday’s program includes an excerpt from Paxton’s 1986 “Goldberg Variations,” set to Glenn Gould’s recording of the Bach score.
The piece was part of the company’s New York City program in 2017, and New York Times dance critic Alastair Macaulay dubbed it “the evening’s knockout.”
“The movement really is virtuosically musical — earlier postmodern dance was opposed to conventional musicality — and yet this musicality is largely of impulses within the torso,” Macaulay wrote, describing the soloist standing with his back to the audience, rapidly moving his shoulders, spine, waist and pelvis.
It is, like “Hardness 10,” an exploration of the range of movement possibilities, this time from micro to macro.
Stephen Petronio Company
What: The acclaimed dance company, known for incorporating new music and cutting-edge fashion, makes its Olympia debut with pieces that explore movements from simple to virtuosic and touch from expected to unconventional.
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday
Where: The Washington Center for the Performing Arts, 512 Washington St. SE, Olympia
Watch: Get an inside look at the creation of “Hardness 10,” making its West Coast debut in Olympia, at vimeo.com/259378338.