Tere O’Connor is coming soon to Seattle. Velocity partners with On the Boards in a celebration of master American choreographer Tere O’Connor, culminating in performances of his seminal works BLEED, poem, Secret Mary, and Sister. As part of this educational/community partnership, Velocity and OtB host Irreconcilability, nice days of activities focused on O’Connor’s influential views on dance and contemporary culture. As we anticipate this exciting series of events, we re-post Siobhan Burke’s article about O’Connor’s process for this series of works, originally published in the New York Times on July 10, 2014. Featured image by Andrea Mohin.
At the beginning of every project, the choreographer Tere O’Connor asks himself a basic question. As he said recently over coffee near his West Village apartment: “What am I doing? What is dance trying to do?”
“Dance doesn’t do a lot of the things that people think they’d like it to do,” he said. “I don’t think it tells stories very well, but people would really like it to.”
You won’t find a story, the linear kind, in the choreographic suite that Mr. O’Connor is bringing to the American Dance Festival in Durham, N.C., this week. The four parts of his “Bleed” project amount to a more porous kind of whole. Mr. O’Connor, a major force in contemporary dance, began the project in 2012, with what sounds like a simple, if ambitious, idea: creating three different works with three different casts, then folding those into a fourth. While each of the four — “Poem,” “Secret Mary,” “Sister” and the culmination, “Bleed,” featuring all 11 dancers — has been presented individually, the Durham engagement, beginning Sunday, brings them together in one place for the first time.
On paper, it may sound like cut-and-paste choreography: Take three parts, and combine. But Mr. O’Connor, known for his radically multifaceted movement and exquisite craftsmanship, wouldn’t devise anything so easy to imagine or describe. Talking with him about “Bleed” is not unlike watching it. Images proliferate, overlap, dissipate: Some of them you grasp; others pass you by.
The words “essences” and “ghosts” come up a lot, as in, “the essences and ghosts of past work.” One impetus behind “Bleed,” Mr. O’Connor said, was to examine what endures or disappears from one creative process to the next, not movement itself as much as how it’s structured, what it evokes. At 56, in the 33rd year of his career, with a résumé full of accolades — Guggenheim, Rockefeller and Bessie awards; his recent election to the Academy of Arts and Sciences — he has resisted settling into a single choreographic approach, so that his work, in some ways, remains a riddle even to him.
“I think he’s trying to get everyone and himself lost,” said Ryan Kelly, a dancer in “Secret Mary,” describing Mr. O’Connor’s methods of generating layer upon layer of movement. “That’s my speculation. Any preconceived notion of how a piece should be structured, how it should go, gets washed out by so many layers.”
Cynthia Oliver, Mr. O’Connor’s colleague at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where both are professors of dance, echoed those observations, noting his skill in subverting “rote or default movement.” She described the rehearsal process for “Sister,” a duet for her and David Thomson, as “fascinating, luscious, terrifying.”
“The amount of material that comes out of his body — it’s a constant wave of physical, intellectual, visual information,” Ms. Oliver said. “It requires a lot of you on every level.” (Those demands are eased, she added, by Mr. O’Connor’s “wicked sense of humor.”)
The premise of “Bleed” allowed Mr. O’Connor to pursue a few of his many ideas at once. The crystalline “Poem,” for five dancers, grew out of a reawakened interest in what he calls old-school formalism, while “Secret Mary,” a quartet, came from a desire to collaborate with artists whom he had mentored. (Young choreographers flock to his composition classes, both in New York and Illinois.) Reviewing these works at New York Live Arts in 2012, Alastair Macaulay, who has not always praised Mr. O’Connor, wrote in The New York Times, “The creative mind we sense behind the two pieces is sensuous, investigative, playful, subversive, witty, provocative, fresh, intense.”
Jodee Nimerichter, the director of the American Dance Festival, was also in the audience at that time. Mr. O’Connor hadn’t intended to show the “Bleed” project as a full series, but Ms. Nimerichter was so enthralled that she approached him about the possibility. “It seemed like an amazing opportunity to share his work in an in-depth way,” she said, adding that she was equally excited for a talk that Mr. O’Connor will give on Thursday. (This is also his company’s festival debut, though he has taught there in past years.)
“Sister,” which hasn’t been seen in New York, evolved through conversations with Ms. Oliver and Mr. Thomson; the three are old friends. “We know each other, and we also come from really different experiences,” Mr. O’Connor said. Mr. Thomson is from Jamaica and Ms. Oliver from the Caribbean island of St. Croix; Mr. O’Connor grew up near Rochester. In “Sister,” he harnessed that almost familial tension, “where things are very much the same, but just dissimilar enough to create difference,” he said.
That kind of multiplicity suffuses “Bleed,” which steers clear of what Mr. O’Connor calls “the palace of cogency,” home to structural conventions like variations on a central theme. (He favors no theme, all variation.) Where his work lives, paradox governs. Erasure is a form of construction; tangents are integral; ephemerality is “not a romantic thing” but “a substantive element that can be used”: just a few thoughts that came up in the making of “Bleed.”
But cogency isn’t entirely out of the picture. Mr. Kelly, the dancer, remembers his first encounter with Mr. O’Connor’s work, a performance of “Wrought Iron Fog” in 2009. “I thought, ‘This is really failing at being abstraction,’ ” Mr. Kelly recalled. “There were all of these nascent stories, the beginnings of stories, overlapping, interlaced.” And hazy representations: “Was that a 19th-century dress I saw walk by? Was that a dragon? Was that a Merce Cunningham piece? It’s almost in the past tense in your mind — did I just see that? — because it came in and out of the ether.”
That’s one thing that dance does well, Mr. O’Connor said: “Things come up and go away.”
Not unlike, well, everything in life. “It’s something that dance can teach us about a way to experience our presence on Earth,” he said, referring to that fleetingness. “As opposed to looking only for the story to work out. Because that doesn’t happen.”