Tere O’Connor will be in Seattle next week! 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, nine days of activities focused on O’Connor’s influential views on dance and contemporary culture. Irreconciliability includes a choreographic workshop with O’Connor, Making Dances, at Velocity Dance Center; where you can experience first-hand the choreographic process described by Andrew Boynton in this piece for The New Yorker.
For thirty years, Tere O’Connor has made unclassifiable dance works; watching them is like seeing into his dancers’ minds, as their thoughts and sensations speed by, pile up, and coincide with others’ thoughts and sensations. He has said that his dances “do not search to create narrative resolution.” Without the burden of assigning meaning or stories to his dances, we are free to revel in his capacity for inventive movement and his talent for structure and composition, and to let images accumulate with their own logic. At New York Live Arts recently, Tere O’Connor Dance presented two new works, quite different from each other but both indicative of their creator’s gifts.
O’Connor is a searching artist, open to new impulses that can shape his choreography. He is also a sought-after teacher, guiding other choreographers, many of them young, as they try to figure out their place in the dance world. The first of the works at N.Y.L.A., “Secret Mary,” was made in collaboration with the piece’s performers—Tess Dworman, devynn emory (the artist prefers the all-lowercase spelling), Ryan Kelly, and Mary Read—whom O’Connor has mentored, and O’Connor generously credited them as choreographic collaborators in the program. The work opened with big flashing circles of light hitting the dark stage, partially illuminating Dworman, who stood, feet planted, in the center of the space and rotated her torso, her arms flailing around her and her long ponytail swinging. Kelly, emory, and Read stood downstage, clustered together, watching her. Rather, two watched and one looked away.
Such details of focus held the piece together throughout. Personalities were established early on: emory was deadpan, Kelly serious, Dworman concerned, Read dryly amused. Each had a distinct style of moving, but, in their simple costumes of colored tights and shirts, even when they were all engaged in their own activities they seemed to belong to some quirky band, united by glances. They drew the audience into their orbit that way, too. Read, facing upstage, ended a solo (again, two of the others watched and one didn’t) with a rapid-fire shake of her behind, then turned and gave us a bored, and very funny, look. In a duet for Read and Kelly, the two stood in wide fourth positions downstage, holding their arms triumphantly in the air, rolling their shoulders back and forth; Read’s eyes were fixed on something in the high distance, and Kelly’s peered into the darkness of the audience, as though he wanted validation, or perhaps just a connection with us. It was a subtle, and delectable, piece of theatre.
Much of the choreography in “Secret Mary” looked as though it had been made by the dancers, incorporating their quirks. O’Connor, as he frequently does, mixed in ballet steps—a plié-tendu combination, an arabesque, a held relevé—and the disparate aesthetics worked together to deliver a curious combination of poignancy and humor: emory clambered around Kelly’s upper body as he walked, trying to assume graceful positions and mostly failing, but managing to achieve dainty hand flourishes nonetheless; later, Read stood behind emory in relevé, her delicate hand and arm gestures recalling emory’s. After a floppy phrase, the quartet straightened up as their hands migrated down to their crotches, their fingers flicking through a series of inscrutable signals.
There was no music in “Secret Mary.” In silence, dancers rely on visual cues given by others (unison phrases help keep people together, and there were a few of these here), or, if they can’t see their fellow-performers, a pattern of footfalls or a body part smacking the floor does the trick. (Other elements of the production were affected this way, too. At one point, the dancers were all seated center stage, and at the same time fell back with a splat, which seemingly brought up a big rectangle of light, which enveloped the four.) “Secret Mary” was about twenty minutes long, and for that much time silence can be challenging for an audience as well as for the performers. But O’Connor makes dances that you want to keep watching, and this piece was no different. It was like a poem, full of unconnected imagery that in the end coalesced to make an improbable sense.
The next dance acknowledged the poetry; it was called “poem.” But preceding it was a kind of entr’acte. As the cast of “Secret Mary” took their bows, we could see the dancers in “poem” entering and standing behind the lighting trees at stage left. Dworman, emory, Kelly, and Read ran off after their bow, and then back on, all the way to the other side; the “poem” dancers joined them, and for a few passes the two groups created a wash of simple runs, with torsos bent over or arched back, joyously. Eventually, the “Secret Mary” dancers filtered out, leaving the “poem” dancers onstage. It was a clever transition, linking the works by removing a real break between them.
As this shift was happening, we heard the first sounds of James Baker’s score, a rattling motif. The five dancers wore motley costumes by James Kidd—Natalie Green a black sleeveless dress; Michael Ingle a loose brown tank top and brown shorts; Oisín Monaghan an oversized dark-gray shirt over trunks; Heather Olson a pair of aqua trunks and a white collared short-sleeved shirt; and Silas Riener a gray-and-white playsuit—that, like those of “Secret Mary,” were different enough from one another to allow each dancer to have an identity but similar enough in style to place the group in a single universe.
From the start, it was apparent that “poem” was a more structured piece. A wide border of light marked out a square that was nearly as big as the stage—an elegant detail by Michael O’Connor, who designed the lights for both works on the program. The three men lay on their backs, their rear ends touching, and embarked on a Busby Berkeley-esque scissoring and overlapping of their legs. The idea of observation that had been established in “Secret Mary” continued here: the women just watched, and somehow their watching was as riveting as the men’s sharp maneuvering. O’Connor’s witty placement of the men played a part in this: when we really wanted a closeup view of the legs’ patterns, the trio was relegated to the upstage left corner, about as far from us as it was possible to be.
O’Connor often employs such unexpected spatial juxtapositions, and in “poem” he took advantage of the possibilities inherent in a cast of five. Three-against-two passages were plentiful, some static (in an early duet for Riener and Green, the other three flanked them at the perimeter, watching, one on each side) and some moving (Ingle, Monaghan, and Olson stepped slowly, trancelike, their arms moving through space at shoulder height; Riener and Green, dancing amid this activity, eventually adopted the others’ cadence and vocabulary). A trio for Green, Ingle, and Riener had them leaping around the stage to the point of exhaustion, which they reached as they came directly downstage, their bodies slumping more and more, their legs barely getting off the ground, till they collapsed, prostrate. In front of them, Olson and Monaghan held hands, their free arms performing an elaborate mini-ballet—the most extravagant secret handshake ever.
Baker’s score—piano, guitar, keyboard, and percussion phrases, augmented by various clicks, drones, chirps, buzzes, and ambient sounds, with abundant silence in between—served as a clever counterpoint to the dance, its freedom and randomness highlighting the choreography’s rigor while at the same time nodding to a captivating oddness that ran through the forty-minute work. Indeed, many of the dance phrases seemed like whimsical rituals, as when Ingle and Riener picked up Olson from a standing position and placed her on all fours, over and over. Such wry passages were sprinkled amid the precise groupings and the technical vocabulary, much of it based in ballet and Cunningham, which the cast handled beautifully. (Riener was a member of Cunningham’s company, but his mastery of that technique, while readily apparent in “poem,” was never distracting.)
The emotional center of the dance was Olson. She has danced for O’Connor for many years, and is a perfect interpreter of his work, simultaneously fierce and fragile. She always seems completely comfortable in whatever idiom O’Connor has set forth, and her fine-featured face and piercing eyes bring to mind a silent-film actress—Lillian Gish, perhaps. Little dramas arose throughout “poem,” and Olson carried these with ease. Sometime after she held Monaghan’s hand, he offered his to Riener, and she turned away, miffed, her hands on her hips. In Olson’s underplayed rendering, though it prompted giggles, it was ineffably sad.
A Tere O’Connor dance leaves us with only what we’ve seen, and the thoughts and feelings it inspires. That’s how O’Connor wants it. As he’s written, “Each image or ‘sign’ in a dance is shaped by the presences that precede and follow it. The force of this inevitable temporal onslaught disarms images from any hope for singularity of meaning.” He gives us license to sit back and simply experience dance. Or, more to the point, to keep discovering dance with him. Next year, he will take “Secret Mary” and “poem” and one other new work and collapse them into yet another dance, the next step in his ongoing investigation.
Photograph, of Tess Dworman, Mary Read, Ryan Kelly, devynn emory, by Paula Court.