Roundabout Way

Claudia La Rocco on Tere O’Connor at On the Boards theater

Tere O’Connor, BLEED, 2013. Performance view, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Brooklyn, NY, December 10, 2013. Photo: Paula Court.

I’M ON A PLANE from Seattle to San Francisco. A little plane, tilting fiercely the way little planes do high up here in the dark clouds. It’s Monday night, 6:29 to be precise. I have just spent the weekend watching four dances by Tere O’Connor: The large ensemble work BLEED, which enfolds and explodes elements from the three smaller dances Secret Mary, Poem, and Sister.

So many bodies cast into and about space. Pleasures of full movement, both simple and ornate. Collisions of virtuosity, formalism, technique, rigmarole, the pedestrian, the absurd. All the little cruelties we casually gift to others, to ourselves. The events that don’t quite come into being, and in fact are gone before we have ever fully registered them. Torsos folding, manic arms, sensuous and sensual grasping. Bodies curled in and curving. Breathing room. Gender performed and performing. Moments in time as characters.

This mini-survey came courtesy of On the Boards theater and Velocity Dance Center, making Seattle the only place other than the American Dance Festival to showcase this particular moment in O’Connor’s extensive body of work; lucky them, and unlucky the rest of the country. I had seen all of these dances before, other than Sister, and I have seen just about everything O’Connor has made in the past decade. But the cumulative weight of experiencing them all together like this—I wasn’t expecting it to feel so important.

The mind watching others. The mind watching itself. That’s something I thought a lot while taking in these restless, exactingly built dances. They are the sentences I would choose if I had to say what these interconnected pieces are about—but the less reductive answer is that this question of “aboutness” is the wrong one entirely to ask, or answer.

Why bring it up at all, then? Yes, that’s a better question—but people seem to want to ask it all the time of O’Connor, shaping the wording this way and that but essentially wanting to know, what’s this about? His resistance to this sort of narrative, and his insistence on dance being ill equipped to deal with singularities, is part of what makes sliding into his choreographic world such a relief.

And, of course, O’Connor is entirely in control of his narrative as a public figure—he talks easily and elegantly about the politics and poetics of his work, both of which come from strong traditions of opposition to neatly understood meanings in dance. (Along with a deep affinity to film, O’Connor cites Merce Cunningham as a strong early influence on him, not stylistically but philosophically.) So this becomes another way to consider aboutness: dance as defiance, as movement away from message-making. Think of a wilderness surrounded by a glittering city.

“I’m not looking to square up,” he said in a post-show discussion with the audience at Velocity following Sister. And earlier: “Language as a stitchery on the outside of consciousness, not its trumpet.”

I love that phrase. It connects in my mind (among many other things) to the impossibility of writing about dance, what a fraught translation it is, and how necessary that failure feels. Again, I’m thinking of wilderness. It’s somehow like being an explorer, thinking maybe this time you’ll find a river that gets you from one ocean to the other, while knowing that possibility only exists if you never find it. Ambiguity as salve for the oppressiveness of our shrinking, beset upon globe.

But still (words accrue)—may I tell you that Sister is pure deliciousness, a battle and commiserating of wills, if wills could be understood as rhythms? And maybe I can say that Poem is sublime, oblique formalism, or that Secret Mary is at once arch and abject: here I am! here I am! (wink wink)?

Or perhaps the better information to give you is that the performers in BLEED, who are also the performers in various groupings in those other dances, are the following people: Tess Dworman, devynn emory, Natalie Green, Michael Ingle, Ryan Kelly, Oisín Monaghan, Cynthia Oliver, Heather Olson, Mary Read, Silas Riener, and David Thomson. And that these people are such good and smart company—you hardly know where to look when they’re all onstage. Luckily (or, I guess, unluckily, depending on your disposition), there’s no one to tell you how to direct your gaze.

And yes, I know, I am gushing. And, yes, of course, there are things that I’m not sure about in the work—sometimes it can feel a bit too the same in its unceasing change, or sometimes I wonder if O’Connor isn’t cheating just a little bit by using James Baker’s scores to guide his audiences (emotionally, if not narratively), and whether he might make sartorial decisions that give the dancers somewhat more neutral breathing room than Walter Dundervill’s brilliant object (even objectifying) costumes.

But that isn’t so much what I want to say here on this little plane, which is not so much tilting this moment as lurching. I want instead to say that I am grateful that these dances, and the man who made them, and the dancers who fulfill them, exist. I want to say: thank you.

BLEED, poem, and Secret Mary were performed November 20–22 at On the Boards in Seattle.