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Tere O’Connor’s unwavering vision of togetherness apart

Tere O’Connor, Rivulets, Baryshnikov Arts Center, New York, 2022. From left to right: Jessie Young, Jordan Lloyd (foreground), Emma Judkins, Tess Dworman (background), Wendell Gray II (background), Mac Twining (foreground), Leslie Cuyjet, Jordan Morley. Photo: Maria Baranova.

LEAVING THE THEATER after Tere O’Connor’s Rivulets, I distinctly felt that I had just seen a dance by Tere O’Connor. That might sound obvious, but it’s not something you can say about every choreographer—that their work feels unmistakably theirs. With the rupture of the pandemic between O’Connor’s last major project (Long Run, 2017) and this one, the continuity of his aesthetic struck me as both reassuring and surreal, a reminder that while so much has changed, some people, somehow, have managed to keep doing their thing.

When I think of a Tere O’Connor dance, I think of multiplicity, flourishing, layering: images submerged or suggested as well as plainly seen. I think of movement invoking many meanings at once, irreducible to any singular interpretation, and disparate activities coexisting like parallel trains of thought. I think of a soundness of structure and dancers dancing full out, not just physically exerting themselves but excavating intricate inner worlds.

Lush and enigmatic, Rivulets has all of that. It also has a musical score by O’Connor, who has often collaborated with the composer James Baker over his forty-year career but here takes sound design into his own hands. New to this project, too, are many members of the marvelous cast of eight: Wendell Gray II, Jordan Demetrius Lloyd, Jordan Morley, Mac Twining, and Jessie Young, who join returning dancers Leslie Cuyjet, Tess Dworman, and Emma Judkins.

The impression that no time had passed also brought with it for me a whisper of disappointment: a wish for some greater indication that it had, some dramatic swerve in a new direction. If anything approaches that in Rivulets, it’s the aliveness of the dancers’ collective presence, their discovery of a fresh group dynamic. The energy of that still-unfolding process infuses the dance.

In the studio-theater of Baryshnikov Arts Center—which presented Rivulets with Danspace Project over two weeks in December—the performers all took the stage together and remained there until the end, resting on the periphery at times but never exiting. Their bearing witness to one another heightened the sense of a formal yet intimate ritual taking shape before us. Audience members sat along two sides of the space (riverbanks come to mind), watching the same piece from opposite angles and, perhaps less consciously, watching each other watch.

Interrupting our preshow chatter, the lights went down as the cast entered in the dark, then went up again on a striking tableau: two chains of bodies cascading along the floor, linked head to foot, each flowing from one of two dancers (Cuyjet and Dworman) seated on a bench. Heralded by dissonant horns, this opening image brimmed with contradictions. Were those on the floor in repose or distress? Luxuriating or defeated? Postures erect, Cuyjet and Dworman appeared almost victorious: Was their ease at the expense of, or in support of, those who lay at their feet? Or was this arrangement of bodies simply an architectural construction, a lovely shape?

Tere O’Connor, Rivulets, Baryshnikov Arts Center, New York, 2022. Mac Twining, Emma Judkins, Wendell Gray II, Jordan Lloyd. Photo: Maria Baranova.

As if stirring from a dream, those on the floor sat up and looked around. Out of this awakening emerged the first of many solos, Twining threading supplely through space in a long-sleeved emerald dress. (Reid Bartelme designed the sober yet whimsical costumes in a palette of greens, browns, and bluish grays, the colors of earth and water.) From group configurations, more solos, duets, and trios bubbled up, momentary focal points; gestures from these smaller units sometimes rippled to those on the outskirts, drawing the ensemble back together.

In keeping with the title, aquatic motifs introduced themselves: arms snaking overhead like waves (perhaps the most literal); piano compositions reminiscent of rushing water. So did flickering allusions to ballet classicism and its folk-dance roots—or at least that’s what I saw. (O’Connor’s work, open-ended as it is, prompts you to question such specific associations as soon as you make them.) One moment called to mind Matisse’s The Dance; another, Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring; another, the processional pomp of a story-ballet wedding scene. The music shifted frequently among modes and moods—now foreboding, now serene—and the dancing followed suit, though the work maintained a wholeness, in control of its many restless and elusive parts.

At times, all of the dancers would retreat to the perimeter of the stage, facing one another from opposite sides. In this way, O’Connor played subtly with perspective; at a certain point, what I had perceived to be the dance’s “front” seemed to change. In the same instant, I became intensely aware of the audience members across the room: my reflection.

Inside of these larger structures, each performer’s individuality shone through, sometimes in the quietest details: a smile creeping across Judkins’s face, a furtive glance from Morley. Lloyd projected an easy warmth and, along with Gray in their mirroring duet, a tenderness; the luminous Young exuded determination. Cuyjet and Dworman reemerged as something like leaders in the end, at once vulnerable, assertive and searching, both together and alone.

Rivulets closed with the dancers arranged in rows, crossing back and forth in side-to-side steps that became front-to-back pivots, a final shift of orientation. Yet even in light of the work’s fullness, I found myself startled when it was over, not ready for it to end. I’m still not sure if I was just wholly entranced, or waiting for something more—a deeper plunge into the unknown—from a master so sure of his craft. To draw from the lessons of the dance: probably both.

Rivulets ran from December 7 to December 17 at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York.