New York

Tere O'Connor

P.S. 122

This past season, issues surrounding sexuality and gender have so dominated choreography that at times it would have been advisable to give performances an R-rating. At a Stephen Petronio performance, female dancers, splayed diagonally across the stage, thrust their pelvises to form a fascinating open-legged chain of sexual tension; on another, a pair of Jane Comfort dancers—her legs and arms wound around his torso like a pulsating vine—pulled each other’s clothes off, and with lifts and lunges, hands pressing the length of each body, ended in an orgasmic tangle on the floor.

Such heated choreography, which uncoils the very core of physical movement and releases its overwhelming sensuality on a public stage, is intended to upset the decorum of dance. But it also examines, in great variety the nature of masculinity and femininity. Indeed, it would be difficult to find a more visceral investigation of current sexual politics than what can be found in contemporary dance.

Tere O’Connor’s You Baby Goes to Tender Town, 1993, opens at precisely the point in the argument where passion between men and women, men and men, and women and women has become interchangeable, and a three-way kiss as sweet as any made for two. Three men and three women, wearing the same pale, embroidered crop-tops and black trousers and connected hand to cheek (three stand and three lie half prone at their feet), move slowly in tandem. They explore one another in silence, then to the romantic sounds of a Spanish guitar, the couples break free from the center-stage heterosexual module to perform, in varying combinations, a series of mating rituals. Sometimes they peck at each other as delicately as birds, at others as feraly as two cats tirelessly licking each other’s fur. Eye contact between dancers is constant until it is time to change partners once more.

The melancholy sweetness of the music matches the dreamy, languidness of the movements, which include balletic gestures, hand signing, as well as brief sambas executed on half point. When dancers, once more in rows, use their own flattened palms to push their heads to one side, or scoop the air from shoulder height and press it down on their lower abdomens, chests, breasts, and lips, they underscore the essential themes in this essay on desire and tenderness.

A second work, I Love You, There’s So Much Trouble in the World, 1994, danced without Tere O’Connor, lacks the rigorous focus that he lends to the first. Though it states the facts more emphatically—“Come hack to me baby, and lick the tears away” or “If you need to go, just go”—the gestures are cartoonish, the larger movements prankish, and the kissing and touching too adolescent to sustain interest on a choreographic level. Even so, the work adds some footnotes to the original theme. While some choreographers make work for women alone rather than confront the chasm between the sexes, and others, experimenting in cross-dancing, boldly dress men as women or women as men (reversing partnering conventions as well), O’Connor’s approach is an all-inclusive one. His is a deeply felt poetics of dance; the terrain of passion he covers is marked by elegance, empathy, and wit.

RoseLee Goldberg