New York

Tere O’Connor

Dance Theater Workshop

A few years ago, the choreographer Tere O’Connor issued a kind of challenge to those responding in print to his live pieces: “What would happen to the writing if you brought nothing to it? No pencil, no paper. It would have to be about a second sensation that arises in the critic. Or not. Who knows? I’m just saying, let’s try this together.” Unknowingly, as I had not yet come across these words, I ended up complying with O’Connor’s request when I attended his sixty-minute Wrought Iron Fog, 2009, this past November. But I wouldn’t have had much use for pad and paper anyway, since taking time away from watching the dance to make notes would have meant missing passages of lean, surprising movement whose contours couldn’t be wrangled with any reflective fidelity into language anyway.

This said, a desire to write about the work persisted. And besides, I don’t take O’Connor’s wariness (voiced by him more than once) about what happens when dance and discourse meet to mean that he subscribes to some idea of dance as either purely outside of language or experienced only in the realm of the fleetingly ephemeral (both timeworn clichés for performance practice). Rather than moving away from language, the choreographer forces an examination of its seeming transparency. O’Connor would seem to ask that those writing about dance allow words to perform as strangely as he allows bodies to: flirting with conventions and quotations while also rendering them deeply strange.

Wrought Iron Fog—performed by Hilary Clark, Daniel Clifton, Erin Gerken, Heather Olson, and Matthew Rogers—was, for me, revelatory in this regard. O’Connor’s choreography (one deeply indebted, he makes clear, to a thoroughly collaborative process with his dancers) makes no bones about its status as and within Dance. (This has led too often to critics ascribing to the practice an emphasis on “movement” and a corresponding turn away from “the conceptual,” a binary that threatens to push O’Connor into a weirdly conservative position and doesn’t do justice to his rigorous entwining and undoing of these categories.) Yet O’Connor’s nods to variations of dance (from Balanchine to Bausch) serve to render them wild, unkempt, loosened from their presumed camps. Indeed, the overall shape of Wrought Iron Fog was as hard-edged evasive as the title implies; the dancers’ individual (and highly individuated, all) bodies going through coded rituals that seemed to evince highly charged affective responses while at the same time deftly demonstrating their own structural principles. (In this vein, there is something intrinsic to O’Connor’s work that has it unfurl after the fact, mnemonically—in the weeks since seeing the piece, so many “pictures” from it rise into my consciousness: the two male dancers enacting a peculiar, poignant duet; bodies testing their own gravities, cresting and crashing around the stage, skidding to a stop only to start again; a slight, odd gesture recurring throughout the show—dancers crossing their wrists into limp wings, fluttering.)

One might categorize O’Connor (who has been constructing dances since 1982) as privileging the kind of meaning making that happens between bodies, in time and space. To this end, the stripped-bare baroqueness of Wrought Iron Fog gave over a rare kind of pleasure— what the audience witnessed were so many relationships (fleeting, funny, touching, tortured) that, while cast outside the frame of “narrative,” were nonetheless informed by its minimal requirements, shoring up the human desire to posit readability and reconcilability onto every scenario, however abstract. And this, of course, is where we return to language—its imperatives but also its possibilities. It’s not for nothing, after all, that O’Connor’s musical score (by James Baker) included spoken excerpts from Samuel Beckett’s strange, beautiful “poetic novel” How It Is (first published in French as Comment c’est in 1961, when Beckett was in his mid-fifties, around O’Connor’s cur- rent age). The novel is an endless flow of words, entirely without punctuation—without, that is, recourse to rules that break up language and coagulate it into meaning only this or that. Unruly on the page (and in the air in O’Connor’s piece), How It Is addresses its reader: I’m just saying, let’s try this together.

Johanna Burton