“Structure is Everything”

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“You don’t just pour paint onto the canvas and say, ‘Perfect!’” Just as in visual art, according to celebrated choreographer Tere O’Connor, you don’t just create a phrase of movement and present it onstage without thoughtful manipulation. This was the premise of the three-time Bessie award winner, Rockefeller  and Guggenheim Fellow’s November 16 workshop at Velocity Dance Center. A packed studio of 40 participants eager for a window into O’Connor’s creative process spent four hours on Sunday afternoon hearing his insights on dancemaking, from the structure of works to the socio-political implications of a choreographer’s choices. O’Connor’s accolades are too long to list here, as was the incredible amount of insight and knowledge he shared in only one day, so I will focus on the aspects of the workshop that interested me personally, as an emerging choreographer one year into the Seattle dance scene.

BLEED2
Tere O’Connor’s BLEED
Photo by Paula Court

First, we took ten minutes to create a phrase, and then performed them in large groups. O’Connor chose two dancers’ short compositions to discuss, as if in a miniature choreographic process. Workshop participants revealed some of the concerns they come up against in rehearsal, such as how to navigate the habits and methods learned from a mentor in their work. In O’Connor’s opinion, the “Master-Baby” tradition, in which approaches and styles are passed down through the generations, is over. Don’t repeat what your “parents” tell you, he advised, but instead find your own voice. Furthermore, O’Connor urged us to let go of the “Good/Bad” paradigm and see it instead as a spectrum. A choreographer might choose to include a boring section to offset something else in the composition as a whole. Problematize your concerns, O’Connor said. Observe what you perceive as the issue, and let it be for a while. This issue can give a context for the work, a starting point, or something to research. I connected with this idea and plan to use the challenges I have been grappling with in the studio as a way in to creating a new work.

 

Then, “Go in like an insane surgeon and cut!” O’Connor’s second step in our mini-process was to take the movement phrase and give it a structure. O’Connor recommended comparing one component to the whole. This point in the process constitutes the dreaded “development” phrase, certainly a bane in my college composition classes. Some parts of the phrase might be lengthened, cut up, thrown out, or repeated more than once. “Take drastic steps,” O’Connor said, “You can always go back to what you had.” O’Connor considers the fear of severe editing to be a common obstacle to creating successful work. Dance is in a constant state of flux and the process should reflect that, he said. Choreographers must use and trust their imaginations to make considered choices and actually do the work of selecting, ordering, and curating their material into a shaped structure. While this seems like a useful tool, in nearly all of my choreographic processes, time has been the major limiting factor. Perhaps this drastic editing is a luxury that more established artists can look forward to as they gain more financial support.

During this phase of the workshop, I felt paralyzed—which structure to pick? This is where the socio-political implications come to the fore. A structure is an arc over time: a beginning, a middle, and an end. “Structure is everything,” O’Connor says, “the network of the piece, the grammar that the imagery is floating on.” A structure can be seen as a series of events separated by transitions, each part referential to the other images in the work. O’Connor bemoans the traditional structure of Theme and Variations as a capitalistic and classist idea that one thing is “it” and everything else is less than, other, or a variation on that. In this way, the development of a structure can be both an ethical choice and a matter of personal aesthetics. O’Connor suggests that choreographers study their piece for defined sections and question their separation. Is that a new section just because that’s what I did today? Break them up. Embed part of one section in another. Or, blend the joint where two sections come together, lengthening the transition until you’ve made something new in this intersection.

Tere O'Connor's BLEED Photo by Paula Court
Tere O’Connor’s BLEED
Photo by Paula Court

The third step O’Connor proposed is research. As if in a lab, pick one thing and explore it. Objectivity replaces natural intuition in this part of the process. A valuable tool can be meditating on the dance outside of the studio, deeply considering one question that the piece raises for you. I connected with this idea as something I could take advantage of when studio space is difficult to come by and paying dancers is expensive. It is not enough to simply raise these questions, O’Connor says, the questions must be getting at something. Further, material generated through a stream of consciousness must be edited. O’Connor makes the distinction to allow ambiguity, but not arbitrariness. When will the piece be done? Not when the choreographer has a “ta-dah!” moment, but often when the pencil falls off the page. The piece is finished when everything seems like it belongs conceptually, and O’Connor recommends taking out specific elements just to check. In O’Connor’s process, at this point he will bring original music into rehearsal which had been conducted in silence before. He maintains that merely jumping around in front of music decorates the sound composition but does not create a distinct work of dance art.

 

I was intrigued by O’Connor’s ideas and appreciated the fluency and beauty of his language while discussing dance. O’Connor referred to a dearth of writing about dance, but that slowly more articulate dance critics and academics are appearing. After the workshop, I wished that there had been more time to work on and practice some of the methods he described as a group, but the studio was too crowded to warrant more than explorations in minimalism. O’Connor seemed surprised and gratified to discover the burgeoning dance scene in the little hamlet of Seattle and I was grateful for this thrilling chance to learn from a leader in the craft of dance.

 

This week at On the Boards, O’Connor presents four seminal works, BLEED, poem, Secret Mary, and Sister, along with other activities at Velocity, including dance screenings, discussions, classes, book readings, and dinners. This community partnership is an exciting opportunity to learn from and enjoy the works of an American master choreographer. For more information, visit Velocity or On the Boards.