If dance is, as choreographer Tere O’Connor said in a Q&A last weekend, “a journey away from language,” how on earth is one supposed to write a reliable review? Perhaps dance and language are essentially irreconcilable. It’s a problem for those of us who want to write about dance, but it’s a particularly exciting one to engage in when someone like O’Connor comes to town. O’Connor’s career of 30+ years has earned him a 2014 induction into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (as Tonya Lockyer points out in her curator’s note, he is only the eighth choreographer to receive the honor), and he came to Seattle for a nine-day visit of workshops, talks, and performances thanks to a marvelous partnership between On the Boards and Velocity Dance Center. The series, aptly titled Irreconcilability, culminated in the showing of all four works of O’Connor’s BLEED Project. (Previous SeattleDances coverage here and here.)
O’Connor makes dance that is highly abstract and utterly without story or theme except those the audience may project individually. He is a master of structure, and there is always something interesting to look at—if this kind of abstraction appeals to you, that is. It’s easy to imagine people getting frustrated or bored by it (the same way some people like poetry and some don’t), although loving or hating it has less to do with dance experience than you might think. O’Connor speaks and writes cogently about complex philosophical ideas, which is a real treat in a world where too many intellectuals obscure their meaning through jargon and technical talk. He may coin a word here and there, but he actively clarifies his ideas rather than obfuscating them. The intellectual side of O’Connor’s work—stated eloquently through his own language and brought to life in his choreography—makes it especially appealing to write about, even when language feels inadequate as a response medium.
The BLEED Project consists of three separate works with three separate casts (Secret Mary, poem, and Sister) that were “collapsed” into a fourth work, BLEED, which incorporated all of the dancers. BLEED is not some compilation of the previous three works; other than the dancers and a movement or two that shows up again (more on that later), the work appears entirely as its own entity. Unexpectedly, BLEED was first in the Seattle performance order (November 20-21 at OtB), and one wonders if this was for logistical programming reasons or some other philosophical choice. It was something of an overwhelming introduction for an O’Connor neophyte (me), although certainly not unpleasant. There were eleven people on stage, and so much movement material to take in. It was also difficult not be preoccupied with its relation to the other works.
However, it was also fascinating, especially after I could relax into my own awareness that it was an abstract piece that didn’t ask the viewer to hunt for meaning. O’Connor noted in the program that he is “not looking to shape hidden stories into dance but rather to understand how the sequencing of events accrues meaning in choreography.” BLEED was a clear enactment of this statement: it was like watching life go by and letting meaning arise from circumstance. Sometimes your attention wanders, sometimes it’s captivated. There’s always something interesting going on if you feel like looking (a performer’s gaze, a curious gesture, a repeated action). It was also like being a fly on the wall at a party. Groups converged and dispersed as if in an abstracted form of conversation, and periodically a moment focused the whole group—a dancer on the floor (dead? asleep? just there?) or an audible unison breath. Transitions interrupted the action so that each moment introduced a new idea, but the whole thing had a discursive feel in that the work just kept going. This, too, felt remarkably lifelike in the way a day’s events don’t connect by reason of anything except their proximity in time—and sometimes their juxtaposition gives rise to a new meaning, or sparks a new thought.
The above describes all the works in the BLEED Project and the way they create a lifelike experience out of abstracted movement. But, as life varies day to day or person to person, Secret Mary and poem (November 22 at OtB) and Sister (November 23 at Velocity) each created a vastly different world with a different set of people. (The dancers, by the way, were phenomenal, both as technicians and as deeply invested performers. Even the most pedestrian movement revealed a depth of intention, as if flicking your wrist just so required decades of training.) Secret Mary got the most snickers from the audience, perhaps in part because its four performers were so different in height, build, and movement quality. Partnerships shifted fluidly and stillnesses ended in awkward interruptions. The act of watching each other formed a central part of the action. While nothing was overtly funny or played for laughs, the bizarre directness of their movements and interactions gave the work a lighthearted, but somehow competitive, atmosphere.
poem felt like the densest work of the three. The stage appeared much more populated than in Secret Mary, even though it was only five (to Mary’s four). Activity defined the work, but it never felt frenzied, which is remarkable given the vast number, variety, and complexity of movements. A recognizable ballet step lived genially alongside inexplicable gestures of arms and legs. O’Connor’s choreography takes control of time in an unusually clear way. He does not shy away from repetition, giving the viewer enough time to take in a movement or series of movements, or see the architecture of the dancers on stage. His use of stillness gives the eye time to prepare for the next transition, which inevitably leads to the next non sequitur. But it makes sense (as far as it can make sense) because everything goes on exactly as long as it needs to. Similarly, his rejection of familiar formal structure makes it impossible to predict when the work will end. But once the work ends, it feels more or less right, or perhaps more or less inconclusive—again, like life.
Sister, a duet for veteran performers Cynthia Oliver and David Thomson, moved the operation to Velocity, whose intimate Founders Theater was a perfect venue for the sparse, often pensive duet. As with the other works, what the movement looked like played a secondary role to how moments were constructed. Sometimes there were recognizable gestures (laying the head on arms in classic “sleep” pose, for example), but these were placed in unrecognizable contexts that didn’t allow the viewer to latch on and fill in the details of what that gesture usually means. On one level, all that’s in O’Connor’s work is what’s before you; on another level, you see the presence of layers of potential and unexpected meanings.
The experience of watching all four works in three days left me with a confused sense of time and an uncertainty of what I was seeing for the first time and what was, literally, déjà vu—especially because BLEED, the project’s final work, preceded the three originating works in the Seattle run. In Secret Mary, poem, and Sister, there were movements and gestures that looked familiar from seeing BLEED on Friday night. Or had I seen them earlier in the same show on Saturday or Sunday? Because I had set myself up to believe there would be no movement relation between BLEED and the other works, the experience yielded an uncanny feeling unlike any I’ve ever experienced at a dance performance. Seeing the works together like this added a new layer of depth to the suite of works as a whole, and Seattle is lucky to have had this opportunity.
Tere O’Connor belongs to that rare category of artists who can articulate their ideas as clearly in words as in dance (and vice versa). As both viewer and writer, it’s gratifying to have such a fully fleshed intellectual dance world to dive into. Furthermore, O’Connor’s work challenges notions of both how to watch dance and how to write about it. This makes the review process a bit daunting. Dance may be a journey away from language, but it’s also a jumping off point. Dance writing chases after the performance, recording what it can of memories, impressions, and feelings—all that any viewer is left with. Writing it down becomes an exercise in processing that experience. With the added benefit of being fixed in time, writing offers something to return to after the performance is done. As O’Connor, or any artist, moves on to the next project, what is written becomes not only a way to remember, but a way to wrestle with existing ideas and germinate new ones.
For more about BLEED, visit the project’s Process Blog, written by Tere O’Connor and performance scholar Jenn Joy.