Dance reviews: Tere O’Connor at the American Dance Festival

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Tere O’Connor Dance - BY IAN DOUGLAS / COURTESY OF ADF
  • by Ian Douglas / courtesy of ADF
  • Tere O’Connor Dance
As the lights came up at the American Dance Festival on July 16, we encountered a slight woman in a green dress. She fluidly walked subtle floor patterns, her hips punctuating spatial shifts. This was the opening statement of Tere O’Connor’s BLEED. For those who’d attended ADF performances that week of the choreographer’s other three works, Sister, Secret Mary and poem, this woman’s presence was infused with a spark of recognition. Every cast member of BLEED had performed in at least one of the prior programs, so that with each new arrival on stage, there was a ping of familiarity.

This sense of overlay, of accumulated meaning, is palpable in O’Connor’s work generally. BLEED is the culmination of a project that reflects O’Connor’s long tenure as a teacher and mentor of choreographers: It asks us to think about choreographic process. Over the two-year period in which O’Connor created Sister, Secret Mary and poem, he met with the dancers from all the pieces to create a non-literal, non-linear counterpart project. It was a new piece informed by the idiosyncratic movement vocabularies of the individual performers, a collective production that didn’t repeat themes or input from the other works but which nevertheless reverberated with the spirit of a redoubled cast.

ADF is to be commended for making this viewing experience possible. The comprehensive offering, which culminated in a public conversation with the choreographer, goes a long way to make up for failing—until now—to present work by O’Connor, a three-time Bessie Award winner, Guggenheim Fellow and recipient of countless arts endowments who has been making dances for more than 30 years. From the first moment of O’Connor’s run here, there was an almost giddy sense of anticipation, expressed materially in the t-shirts on sale emblazoned with O’Connor’s pleasant smiling face and a phrase: “Tere, it’s about time.”

Sister was free to the public, presented in an informal space at Duke, a former gymnasium referred to as The Ark. The only lighting for the afternoon show was daylight. The piece began with two performers, tall and lanky, one male and one female, facing different diagonals of the space. A subtle choreography of the performers’ gazes ultimately arrived at an acknowledgement of one another. The dancers then performed an invocational gesture of tactility, fingers rubbing swiftly and softly together. This action was almost audible, a declaration of sentience—an agitated, subliminal precursor to finger snaps.

It might be said that O’Connor’s style is that he has no style. His is a process of ever-changing structural investigation that privileges letting go—what he describes as an exploration of tangents. But a hallmark of his work is that he choreographs in silence and brings in his longtime musical collaborator, James Baker, only at the very end of the process. This compositional strategy was in full effect for Sister (although a program note indicated that the soundtrack for the work was O’Connor’s), where taut silences gave way to a lush and varied soundscape, which synchronistically began with bird sounds that felt somehow redundant with the wooded greenery visible from The Ark’s windows.

The score also nodded to the history of the French avant-garde with passages from Francis Poulenc (who, notably, was commissioned by Diaghilev to create a ballet score in the mid-’20s). Bodacious rhythmic grooves occasionally intervened, with beats from the ’80s group Liquid Liquid. Sister ebbed and flowed through sounds and silences with a sense of infinite invention, an evolution of movement vocabularies in which the performers at one moment embodied a full charismatic presence and then, a split second later, subsumed their personal identities, recontextualizing themselves as formal abstractions—upright monolithic plinths demarcating time and space.

Secret Mary was unleashed with a single dancer flickering in and out of a strobing light—in and out of consciousness—arms flailing wildly but with the power and flow of a coursing river after a storm. Three dancers in neutral postures stood upstage, serving as witnesses to the performer’s explosive action (this trope of dancers watching dancers was found in each of O’Connor’s works at ADF). Four performers inhabited Secret Mary as individuals in relation to one another, a cast of four distinct body types with paradigmatically varied approaches to movement. They engaged in focused exploratory actions, moments of playful absurdity and occasional manic passages that felt as much like sports as dance.

The piece was performed in silence, which, compared with the engaged variation of O’Connor and Baker’s sound scores, produced a relatively unrelenting and austere viewing experience. With the exception of one performer who sported a bright orange top and turquoise tights, the cast was clad in muted earth tones: There was no overt sense of intention or coalescing of meaning to be gleaned from these outfits.

For the creation of this work, O’Connor had adopted an inversional choreographic strategy—at their first meeting, he asked the dancers to perform a 35-minute piece on the spot. They then spent months interrogating the process in what the choreographer describes as a mode of deconstruction and analysis, identifying the organizing principles inherent in the initial action. Given the importance that was placed on that initial meeting, I found myself wondering if the costumes worn by the cast of Secret Mary were merely what they happened to be wearing on that first day (indeed, the program lists no costume designer for this work).

The fake-out ending of Secret Mary bled into poem with a series of horizontal exits and entrances by both casts as they hurtled across the space as if blown by massive gusts of wind. From its first moments, poem pulsed with a kind of urgency, a through-line of internal energy sustained by the five performers from start to finish. This work seemed to deal with the idea of technical virtuosity, manifesting a dynamic in which the performers circulated between executing and almost immediately discarding their substantial dance training (which in itself is a highly technical feat).

O’Connor wields technical virtuosity the way a painter might use bright red; it is one choice within the tonal range of a broader choreographic palette. The dancers vacillated between awkward or oddly flamboyant moves and flat-out gorgeous leg extensions or elegant sweeps of the head, shoulder, arm, hand and fingers. At times, they engaged in curious measuring movements that cast them as calibrators of time and space, only to erupt in sudden bursts of unison. There were rushes of circular patterns that suggested chemical reactions at the molecular level or planetary orbits followed by passages of formal, almost courtly dance that seemed to invoke ballet’s Italian Renaissance origins. poem unspooled in a flood of parabolic curves around a shifting center, never coming to rest on singular or conclusive statements.

In an early section of BLEED, after the 11 dancers made their entrance, they engaged in a series of stylized encounters, greeting, touching and at times embracing each other—an elegant fantasy of the way dancers might comport themselves socially when the world of mere mortals is kept at bay. For those of us who had invested in the experience of the piece by attending all three associated works, this section was a bit of a gift, a moment of sublime projection in which we were reintroduced to the performers. In the program notes, O’Connor thanks the cast, stating that he is “wholly indebted to these amazing people whose exquisite contributions make the work possible.” O’Connor has said that BLEED is very much about the “who,” and this ethos of portraiture was apparent throughout the evening-length piece.

As with much of O’Connor’s work, BLEED felt propelled by an unfolding series of internal logic systems that never conclude or achieve stasis. The company functioned as a single, holistic living organism or finely reticulated machine, but also as a collective of individuals. Even within group phrases, each dancer came across as a distinct presence. This sense of individuality was emphasized through personalized costuming (with the exception of the twin designs of the outfits worn by the dancers of Sister, the performers in each of O’Connor’s works were uniquely clad). More subtly, and perhaps more profoundly, O’Connor’s earliest impulses as a choreographer arose from an awareness of inherent gender and power dynamics within the dance canon, and he talks about asking his dancers to find ways in which to “individuate” within the inherent restrictions of unison passages.

BLEED arrived at a sudden, concise ending, with one performer prone upon the floor and the others standing, backs turned to us, arms hanging down, palms open and taut, bodies collectively gripped by a surge of spasmodic shaking, heels pounding rhythms on the floor. At that moment, we were left with a sense of not merely having seen something, but having experienced something. As with lived experience, we might not be able to understand it in a rational or linguistic sense, but we can allow ourselves to be affected by it and continue to have the experience bleed into the way we see and think about the world thereafter.


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