Choreographer Tere O'Connor doesn't want to tell you a goddamn story. Unlike in traditional ballets or more contemporary dance polemics, he doesn't afford his audiences the safety net of preordained plots or moods. His choreography is not trying to communicate some line of argument or point of view, nor are there messages to glean from his dancers' movements. Instead, O'Connor gives the viewers the opportunity—the challenge—to simply watch bodies in motion. His work is experimental, but it's not an abstraction of something else. It is concrete without being literal.
"Dance is sometimes seen as something ambiguous and mysterious that some people call enigmatic," O'Connor explained in an interview this week. "Clarity is something we establish to make society work and capitalism work, but we're actually in full ambiguity all the time. Some people who are totally new to dance say my work affects them and they don't know why." Trying to live and work in the ambiguity, he adds, makes it hard to write press releases.
This week, Seattle will see four O'Connor works—BLEED, poem, Sister, and Secret Mary—in an unusual collaboration between On the Boards and Velocity Dance Center that also includes a series of workshops, discussions, and performances. "He is a dancer's dancer, a choreographer's choreographer," said Tonya Lockyer, Velocity's artistic director. She thinks O'Connor's work is especially relevant in the context of a culture that is increasingly intertextual and decentralized. "[It] speaks the language of the world that we increasingly live in, which is all about multiple tangents," she said. "People who are literalists will not enjoy it." (The word "literalist" has a special connotation when people talk about O'Connor—in 2005, he wrote a letter eviscerating New Yorker dance critic Joan Acocella and other "literalists" who "do not know how to read dances created outside the restricted confines of the narrative or musical frameworks from past centuries.")
"Tangents" is a good way to describe what O'Connor's work looks like. In ballet, for example, specific transition steps take dancers smoothly from, say, a one-legged turn into a leap, allowing a dancer to travel across the floor and gather enough momentum before launching her body into a flying split six feet above the floor. O'Connor's work isn't so predictable. Its transitions are more like our everyday movements, shifts in conversation—a dancer's arm raised high above her head doesn't necessarily lead into a grand movement or gesture. The arm simply drops back, elbow bent, then flops to her side, forgotten and unneeded, like an unanswered question.
The soundtrack to BLEED mixes music and recorded sounds—the dancers' own voices, erratic violin, rhythmic mechanical sounds like a train or a washing machine—that neither guide nor respond to the choreography, but drift in and out of sync with the dancers. At one point, several dancers facing upstage begin to spin their arms like propellers. It's an infectious movement. If the piece had been staged in a playground instead of a theater, the whole audience could be running around circling their arms wildly by the end of the phrase. Other dancers pump their chests in and out, back and forth; it looks like a macho challenge or the kind of movement you see in children as they explore the capabilities and limitations of their own physicality. Sometimes it's easy to forget that O'Connor's dancers are just dancing, not telling a story. How we understand the movements depends solely on what's going on in our heads at the time. As abstract as that might sound on the page, this approach liberates both dance enthusiasts and newbies from the presumption that there is something they're supposed to get.
"Why is it assumed that I'm looking for meaning?" O'Connor said when I asked what he says when people ask what his work "means." "My dance is not a translation of a secretive meaning, it is a way of engaging in time... the result is not a depiction, not symbology, not semaphores." Some people, he added, "might look at dance as a way of escaping the search for meaning."