This weekend, in an unusual collaboration, On the Boards and Velocity Dance Center are presenting four works by experimental choreographer Tere O’Connor, plus a series of workshops, discussion groups, book clubs, etc. (The Stranger’s preview is here.) In 2005, O’Connor launched into an infamous critique of dance criticism after New Yorker critic Joan Acocella called him a “downtown surrealist.” He shot back an eviscerating letter that began: “Joan Acocella had better check her ‘sell by’ date because her article… has the distinct odor of irrelevance. Her musings on my work and on that of the others mentioned are so badly observed and so off track that I have to speak up.” The New Yorker never printed the letter, but it was widely circulated online. O’Connor took exception to critics he dubbed “the literalists,” saying they “don’t do the work of finding out what is actually going on in the minds of artists or what are the contexts in which those works are created. They have reduced dance criticism to an explanatory, superficial retelling of events…” In part to avoid stepping in the same hornet’s nest, Stranger dance critic Melody Datz spoke to O’Connor by phone about his motives, his dancers, and the “odors of the past.”
What is it about Seattle that made this the place for you to present these four pieces?
Seattle is one of the main cities in America that has a dance scene—it’s a destination dance city. The reception here has been great, we had 40 thoughtful people at the workshop and 20 people with some really interesting questions at Monday’s book club.
Are you tired of people bringing up the Joan Acocella letter?
No. It was just one electrified part of something I’m continually engaged in and many dance writers have no expertise in dance. I want to challenge that because we try to articulate what our work is and [critics’] responses come from their own preexisting hierarchies and lack of understanding of the goals of the artists. We are so afraid of debate in this country—we need to talk about this. Plus, [my response] was not a big deal because I have great relationships with dance critics. At present, they are trying to understand where choreographers are coming from and are giving feedback and doing a good job.
Is there a particular kind of dancer, or dancers with particular kinds of qualities, who do especially well in your work?
The people in my work are all artists in their own right: It’s not a daddy/baby relationship. We’re all working on own things, these dancers are interested in being on earth and in creating a cultural product, and they have a vast array of talent. My work is difficult and virtuosic and juxtaposed with different elements at great speed, so they have to be open in their body. They mostly come to me with ballet and modern chops but have gone to another level of assimilation of those skills so they are tools, odors of the past, rather than focuses of the choreography.
What about audiences? Is there an ideal one?
[Laughs.] Everyone and anyone! I’ve had the experience of traveling to many different places, presenting work to different demographics and audiences and basically the only determining factor [in how an audience will respond] is not race or gender or class but all people’s desire to move toward the poetic or their fear of that. It can happen to anybody at any time, dance is sometimes seen as something ambiguous and mysterious that some people call enigmatic but I think that dance is a clear statement about what consciousness is really like. 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.
It’s really hard to write about your work without comparing it to known quantities and popular frames of reference, like ballet and modern dance.
Yeah, my work resists commercial modalities. You can’t come up with a winning tidbit of a phrase about it; it goes into more complex discussion and resists the idea of product that we’ve adopted to talk about art. It’s even hard for me to write press releases.
Dancers in your work look especially at home in their gestures and movements, the choreography isn’t shoehorned into them or reaching for some kind of old-fashioned, show-off virtuosity. How do you teach your choreography to your dancers so they have the freedom to interpret the movements for themselves but still retain whatever it is you’re trying to do with a piece?
It’s been a long process, taking place over 30 years, and it’s about choosing the right people. These dancers are post-ego somehow, mostly people who understand that this work isn’t something that steals you, it’s something that you take and wear on your own body. You don’t lose yourself to move up to a standard, you borrow a sweater and it fits you in a right, unique way. I want the dancers to individually construct, and consider my manipulation of what the dance is doing, to create a kind of role-playing. We’re creating a drama of that [process] willfully. I want them to become themselves. The cast in BLEED approaches the material in their own ways, you can see it. It’s like watching people at a protest march walking down the street—people use body language differently. Some shout more vehemently than others but they’re all in the march, they’re all marching. Dance is becoming this standardization of human behavior and that frightens the hell out of me, and that’s what the whole world is becoming: In Brooklyn, everyone is trying to do a different thing but it’s all bearded guys in flannel shirts, so I use dance to bump this concept into discussion in our little world.
Is there a quality that’s celebrated in the dance world that you think is overrated?
The dance world is so diverse, so there’s not one quality that I could look at. “Getting it” is valued over the experiential. I tried to work outside of the idea that dance has narrative capacities—people would like it to always do that for them and sometimes it does. Even my work sometimes works with storytelling, so I’m looking to use dance in its elemental qualities that don’t [have to] move to the naming of things or message-making.
There seems to be a two-edged conversation around your work—some describe it like it’s very rarefied and forbidding to newcomers, that it goes from zero to sixty very fast, and there’s no coddling or spoon-feeding the audience. (Someone here compared their first encounter with it to the first time they drank smoky, peaty scotch at 23 and couldn’t quite figure out what’s going on with the strong flavors.) Others say it’s actually very accessible to laypeople because it’s concrete, not an abstraction, just the thing in-itself with nothing to “decode” in a dance-history way. I’m curious whether one of those points of view sounds more appealing to you—or whether they both sound ridiculous.
That’s the key. It’s the very beautiful and interesting thing that dance does—my dancers step in to that and expound on all sorts of things. Neither point of view is how I would characterize my work. I don’t look at myself as a helper. It’s not like you’re in Japan and you say to a newcomer, “It’s going to be different for you here so go slowly before you have sushi.” I’m not setting something out, it has nature and it is nature and nature is there for you. My work is self-contained but there are certain known quantities, and other elements are invented, and the relationship is to be decided, like personal relationships. It’s the unknown residing next to the factual.
Sorry to make you recapitulate your entire life’s work into the space of a few column inches, but: What do you say when people ask you what your work “means”? And what are you thinking about those people as you say it?
I’m not thinking about the people who ask these questions when I answer this question, because the answer is individual to each person. So no blanket statement about this is possible. And why is it assumed that I’m looking for meaning? My dance is not a translation of a secretive meaning, it is a way of engaging in time and information that has a result, and that result is not a depiction, not symbology, not semaphores that tell you what the hidden idea is. I put a bunch of disparate ideas together, the product doesn’t. It’s experiential. Meaning does reside there but isn’t frontal. Some people might look at dance as a way of escaping search for meaning.