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3, 5-23: Without Words
From the Performative to the Vulnerable, Tere O'Connor Finds the Gestures that
By Vanessa Manko
Copyright 2002 Vanessa Manko
NEW YORK -- Over the past two weekends,
Tere O'Connor premiered his latest work "Winter Belly" and gave the New York premiere
of "Choke" at Danspace Project at St. Mark's Church. I was lucky enough to see
"Winter Belly," fittingly enough, on a chilly spring evening. A starkly beautiful,
yet surprisingly humorous work, "Winter Belly" is set in an idiosyncratic winter
wonderland of sorts. The mood of "Winter Belly" is something akin to stepping
out to greet a winter morning only to witness the latent, furtive activity of
nature in a seemingly still winter landscape; there is the burrowing away of animals,
the staking out of territory, and the crackling sound of ice breaking and melting.
A series of barren silver bluish trees outlining the stage, combined with moody
gray blue lighting by Brian MacDevitt, helped to magnify this effect.
However austere the stage set for
"Winter Belly" is, the dancing was anything but. O'Connor has presented a winter
world to sink one's teeth into. The stage tentatively comes to life as a series
of dancers, standing tall and rigid, form a semi-circle around a flailing, prostrate
body. Soon after, this arena is filled with a flurry of activity as couples lace
arms and glide round and round in circles, their glazed-over faces staring up
into a threatening sky. And thus we are launched into a veritable menagerie. At
times graceful and fluid, and others caustic and frenetic, dancers whip themselves
into contractions and angular, bird-like movements. There is a pulsating and vibrating
of the limbs in O'Connor's work. Repetition and anxious animalistic dancing finds
its place here as well. A signature motif in "Winter Belly" is a sort of ferral
use of the hands: with arms held above their heads, the dancers are still except
for this quick pawing and kneading.
Performers continually enter and
leave the stage in this work. At one point O'Connor and a strangely beautiful
long-limbed and lanky Chrysa Parkinson are left alone to perform a duet of difficult
and lashing floor-work. An angelic-faced Heather Olsen, whose wide-eyed facial
expressions and mannerisms make her both a deft physical comedian and expressive
dancer, tentatively peers out from backstage, entering to run circles round and
round the stage, each time tracing a smaller circle around herself. Considering
the minute movements and complexity of the dancing that has preceded this moment,
the simplicity of this furtive long-lunged running is serenely compelling. Through
the erratic movements, there is also a great deal of funky, hip-swaying dancing.
Here the dancers move quite adeptly from an animalistic style to a more breezy,
slinky sort of movement set to the equally erratic music of James Baker, consisting
of excerpts from the work of Sofia Gubaidulina. In "Winter Belly," O'Connor has
quite impressively managed to find a sometimes erratic, sometimes lucidly lyrical
way of choreographically expressing the playfulness, danger, complexity and beauty
of nature in that most secretive and magical of seasons: Winter.
The second work of the evening was
the New York premiere of "Choke," an ode, of sorts, to our pedestrian movements
and gestures. In fact, in order to create this work, dancers studied people's
movements on the street, copying and incorporating these gestures. Therefore,
embedded in the witty, pithy dancing are these highly stylized parodies of humans
in the everyday. The same dose of hilarity that occasionally surfaced in "Winter
Belly" comes to the fore in "Choke." And here we can see O'Connor's pure sense
of humor, his acknowledgement of the inanity of people's day-to-day behavior and
mannerisms. The absence of text -- text being an element O'Connor has repeatedly
used in previous works-- is actually an added benefit here, for we get a panoply
of over-the-top, thoroughly communicable gestures, ranging from the lovely to
the ludicrous. O'Connor finds the beauty in the elegant sweep of an arm as one
pours a cup of coffee, or reaches for the telephone. The body language we use
in conversation and absent-minded small talk is also presented in "Choke": hands
placed indignantly or casually on the hips, the incessant nodding of the head
in affirmation as one talks on a cell phone. The personalities of the dancers
emerge with greater force in "Choke." The individuality of each of the dancers
is a particularly interesting part of O'Connor's work; he has chosen charismatic,
unique and complex dancers to work with.
For all the humor of "Choke," it
is not without its pathos. Perhaps the most jarringly sad moment comes at the
end. Three dancers, seated cross-legged, unexpectedly begin to convulse from crying
unabashedly; their chests heave and their faces become contorted with masks of
pain. It's as if O'Connor has chosen to show us at our most performative -- the
small talk, the gestures, the expressions we use in daily life -- and at our most
vulnerable. In truth, a sigh swept through the audience as the lights faded out
to close this work.
Among the other many praise-worthy
performers in these two works were Caitlin Cook, Erin Gerken, Justin Jones, Luis
DeRobles Tentindo, and Greg Zuccolo.
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