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Flash Review Journal, 9-19: Green
New O'Connor & Morris by the Bay

By Aimee Ts’ao
Copyright 2003 Aimee Ts’ao

SAN FRANCISCO -- At times the Bay Area can seem like a cultural backwater, stagnating like a swamp. Then suddenly a hurricane sweeps through stirring up the green algal sludge to reveal that there are still interesting things happening. Within a week from September 6 to 13, two premieres, by Tere O'Connor and Mark Morris, gave me more food for thought and the senses than I'd had in a long time.

I wish I could say that the first time I saw Tere O'Connor Dance perform was back in 1986 or '87, even 1999, but much to my chagrin it was only last week when the company made its local debut. I had hoped that I could give a longer range perspective of O'Connor's work in reviewing his premiere, but I only had seen "Winter Belly" (2002) and "Choke" (2001) two nights before the unveiling of "Lawn." Never mind; I was transported by so many aspects of the work that the disappointment of not encountering him sooner was assuaged. Although the span of time for the creation of these three dances is only three years, O'Connor has quite a range of color and tone, visually, musically and choreographically that differentiates them. Often choreographers' ballets during a brief period can seem to be all of the same piece of cloth, with little to distinguish them except their titles. "Choke" and "Winter Belly" have certain similarities, with "Choke" evincing a sense of humor, but "Lawn" has a hardcore goofiness and a more blatant probing of the complexity of human existence, in this case in context of the natural world.

Seen on its September 6 premiere at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, the evening-length "Lawn" opens on a gigantic video screen framed thickly with plastic foliage, hanging upstage center. It's the first tip-off that O'Connor doesn't take himself overly-sacrosanct-seriously even on the subject of the environment and our relationship to nature. Giving a blow by blow description of the piece is difficult because of the over-layering of dance, video and music. Rather it is the accumulated impression that lingers, though several moments also are recalled quite vividly.

Ben Speth created a video that provides both background for the dance and at times is the featured event. The bucolic stretches of grass and trees, or a sky arching above with clouds, soothe us and remind us of the beauty of nature and our need to connect with it. The construction sites and deserted lots and highways with rushing cars show how we thoughtlessly degrade the world we live in. Interspersed snippets, in conjunction with others that appear further on, make for terrific irony. A man chopping vegetables is followed later by someone chopping up plastic shopping bags and making a salad that is slowly and sensuously consumed by a woman and man seated naked at a dining table, and still later by a rabbit eating grass. There is the maniacal dryad, a man in drag with a bad wig of long blonde hair and thoroughly revolting grimaces, replete with crooked, rotting teeth, flitting through the trees, plucking plastic bags from their branches as if they were plums.

In front of all this is O'Connor's choreography. He often deploys two or three groups of dancers, pitting them against each other rhythmically, only to have them resolve into a brief unison, or a clear fugue. His movement vocabulary is so individual it cannot be mistaken for anyone else's yet. (There will be imitators.) The eloquence of gesture, the speed and precision of the dancers in the most complicated phrases is mind-boggling. And just when you feel you're saturated with one quality, O'Connor heads off in an entirely different direction. At one point, the dancers suddenly drop to the floor, frozen in contorted positions as a lamp wildly swings down from the flyspace by its cord, casting weird shadows, then slowly, as its arc diminishes and its wobble smooths out, the hypnotic pendulum lulls you into a trance. The lamp slowly rises and the dance continues.

The music by James Baker is as diverse as the choreography. Slow and calm to frenetic and screechy, it supports both the dance and the video. I also appreciated the scores Baker composed for "Choke" and "Winter Belly." How fortunate that such a long collaboration between choreographer and composer has led to such richness! The costumes by Deanna Berg and Tere O'Connor also added to the total effect. In the beginning the dancers wore robes which had an Asian cast, reminding me of Tuvan horsemen or Chinese bowmen. Later they changed to more modern dress as the dance moved from the sense of traditional peoples connected to the earth to our current modern dilemma of wanting the results of exploiting the earth and still giving lip service to loving it.

("Lawn" receives its New York premiere October 1 at Dance Theater Workshop.)

A week after viewing "Lawn," on Saturday, September 13, at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley, I saw the second performance of Mark Morris's newest piece on the Mark Morris Dance Group, "All Fours." For me, Morris seems to choreograph his juicier work to chamber music. Not that I have seen a great percentage of his total output, but of what I know, some of my favorite pieces, "V," "The Office," "Pacific," and "Maelstrom" are all to music written for small ensembles. I will not speculate why this is -- it seems like a good question for an interview -- but I am grateful that Morris's taste in music overlaps with mine in this is respect. When I read that this latest premiere is to Bela Bartok's String Quartet no. 4, I began to anticipate another gem and at the same time steel myself for a letdown.

This new piece is brilliant. Never before have I encountered so strongly Morris's ability to shape a dance both visually, in terms of the way the steps look on their own and in relation to different ones being danced by others simultaneously, and rhythmically, in terms of the way they're juxtaposed and the broader rhythms produced as the rate at which the dancers switch between phrases accelerates, defining a sort of choreographic calculus.

Eight black figures, four men and four women, are starkly silhouetted against a backdrop lit an intense red. As the lights brighten, Martin Pakledinaz's costumes show themselves to be various dark shades of brown, midnight blue and charcoal as well. For the first movement, Allegro, Morris uses every possible combination of groupings. Unison for all eight. Couples breaking off and exiting, then returning. A solo against a group. Counterpoint between two equal groups. The sequences of steps themselves have clearly defined shapes and textures and watching them being played off against each other is thrilling.

The second movement, Prestissimo, con sordino, for Craig Biesecker and Bradon McDonald, dressed in light costumes, is a tender conversation between two very different men. One more formal and precise, the other looser and warmer. The Non troppo lento, third movement, introduces two women, also in light colored costumes, and the four explore the various relationships -- mixed couples and same sex couples -- with a lot more honesty than in "Going Away Party" which opened the evening. ("Going Away Party" is very cliched, with much cutesy boy-meets-girl flirting, though the section danced to the song "Goin' Away Party" is, in fact, a very moving revelation about the alienation of a man who is saying goodbye to his dreams. Perhaps I should give Morris the benefit of the doubt and assume that the contrast between the sections in "Goin' Away Party" is a way of further pointing up the superficiality in the way people relate in American society.)

Marjorie Folkman and Julie Worden get to attack a lot of intricate footwork in the Allegretto pizzicato. At the end two women in black enter and segue into the closing Allegro molto with the entire cast. This echoes the structure of the opening Allegro, but incorporating new motifs and with an acceleration of rhythm, not literally or musically, but perceptually, as previously mentioned. At the end the two light costumed couples from the middle three movements split the larger group dressed in dark colors. The lighting by Nicole Pearce is mostly effective, though I felt a bit gimmicky, akin to that used in William Forsythe's "New Sleep," with sudden blackouts or shifts between backlit and tightly focused spots.

With images still burning behind my eyelids of both these premieres I will happily endure any brief dry spell of not-so-exciting dance until the next storm blows in. (My apologies to those of you on the East Coast who may be dealing with the very real Hurricane Isabel.)

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