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Flash Review 1, 12-8: Nightmare on 19th Street
Wallowing in the Twilight Zone with Tere O'Connor

By Chris Dohse
Copyright 2004 Chris Dohse

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NEW YORK -- Tere O'Connor's "Frozen Mommy" (seen at the Kitchen December 2) burns into the mind's retina like an 8-millimeter film with embarrassing footage from your childhood that sticks in the projector and melts against its bulb, blistering the image to smithereens.

To adapt an art historical term from the middle of the last century, O'Connor has succeeded in creating a "danse brut." Though the physical movement seems to have been compulsively combed through, there is no logic to its choices and it is thoroughly uncooked. Often the dancers seem to initiate phrases with the muscles of the face. The piece seems to have been constructed from fragments found on the cutting room floor of O'Connor's imagination, from its assembled soundscore (by James F. Baker and O'Connor) to the rewound phrases the dancers are often caught in. O'Connor has pared his sometimes awkward, sometimes lyrical movement vocabulary to stutters, tics, skidmarks and fidgets. The accompanying text is also chopped to bits, reduced to inexplicable jibber jabber.

Occasional duets form. Christopher Williams and Erin Gerken flop atop each other like fish in obsessive need. Williams and Matthew Rogers fling some balletic line around while a piano is heard tinkling with pathological sweetness. But this is less dance than behavior. It's difficult watching and it feels icky. There just ain't no pretty to soften your experience, no Aristotelian artifice to cling to. There's plenty of artifice actually, but it's all real! Brian McDevitt's brilliant, surprising lighting design (I won't give it away) supports a Brechtian detachment, where the performers are always aware that they are "acting" and "dancing," calling each other by their real names. And we're always aware that we are watching them do it. The dancers (also in the cast are Hilary Clark and Heather Olson) look wrenchingly waif-like. But they're not children; they resemble Heinrich Hoffmann's Struwwelpeter, Tim Burton's Oyster Boy or Edward Gorey's Gashlycrumb Tinies.

There is malignancy at the core of this hyper-real theatricality, lurking behind sight gags and hysterics (oh yes, it's funny at times, like a game of Charades played by the contestants on Fear Factor or the toenails of a corpse painted bubblegum pink). Cinematic moments come to mind that capture the same sense of dread: the close-up of Anthony Perkins's silent scream after he's sliced up Janet Leigh in "Psycho," the episode of The Twilight Zone where Anne Francis discovers that instead of being a shopper in a department store, she's actually a mannequin.

Man, does O'Connor know how to make an audience squirm. The spectators become so restless at one point, there is more choreography happening in the seats than onstage. And what of the dancers? They're left forlorn and alone, isolated in silence and stasis. Or abandoned perhaps, like a little boy purposefully separated from his mother, a scene that Williams and Olson enact at the beginning of the dance.

I guess everyone becomes uncomfortable with his or her awareness in this set of circumstances. You're watching what seems to be a painfully private experience, and you realize you're having one too. You thought you were coming to the Kitchen to consume some avant-garde! Instead, you're rubbed up against some gnarled clot of emotion and you can't feel its edges. Perhaps you're swept into memories of some previous self that experienced something similar. You're frozen. You're falling. You're rooting around in the manure of your history like a pig seeking truffles, and that is what life is. Uh-oh.

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