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Flash Review, 3-28: Surreal is as Surreal does
Tere O'Connor's Frozen 'Baby'

By Gus Solomons jr
Copyright 2006 Gus Solomons jr

NEW YORK -- Tere O'Connor recently stirred up controversy in the dance community by looking a gift horse in the mouth: objecting to Joan Acocella's characterization of him in her favorable New Yorker article as a "downtown surrealist." His non-literal non-narrative choreography juxtaposes dialog, vocal noises, and other theatrical bits along with obsessive spatial patterns and eccentric movement. And the five wonderful dancers in his troupe animate the work with their vivid personalities.

O'Connor claims that his characters all start out as women, including the two men in the cast, and that's true literally in his new "Baby," seen in its premiere at Dance Theater Workshop Friday. Matthew Rogers starts the piece with a funny, twangy monologue about his imaginary horse named Whatever, which he's leading on make-believe reins. He's dressed in a cowboy hat and boots and a black miniskirt. Then, Hilary Clark, Erin Gerken, Heather Olson, and Christopher Williams rush onto the stage doing fast Graham triplets, wearing frontier-era, long gingham dresses.

What ensues is a series of episodes with no palpable relationship to each other or any apparent sequential logic. O'Connor says he wants to free himself from "the default settings of choreography based on musical structures and narrative frameworks." In "Baby" he explores the passage of time. His creative method is not to "fix" what doesn't work as it "oozes out," but to replace it with new material, letting the old fall away, until he has created something that pleases him.

Without a lot of prior prompting about that process, the result can seem arbitrary and baffling to an audience. The natural expectations we form watching images like a huge pink bow that hangs upstage dominating our view, a fist fight that turns on a dime to "kissy-kiss" cordiality, dancers singing nonsense words, describing their own action -- "Now I'm going here. Now I'm going here" -- and cursing vehemently at a gauzy pink tube festooned with tiny pink bows that hangs at the downstage corner of the stage, seem to cry for narrative connection. O'Connor gives us none.

Intermittent music by O'Connor's long-time collaborator James Baker and lighting and set design by O'Connor and Brian McDevitt add handsome aural and visual reinforcement to the restless atmosphere.

"Baby" seems to grow from similar creative impulses as the choreographer's Bessie Award-winning "Frozen Mommy" from last season, but it's less dynamically varied, more repetitive in its theatric devices. Whatever the success of the work in question, O'Connor enjoys provocation, and many of us are willing to go along for the ride. But he might check the dictionary definition of "surreal." One seems to describe his work to a tee: "phantasmagoric: characterized by fantastic imagery and incongruous juxtapositions."


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