Getting It

A choreographer squares off against critics of an evanescent art form

When Tere O'Connor premieres his new Baby at Dance Theater Workshop on March 22, he'll be facing a New York audience for the first time since a letter he wrote to The New Yorker late last summer sent shocks through the dance community.

The letter—both irate and thoughtful—tackled a review by the magazine's dance critic, Joan Acocella, that appeared in the August 8 issue. Under the title "Mystery Theater: Downtown Surrealists," Acocella discussed recent work by four adventurous choreographers who she felt had common artistic concerns: O'Connor, Christopher Williams, Lucy Guerin, and Sarah Michelson. She positioned O'Connor, who's been making dances since 1982, as an "elder statesman" and implied an influence (both Williams and Guerin have performed in O'Connor's company; Michelson is a colleague). As Acocella told me over the phone,

"I wanted the readers to understand that Tere O'Connor was responsible for a lot of this stuff that I love."

O'Connor stirs the pot.
photo: Richard Mitchell
O'Connor stirs the pot.

O'Connor asserted that Acocella's invocation of surrealism to connect the four choreographers was "intellectually porous," that she and some other critics viewed all dance through the "dusty filter of ballet," and that he wished dance writers would find out "what is actually going on in the minds of artists." His response startled other critics besides Acocella. Dance Magazine editor Wendy Perron, a dancer-choreographer-writer who's been on the receiving end of reviews, sent me an e-mail saying, "What was surprising to me in Tere's outrage is that Joan wrote something respectful about him (and the others)."

O'Connor's protest never ran in The New Yorker. Indeed, what became of it at the magazine is vague. The letter, however, popped up in scores of e-mail inboxes. O'Connor didn't send it to Acocella; a friend forwarded it from choreographer Ivy Baldwin, who'd received it from a member of O'Connor's company. Movement Research's website published two additional letters supporting O'Connor. Paul Ben-Itzak, editor of the online publication Danceinsider, posted O'Connor's letter on the website, provided links to Acocella's review, and combined a spirited defense of Acocella and the critic's job with a scathing rebuke to O'Connor.

Both Acocella and O'Connor emphasize that the initial contretemps has been laid to rest. They exchanged e-mails in which, says Acocella, "we reiterated that we admire each other and we said, 'Let's forget about this.' "

O'Connor's fighting words, however, reignited the long-smoldering conflict between what critics think they're doing and what artists wish they'd do. The subject comes up when I talk to him about his new dance, sitting at the small table in his tidy, bright studio apartment in the Village, our differing perspectives bridged by a flowered tablecloth, mugs of tea, and the understanding that choreographers and dance critics have something in common besides a love for the form; we are, as he puts it, "two populations with reward deficit." At 48, O'Connor's in demand as a teacher; he's received awards, a Guggenheim and other grants, and choreo-graphic commissions worldwide (including a 2003 solo for Mikhail Baryshnikov and a 2006 piece for Lyon Opera Ballet), but he still lives modestly, and from project to project.

O'Connor and I are no strangers. He used to teach at NYU, where I still teach. I admire his choreography and have said so in print. He's a smart, affable man with a choreographic mission he wants better understood. He discourages any attempt to link the new Baby with his Mother (1995), Winter Belly (2002), and Frozen Mommy (2004): "Baby and mother and winter and frozen themes are constantly flying around in my head. . . . They are a part of the lens through which I look at all of the world."

In Baby as in previous dances, he's not making narratives, deconstructed or otherwise. Forget the notion of non sequitur, which implies a linear sequence that's being broken. Forget frameworks drawn from music, like theme and variations. Currently O'Connor is interested in tangential relations—"moving to something and brushing away from it"—whether tiny gestures, words, everyday actions or events, relationships, or dance steps. What intrigues him is the plethora of ideas and feelings that strike us at every moment.

Right. As we talk, I'm processing his remarks, mentally agreeing or disagreeing with them, tasting the tea, trying not to spill anything on his clean tablecloth, feeling the pain in my wrenched hamstring, watching the light slant across the opposite wall, developing another question I want to ask. O'Connor's analogous choreographic structures are like journeys through a landscape in which visions swim into prominence and recede, linked in time the way they'd be in dreams. He speaks of "all the multiple ways there are of being, things that religion and capitalism try to put aside," adding, "I want to fall into these and create situational architectures that allow the viewer to have that experience." It's not surprising that some spectators find his dances baffling while others find them excitingly, disturbingly enigmatic—like much of life.

As O'Connor mentioned in an essay he wrote for Movement Research Journal's fall 2002 issue on criticism, he dislikes it when critics pull what he terms a "stop-action" moment from his work. I argue that describing a particular event in a dance, if done well, helps reinforce an analytic or evaluative point; a "for instance" may convey the flavor of a work. He doesn't buy that; for him, the image per se is not as important as "how it happens, how many times it happens. Did it win out? Was it front or was it buried? Was it a subterfuge of some sort, a macguffin if you will?"

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