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?"

If I were writing a review of a performance instead of a feature story, I wouldn't be asking him these questions. He wishes my colleagues and I would ask them. I don't think he's envisioning a re-creation of the art world scenes of the '50s, when critic Harold Rosenberg boozed with Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, and Willem de Kooning at the Cedar Tavern, or climbed the stairs to de Kooning's loft bearing a bottle of whiskey. But O'Connor does mean, "Let's go out to lunch and talk," hoping that reviewer and choreographer together might start to find a language with which to discuss the artist's work. He says this idea will probably make my hair stand on end, and it does, but not on account of hubris or a closed mind.

The issue O'Connor raises has bedeviled critics for years. How much should a critic know about a choreographer's intentions and talk about them? There often seems to be a disconnect between what choreographers say they're doing and what actually occurs onstage. Although several colleagues I queried mentioned the value of advocacy criticism at a time when new and unfamiliar art is baffling the public (John Martin on modern dance in the '30s, Jill Johnston on radical dance in the '60s, and Rosenberg on the abstract expressionists come to mind), we also found we had similar reactions to O'Connor's brief that critics familiarize themselves with an artist's intentions beyond those in the program notes.

Acocella: "I do not see my job as requiring me to go to artists, find out their intentions, report their intentions to the reader, and then talk about how they fulfilled or didn't fulfill their intentions. There's actually a word for that approach; it's the intentional fallacy in criticism (that is, you judge [a work] on its intentions). . . . I see myself as a member of the audience, so whatever the artist's intentions are, many of them—maybe most of them—I won't be able to discern."

Jennifer Dunning of The New York Times: "I don't think reviewers should have any inside knowledge; it seems to me very important to respond as an informed audience member. I hate the word critic; I like the word reviewer because I think that [what I write] is a second view, a re-view."

John Rockwell of the Times: "Even if [critics] think they're deeply involved in the birth of a work, they have to be seeing it from the outside—and not just as the audience's representative; the very nature of the perception of artwork places one at a distance from the creator, or indeed anybody else watching the artwork. To pretend otherwise is kind of futile."

Rockwell also puts forth the notion of criticism as a parallel art form: "Then the issue is not so much replicating the choreographer's thought processes and somehow analyzing the work in the terms that the choreographer himself would use; it becomes a parallel exercise in which some combination of intellectual analysis and poetic and tactile invocation are all used in an effort to create for the reader a vivid picture."

O'Connor's wake-up call has instigated some provocative projects. He's curating a two-week performance series at DTW this May, with the working title "The Nothing Festival." Eight invited choreographers will enter a studio and, with no prior plans, create short dances for the series. His goal is to engage the audience on many levels, and he'll request that critics not take notes.


Matthew Rogers, Erin Gerken, and Hilary Clark in O’Connor’s latest work, Baby
photo: Tere O'Connor

Movement Research is launching "Critical Correspondence" on the organization's website to coincide with O'Connor's March season: A choreographer (in this case O'Connor) will be interviewed about his or her intent and methods. That interview will be posted and links to subsequent reviews will be added. According to Guy Yarden and Alejandra Martorell, who are working on the project, the site will eventually— depending on funding—facilitate a "blog-like approach" in which selected responses to those reviews and other thoughts can be posted and a (monitored) ongoing exchange about art and criticism can ensue.

A critic usually struggles to get at something essential about a dance (and is very happy when a choreographer feels he or she has succeeded). However, it's impossible for anyone to write of an artist's work exactly as the artist might, nor would the attempt necessarily produce interesting prose. To me, reading dance reviews opens multiple perspectives on a single event (somewhat the way O'Connor's choreography does). I wouldn't want controversy to fade from the commentary that surrounds the art form and, I hope, supports it.


Tere O'Connor's Baby plays at Dance Theater Workshop, 219 West 19th Street, from March 22 through April 1. Call 212-924-0077 for information and reservations.

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