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Comedian Steven Wright has observed that you can't have everything. "Where would you put it?"
Dilemmas like that don't faze choreographer Tere O'Connor, who wants to put everything into his latest dance. Bleed, a rich stew of material from three recent pieces, opens a four-day run at BAM's Fishman Space on December 11. One of his largest projects so far, the 65-minute piece represents two years' work in New York studios and with colleagues at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he teaches every spring.
A 2013 recipient of the munificent Doris Duke Artist Award, O'Connor asks of audiences a degree of attention and concentration that some find hard to manage.
Where many choreographers labor to create clear, single-minded visions, to smooth a path to comprehension for viewers, O'Connor wants to hold on to "multiplicities," to make the process of apprehending his work rather like the experience of being alive. Instead of continuing on well-trodden paths like ballet or modern technique, he develops his own fusion language.
Watching rehearsal in a cold, dim church hall in Brooklyn, I feel like a naturalist observing a species similar to, but more interesting than, ordinary humans. Among the 11 dancers fiercely concentrating on Bleed are a transgender person and two mature artists of African descent (one with a doctorate in performance studies, the other an a cappella singer performing for 30 years with a dozen different downtown dance troupes). Also one 17-year veteran of O'Connor's company, and seven youngish movers whose backgrounds range from the New York City Ballet to Merce Cunningham's ensemble to modeling, design work, and dozens of dance projects. None of them auditioned; O'Connor hunts them down.
Born in 1958, O'Connor started dancing at SUNY Purchase, which he left without a degree. "I educated myself, a reading journey through philosophy, fiction, theory from visual arts and film," he explains. "You really own your education when you're making your own bibliography." He revered Cunningham, but resisted performing in other artists' works. "I didn't want [other choreographers'] languages on my body. That contributes to why my work is confusing to people; they can't read a direct history in it."
O'Connor knew right away that he wanted to choreograph. After performing briefly with Matthew Diamond and Rosalind Newman, he began making his own pieces in 1982; he's created more than 35 for his own ensemble, while teaching for nine years at New York University and elsewhere, and making dances for other ballet and modern troupes.
"Each dance is a culture," he says. "I'm going very deeply into the poetics of dance. Nothing in my research tells me dance is searching to produce singular meanings. I'm interested in structure, many layers of diverse structures that bleed into one another. I'm both the maker of it and the audience for it."
In other words, he wants everything, all at once, with the potential for chaos and bewilderment that such profusion can create.
Poets conjure and distill the ephemeral, investing symbols on a page with shimmering layers of meaning or feeling. O'Connor, a black-clad figure with messy hair, tries to do the same, but his materials are human bodies in space. The challenge begets a new set of problems. His "phrase material" goes from ballet to pedestrian movement to invented steps and gestures. "Instead of romanticizing the ephemeral, I use it like an object or a tool," he says.
O'Connor resists simple, narrative structures. His lodestar is Cunningham, the avatar of post-modern dance whose rooftop studio at Westbeth, overlooking the Hudson River, inspired O'Connor to publish "The Hudson Movement," a manifesto that guides the thinking behind Bleed. Appearing last year in issue No. 41 of the Movement Research Performance Journal and available in slightly different form on his website, the essay asserts O'Connor's argument with the anti-virtuosity, anti-spectacle tenets of the original Judson Dance Theater performers. His early research, he declares, "told me repeatedly that choreography eschews singularity of meaning by its very nature."
In 2012, two O'Connor dances, Secret Mary and Poem, interpenetrated onstage at New York Live Arts, the cast of the first filtering through the cast of the second. Bleed rubs elements of these works up against his duet Sister, created this summer for black dancers David Thomson and Cynthia Oliver at UI.
Secret Mary, informed by ballet technique, was danced mostly in silence; various incidents blossomed and faded. It evolved from the "circular influence" of students and mentees on O'Connor's art. (He's a full professor at UI, a huge institution that treats his creative experiments as genuine research.) Poem, by contrast, explored "poetics, looking back and re-embracing formalism." The dancers made clear designs in space, acknowledged one another, and even partnered.
To this confluence O'Connor adds Sister, which premiered in September. It was "a way of looking at sameness and difference," says the choreographer. Oliver and Thomson's bodies "house different information" than do the younger, white artists in the other sections, he says. Thomson and O'Connor — and O'Connor's frequent composer and collaborator, James Baker — met at SUNY Purchase. Oliver, of Caribbean descent and a longtime dancer with Ronald K. Brown and others, is O'Connor's colleague at UI.
"They're all people I'd want to sit and talk to for hours," O'Connor says of his cast. "They've chosen to do this work. It's a lot of fun and an equal amount of rigor." He never holds auditions, choosing to teach workshops and watch performances and see who floats his boat. "They're all excellent interpreters of abstraction," he says.