In Tere O’Connor’s tragic and hilarious Hi Everybody (1999), a woman talks about her late husband, an artist-scientist who wanted to measure coastal tides by implanting little computerized statues along the shore; when the water went over their heads, they would scream. Now she’s dying of cancer and her health insurance won’t pay for the new experimental treatment that might save her.
This choreographer believes in screaming before the waters overtake us. He remembers that “when the Clintons got voted in and mentioned universal health care, they were descended on by the beasts.” However, O’Connor could address the issue in a piece, because, he says, “I think that idealism works really well in theater, and the seeds of an idea that might be laughed at in the utilitarian world can be developed very far in a theatrical context. I’ve always looked at injustices in my work. It’s not my job to look at the economics of [universal coverage], but it is my job to say, ‘Keep thinking about this!‘ ” The balance between making a profit and caring for people is clearly out of whack.
O’Connor lived in Italy for eight years, and he works a lot in Europe now—with his own company or choreographing works for other troupes. Worrying about affording medical care is one level of stress people don’t have to live with in countries where health insurance is mandated and doctors are able and willing to manage on less. In the U.S., he says, “You go to heal with the stress of knowing you’re going to be in debt, and that is a terrible, antimedicinal concept.”
Like many other American dancers, O’Connor senses that, to the larger population, art isn’t important. “So I think of dance as Advil for the world. It’s like a tiny little bit of medicine that some people take.” It doesn’t cost much, either.