In 1999, I began a review of Tere O’Connor’s latest dance with a cri de coeur: “Help! I need a different format for writing about Tere O’Connor’s new Hi Everybody. I need to be able to scatter sentences around the page, to embed a manifesto (maybe set in italics) for universal healthcare into the words of an old song, and to periodically remind all of you that I’m a writer in search of a structure.” I never found that structure. Workaday prose can’t easily break out of the corral of linearity. (Corral may mean there’s a horse nearby; keep that in mind as you read, or don’t and be surprised.)
O’Connor’s new and often hilarious Baby is a bit like a vaudeville taking place on a little known asteroid that once brushed close to earth and flew off bearing fragments of human dreams, stories, words, and images. (Do not probe this simile too closely.) Baby‘s five versatile and utterly winning performers (Hilary Clark, Erin Gerken, Heather Olson, Matthew Rogers, and Christopher Williams) often break off what they’re doing and stand stock still, as if trying to figure out what comes next in this curious small world under an enormous suspended pink bow (credit the set to O’Connor and Brian MacDevitt).
Rhythms govern much of O’Connor’s structuring. Words are chanted, often metamorphosing or increasing in speed and volume or breaking down. Passages of strenuous, vivid dancing create rhythms not necessarily emphasized in James Baker’s intermittent score. And, most importantly, events are interrupted, to be succeeded often by one so dissimilar that the change itself is enough to make us laugh.
In a conversation with DTW’s outgoing (alas) artistic director Cathy Edwards that’s printed in the program, O’Connor likens each new moment in a dance of his to a baby that never grows up and to an idea abandoned before it’s fully fledged. The overall structure, then, is that of dreams, or the mind-wandering that we do in everyday life as our concentration is lured away from one thought to another, splits between three of varying importance, and suddenly shudders to a halt in momentary blankness.
Which reminds me of the horse. O’Connor begins Baby with a tease that suggests he’s going to treat us to a story. And we almost get one. Rogers backs on wearing boots, a cowboy hat, and a little black skirt, and leading an invisible (but audible) horse. In a Texas accent, he confides to us how much his horse, Whatever, means to him in hard times when crops fail and so on. It’s a very funny bit and ends with Whatever taking off. Immediately, the four other cast members rush on, backs hunched; they wear old-fashioned blue prairie-woman dresses and spectacles, and curse the runaway horse volubly in old-lady voices (“Dagnabbit!!!”), then dash away in pursuit. That’s it for Whatever, although, if you pay attention, you can catch whiffs of him here and there—in the way people make a little rhythm of snorting and blowing; in a couple of seconds during which Clark, Gerken, and Rogers, who’ve been sitting watching the other two, shift to hands and knees and turn a slow head to look behind them; or a moment in a dance-y passage when three people look as if they’re reaching out or being yanked; or Rogers’s sudden wide-legged, bent-kneed stance. In other words, runaway events leave bits of debris that the choreography stumbles over later and kicks into life.
However, we don’t seek for cause and effect or connections between the witty and/or lovely fragments. If after a bout of dancing and vocalizing about ratios, Rogers and Olson crash into the back wall and, sagging against it, move slowly across the stage pulling down 10 diaphanous hanging panels as they go, we don’t suddenly re-evaluate their characters. Nor should we wonder if the increasingly loud and dramatic boo-hooing that the other three do meanwhile—facing the back in side lunges, arms raised—has anything to do with drapery destruction or fear of what may be revealed. It’s perhaps the performers’ propensity for vaulting onto new ideas and abandoning previous ones that makes them seem like fearsomely clever adult children who play a designated game to the hilt and drop it the minute a new or counter idea strikes. But because O’Connor is an accomplished artist, we sense that the associations and flashbacks and repetitions that bind one module to the next are as much a product of choice as of chance.
To the hilt certainly applies to the performing. The five are brilliant at indulging in vocal or physical extravagances while exercising the control that O’Connor’s demanding, if impulsive-looking, outflung choreographic patterns require. And they’re able to pull back in an instant from organized screaming, singing, or cursing to speaking in quiet, confidential tones to one another or to us. Baker and lighting designers MacDevitt and Michael O’Connor have worked with the choreographer for years and imaginatively coordinate their changeable effects with his.
Let me return to the children-at-play aura and the illusion-of-free- association angle. The five have been clumped up, snoring where they stand. They awaken and look down at their feet. The “shhh” sound of expelled breath grows into “shoe,” expands into “shoeshine,” and then goes slightly beserk as, looking at us, they enter “sh”-land with great enthusiasm. I think I heard “Shishtine Chapel.” I know I heard “shoft shoe.” And who knows where that would have led had the lights not gone out.