Theater archives

Earth Movers


Build a wooden frame and fill it with dirt and water. Stir. Tamp down hard. Let dry. Keep this up and you’ll have a rammed earth house. Tere O’Connor calls his new dance Rammed Earth because, like this primal home, it springs from its environment. O’Connor molded his choreography in the Chocolate Factory’s stripped-down space—a long, narrow studio with white brick walls, old steam radiators, metal folding chairs, and incandescent bulbs hanging overhead in plastic cages. By asking us audience members to cart our chairs to several locations, he creates shifting architectural perspectives on both the space and the performance.

Initially, the chairs (35 or so) are scattered around the room, facing different directions. Hilary Clark, Heather Olson, Matthew Rogers, and Christopher Williams begin by threading their way among them—first wandering slowly, then eventually running so swiftly that we can feel the breeze of their passage. The lighting by Brian MacDevitt and Michael O’Connor turns the walls blue, and before James Baker’s elegantly designed sound score kicks in, the performers’ rhythms animate the space. At one point, Rogers is dancing about 16 inches from my feet.

When we sit lined up along one of the room’s long walls, the dancers make use of the other one as a point of departure and a support. In the third section, we divide into two groups and sit at the short ends of the space; now we’re part of the background for those opposite us. The performers emphasize the length of the room by running forward, then backward in long, curving paths. For the final part, we all sit at the far wall; we can see past the dancing to the dark entryway and the street beyond.

O’Connor’s choreography for the hour-plus evening (two shows a night) is as profoundly interesting as the dancers. These four are as forthright in bold, unusual, witty passages of choreography as they are when executing pedestrian moves or meaningful gestures. What might be events and rhythms from daily life appear disconnectedly, fluidly, the way they might in dreams or memories. Images surface and disappear without transitions or repercussions. We might be working a TV remote. Clark manipulates Williams’s arms; seconds later, we’re watching what resembles a deranged contra dance. Yet O’Connor shapes his material so skillfully that the evening doesn’t seem like a string of non sequiturs; the structural connections between fleeting events and his overarching design—along with the carefully designed effects of lighting, sound, and altered perspectives—make us feel we’re experiencing something that, however enigmatic, mirrors the processes we live with from moment to moment.