Theater archives

Tere O’Connor and Janis Brenner Celebrate the Life of Dancing


Tere O’Connor doesn’t make dances about his life or anybody else’s life. Like the late Merce Cunningham, he makes dances about dancing. However, since human beings are what we’re watching onstage, we spectators inevitably see meaning in his work and impute meanings to it. I think O’Connor is OK with that; one of the essays that’s included in his company’s press packet puts forward his belief that “meaning in dance is arrived at in collaboration with the audience’s endlessly expanding referential world.”

Since every individual interprets O’Connor’s dance through a personal lens, and cultural differences also influence that vision, you, the reader of this, are going to have to understand—if you didn’t already know—that this is me thinking, conceptualizing, and writing about O’Connor’s pungently titled new Wrought Iron Fog. Adjectives like “imaginative,” “beautiful,” “stirring,” “witty,” and “enigmatic” in relation to this work are mine (but not exclusively—you may use them if you want to). Feel free to reject my metaphors.

Wrought Iron Fog is set in a world that initially, under Michael O’Connor’s lights, looks like a glittering, blue, polar landscape (or a fantasy of one). A densely gathered white curtain with a ragged bottom extends across the back wall of the black-box theater, and the designers (Walter Dundervill and O’Connor) have also hung several clusters of slender white strings at the sides (they look a little like streams of water from very big showerheads).

I find James Baker’s aural landscape less calming. It chimes and clangs and thunders. Once, I imagine a collision of myriad windup toys running amok and crashing into one another. The words that occasionally rise foggily from the depths of the score are excerpted from Samuel Becket’s novel How It Is. Amid the clamor, a dissected phantom choir calls out briefly. I thought I heard the first word of “Agnus Dei,” its “s” prolonged into a hiss. Periods of silence feel like a relief, as if worldwide traffic had suddenly come to a halt.

And this is where five extremely interesting, vibrantly physical, mentally acute people live. The costumes, by Jennifer Goggins and Erin Gerken, underscore their individuality. Heather Olson wears a long-sleeved, transparent, blue-violet tunic (over a leotard) that emphasizes her long bare legs. Sturdy Hilary Clark, with her unruly blond mane, is clad in a brown fitted dress that has the air of a uniform. Small Erin Gerkin, with her movie-star face and ballerina hairdo, is garbed in a sort of elegant gym suit in brilliant red. The two men, Daniel Clifton and Matthew Rogers, wear similar tights and sleeveless, untucked shirts in deep jewel tones.

O’Connor is a master of structure—of designing patterns in space and breaking them up, of making rhythms expand and contract. These days, we often see movement that wrenches askew, deconstructs, or debilitates the body. Most of the time, O’Connor’s dancers are in control, although I don’t mean to imply that they’re buttoned-up, only that they launch themselves into his bold, arduous, inventive steps as if they were tackling their daily work and had to engage in it as fully as possible—encompassing a lot of space, managing time with bravura efficiency. Joining with one another in counterpoint or unison doesn’t seem an arbitrary act, but one willed by consensus or individual decision.

However, O’Connor also makes use of curious gestures, fleeting images of emotion, or patterns that trigger associations in our minds. The five may suddenly wilt or stagger, fling themselves around or thrash on the floor, or—in the piece’s opening—bend slightly, meltingly, and make inscrutable soft, tentative movements with their hands. After a duet for two that seems like an intense movement dialogue (or maybe twin soliloquies), Clifton and Rogers recline like odalisques and stare at one another; they also at some point put their hands on their hips and tiptoe—runway models, but without attitude. Suddenly my eye is drawn to a corner: Gerken has fallen on top of the supine Rogers, and he starts scrabbling on his back toward center, with her still lying on him. Twice the dancers form a chain close to the first row of spectators and, holding hands, support Clark, who’s attempting to balance on the ball of one foot. When she backs away after a while, the others stare at her; she gestures wanly (apologetically?).

Images like this stick in my mind. They’re like conversations overheard on the street, whose cause or conclusion you never discover. We’re allowed to watch the fascinating performers (O’Connor thanks them in the program for their contributions to the movement material) for an hour; they don’t mind. But although they’re matter-of-fact, there’s nothing prosaic about this richly textured dancing. It’s more like some of today’s elusive poetry of the mundane; a line like this one by John Ashbery, “Leaves around the door are penciled losses,” ignites meanings you pin down at your peril. So do O’Connor’s dances. The title of this one, Wrought Iron Fog, like the piece itself, melds what only seem like contradictions.

I doubt that Janis Brenner was making dances during all five decades of dance that she celebrates in her elegant show at the Joyce Soho; she’s not that old. She’s honoring her roots, and some important mileposts in her career, in addition to paying tribute to those members of the dance community lost in the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s.

It was as a performer in Meredith Monk’s work that Brenner found an outlet for her singing voice, and she opens her Joyce Soho concert by performing Monk’s Break—created in 1964, when Monk was a 21-year-old upstart, and not seen in New York since 1992. There’s no singing in Break, only such utterances as an occasional “ow!” or “no.” It’s a flawless piece— terse and witty—constructed of simple, repetitive, pedestrian moves; long, intense pauses; and calmly presented disturbing images. From the intermittent sounds of a car engine starting up and later of a crash, you can intuit a traffic accident, but Monk deconstructed it in such a way that its very form embodies the notion of fragmentation, of things shattering. At one point, Brenner’s disembodied head appears from behind one of two white screens; the head is tipped on its side, and it slowly slides floorward before it’s sucked back.

Brenner danced in Murray Louis’s company from 1977 to 1984. Aaron Selissen and Sumaya Jackson (coached by Robert Small), admirably recreate two solos from Louis’s 1978 Figura. These are beautifully made little pieces—buoyant dancing shaped into phrases full of subtle dynamic contrasts. The man’s solo is vigorous, the woman’s more meditative; Jackson swings her hips from one side to the other as if just discovering the sensuous possibilities of the motion.

The three other pieces on the program are by Brenner; they show both the craftsmanship she learned in her early training with Alwin Nikolais and her own interest in human passions. In her 1985 solo Guilt, Kyla Barkin, in Brenner’s original role, slams herself around inside a vertical, three-sided wooden box with doorknobs on two unopenable doors, while Marianne Faithfull moans, “I feel good. . . I feel bad.” Repetition only intensifies the woman’s self-made imprisonment.

A Matter of Time (1995), to music by David Karagianis, also starts with a clearly delineated dilemma. Two unhappy couples inhabit two pools of light with diagonal paths leading away from them (lighting design by Mitchell Bogard). In one “house,” Selissen controls the struggling Barkin (both wonderfully expressive). In the other, Pam Wagner attempts to rein in Moo Kim. The partners’ mouths move in silent argument; they gesture their anger, their helplessness. Interestingly, Barkin and Kim have different ways of striking out along the paths, but over and over, they get retrieved and pulled back in more or less the same way. Gradually, we see more differences between the two couples as the struggle between possessiveness and a yearning for freedom intensifies. Eventually, when the two wrangling pairs are close to one another—still for a moment—Kim reaches out his hand to caress Barkin’s cheek. You can imagine the rest. Yet, as the lights fade, Barkin, allied with Kim now, is looking back at Selissen.

Many dancers just starting out cannot know those years when AIDS was ravaging the dance world—the days when you’d see beautiful young men, thin and pale, helped down the street as if they were someone’s grandfather. I will never forget the sight of Edward Stierle, a dancer in the Joffrey Ballet, who’d recently begun to display immense promise as a choreographer, walking unsteadily onto the stage during the company’s 1991 season to take a bow for his new Empyrean Dances. Three days later, he died at 23.

Brenner conceived Dancing in Absentia as a tribute to all the male artists in dance who didn’t survive those terrible decades. Brenner and Michelle Rosen chant a prosaic litany (“I lost a sock, I lost an earring”) and go on to more major losses; that list continues on tape via Bang on a Can’s Lost Objects, along with other recorded musical selections by Charlemagne Palestine, by Brenner and Theo Blechman’s “Prayer” from Mars Cantata, and by the onstage dancers’ harsh, rhythmic breathing. Carolyn Rossett joins the five others to create Brenner’s plangent visions of people gathering to lift and support others, of repeated embraces that one of the two slips out of, leaving the partner holding air. Segments of the AIDS quilt are projected on the back wall; so are 41 cut-out photos of the dead. These float across the surface, frozen in an endless leap, posing for the camera, healthy, young. Sometimes the images blur and dissolve. In five cases, the men are shown with a colleague; Bill T. Jones remains while Arnie Zane vanishes, Yoshiko Chua is left without Harry Sheppard.

The centerpiece of Dancing in Absentia is a powerful duet for Kim and Selissen—angry, passionate, tender. Their companions watch, and the photos stream on. The last picture shows an unknown man, his back to the camera, squatting to peruse the AIDS quilt laid out on the undying grass.