MRPJ#25/Dance Writing: “Dance Writing” by Tere O’Connor

FALL 2002


What would it be like if choreographers and dance writers rejected their present relationship—one akin to modern divorcees, whose differing points of view on raising their children are marked by polite misunderstanding and the odd stab at each other through an ostensibly non-acrimonious veil? What if our shared goal was to help this hairless little runt of an art form and to disseminate the best information about it to potential viewers, with a respect for their intelligence? What if my colleagues and I, many of whom are esteemed teachers and thinkers on this topic and who have invented ways of talking about dance, were invited in to explain our research and to share our references? What if we spoke to the critics to thank them when they have, through an objective lens, responded to the work with respect and insight, and revealed a problem invisible to us makers, as has happened to me?

I would like to address the subject of critical writing and offer some thoughts as to why some of the standards used in dance writing today are misaligned with the goals of the artists. I am speaking here to critics as well as other interested readers. I hope to avoid an oracular tone, although years of silence on this subject and the aggregation of some understandably rancorous feelings could lead to a degree of adamancy. I love this form deeply and have dedicated myself to figuring out what can be accomplished with it, so there is passion involved.

I can only talk with certainty about my own methods, yet I share a sense of investigation with many artists. I am offering my ideas not as the right ones but as alternatives. I have developed a way of thinking about dance that comes directly out of my experimentation with choreography. The ideas I have developed as poetic systems in my own dancemaking define the sensibility of this article. These systems are extracted from my imagination, which I turn to for all of the organizational forms in my choreography. Together with the language of dreams I have attempted to use my imagination to move away from the limits of definition and towards my own internal music.

The first step I took as a young choreographer (and perhaps a young contrarian) was to distance myself from the music visualization, monothematic reductivism, and exaltation of the human body that I saw as the hallmarks of modern dance. (Here’s a funny dance, here’s a period dance, here’s a Spanish dance, and here is a dance about war. Why are these separated out? Why doesn’t that artist create a funny, Spanish, period, war dance?) It was the use of music as a starting point that determined the ideological concept for many of these modern works. I was looking for authorship in this form, so the use of a pre-existing piece of music was a deterrent to my search for personally resonant ideas. This modern period (on which my university learning was based) and its “single-theme” choreographic nature murdered the fluency of potential metaphors I saw as the foundation from which I wanted to create.

Unfortunately, this modern history is the canon from which much critical dance writing still draws its standards of excellence. Many artists making dances today, however, are without lineage, as they have not been part of the master/apprentice relationship that has arrested the development of this form for decades. Since many of our writers seem to be well acquainted with the masters, it is relative to this that they speak. While we have all benefited from the work of our predecessors, a hybridization of the form is occurring which is artist-created and -defined. Its identity is found in the thoughts of its makers, not in dance history. It uses dance to refer outside of dance and has numerous faces marked by different cultures, personal histories, and the convoluted politics of the world. Its development is lamentably undocumented.

This criterion for comparison, based on dance history, seems to stop at the Judson moment. Judson is assimilated, and has been for a long time. Works that are absurd or marked by an individualist poetics are often criticized along these lines: “They did it much better during the Judson Era.” Judson, as a reference in dance criticism, has erroneously become a repository for difference. The Judson artists were reacting historically and I thank them. The potency of pedestrianisms or anti-virtuosic explorations has been enervated over time. If I see the influence of their work in the dances of artists now, it is used as a tonal component. Many historical periods in art, once distilled in the future, become tools for artists. For years I referred to ballet in my work. I used it not for its history, but as a way of incorporating a dance language as a psychological state and a building block towards meaning. I used ballet as an exaggerated expression of standardized beauty, and as a way of pointing out the shame of the unbeautiful, the non-virtuosic. It was an assimilated component applied as quality and meaning—not a postmodern appropriation.

When I listen to the music of John Adams, for example, I hear Mahler, I hear minimalism, and I hear pop music, but I do not read their inclusion as statement. I see them as romanticism, continuum, and ease of melody assimilated and used as the various components of an individual voice. In addition, I do not read their admixture as pastiche, but as the logical and unavoidable use of history in a contemporary artist’s work.

There often appears to be a derogatory treatment in criticism of collage structures in choreography. I see fragmentation in dance works referred to by writers as being affected by an MTV sensibility or related to the “fast pace of modern life.” Why are we subjected to this comparison? It is remarkably thin and points to the inability of the writer to access a deeper explanation. If these dances were novels, their fragmentary nature would not be compared with television. (At least not before Joyce’s seminal work, Finnegan’s Wake Unplugged.) A more likely reading is that MTV, ever the co-opter and marketer of assimilated jewels from the cutting edge, is affected by the work of groundbreaking artists, much more than the artists are affected by MTV. I am 44 and have never had cable TV, so MTV is not a part of my world. I can’t speak for my contemporaries, but my use of fragmentation, more likely adopted from literature than pop culture, is a reflection of the human mind and its capacity to contain innumerable things. The use of extreme fragmentation is for me a homeopathic remedy for the impossibility of coming to terms with the disparate nature of the events in a life. The complexity of the mind and its subsequent hyperbolic treatment on stage is the antidote to the malaise it creates. The futile attempt of human beings to vehemently organize reality, as it crumbles beneath their feet, is symptomatic. As a safety mechanism, humankind—particularly, but not exclusively, in the Western world—has opted for the myopic shield. This is reflected in monotheism, Tere O’Connor dictatorships, and even monogamy. It is reflected in our move from paganism to Christianity. Language itself is a partner here, with its reduction of the wholeness of things to symbol and its refusal to see that the thing is embedded in the history of its perceiver; naming it does a disservice to its complexity.

Of course, this sounds extreme as a written statement, but it is the stuff of dance as well as a political point of view. I attempt to create a network born of these concepts in my dances, something that is logical as an experience, not as an explanation. I try to create imagery that is rounded and indefinable, imagery that invites the viewer to react and to throw a bucket of themselves onto it. Gesture cannot be read in a denotative way and so each individual’s definitions are only important relative to the grammar of the work, and grammar is universal. In a dance, it is the trajectory of these continually lost moments and their subsequent rebirth, either further explained or further mystified, that is its communicative center. To capture and orchestrate a network of these disparate elements—their chaos and the music of their relativity —is not a 5,6,7,8 proposition for me. To reveal the convoluted network as universal is my goal and something that dance can accomplish in an inimitable way.

I constantly read dance reviews that “stop action” and pull an arresting image out of context to be described as if it were a sculpture or a photograph. In my work the definition of imagery is not legible through linguistic analysis. To concentrate on one word in a sentence would be to lose the entire concept of its placement in a larger thought. Certainly it is a difficult task to translate a temporal art into writing, but perhaps the inclusion of its nature is important in analyzing it. An increased ability to read structure and to analyze imagery relative to the network on which it travels is a need here. I rarely read reviews that speak with exactitude about a work’s underpinnings, or exhibit an analytical methodology for capturing this.

In my composition classes I use novels as an exercise in structure. I request of the students that they strip the novel of its narrative and write about its structure. I have learned much from doing this myself. There is a structure of relationship in the math of a chapter that is pre-character. The numerical outlay of single being relative to the group is one aspect. How many times is one character with another as opposed to a third? Is this number ordered or is it random? Does it bespeak a hierarchical modality supporting the narrative or is it an imitation of the spontaneity of things? Does this feel calculated or natural? In general what is its shape as it travels forward and changes? Cinderella’s problems would have been greatly mitigated were she an only child. The three-ness of the sisters is imperative. Its odd number status says “two against one” much more readily than would a family of four. The three-ness adds immeasurably to the weight of the prince’s arrival at the end. Without it you have an image of a prince with a shoe!

Another difficulty with “stop action” writing is that an image in dance is defined by the images around it. In my work, and in the work of other artists whose dances I feel exist outside an explanatory sensibility, the arc of the piece is the protagonist. When I read a book, one of the most emotional moments is when a chapter introduces new characters. It does not matter who they are, it just matters that the others are gone for now. I read about the new characters while gripping the old ones in my mind. What if they never come back? I try to exploit this feeling in my work by presenting imagery and deciding as a director if it will be killed or allowed to live. It does not matter what the images are.

My dances feel successful to me when they imitate a train ride. On a speeding train, one can pass by a scene of a farmhouse, and minutes later, a scene of bodies strewn on the ground from a car accident, and then after that, of children running in a field. None of these events is important in itself or carries more weight than another. What is defining is the contrast of these and how one perceives them. How the second image makes one feel relative to the third, and perhaps, how on the third image the first has been forgotten. It is the forward movement of the train that creates the meaning. And certainly given the terrain, another farm will reappear, and then many others. They will not re-explain the first farm, they may just say “It’s farmy here.” A viewer may alight on the first farm and see it as thematic. Yet what remains in the memory after the dance is over is its farminess as background, not the importance of the first farm viewed. By the end of the ride one may have forgotten the horror of the car accident, solely through the passage of time or maybe because they went past an inordinately long stretch of ocean.

The selection of “lucid” theme and variation as a measure of successful dance is not instructive. I cannot count the times I have read dance reviews that say something like: “It started out interestingly but didn’t live up to its initial imagery.” This may explain an unsuccessful work or it may just describe the structure of the writer’s inability to let go of preconceptions and take the ride. I make art to escape this concept of theme and variation. For some reason I need to process the world in a different way, much like those other purveyors of the obtuse—poets. Most of what I experience in life is a mystery. I cannot think about one thing without losing it in a salad of everything. I have learned much from the nature of dreams, the way they group the unrelated and rearrange their level of importance. We use them to escape the irreconcilability of differences and go on. Imagination, the daytime cousin of dreams, allows for the pairing of opposites in an artistic setting, allows us to put them together rather than define them separately. I am not looking to extract a theme, but rather to look at a theme relative to the profusion of other themes around it. In my dances, variation is a willful step into tangent, not a further explanation of the starting point.

These are some points of distinction I contribute to what I hope could become a more collective process. These ideas may or may not pertain to your writing but they could be the beginning of a discussion we all need to continue. If we could deepen the discussion of dance, make more ample the referential framework, we could potentially cultivate serious consideration by a broader audience. Perhaps the remaining publications that employ dance writers would respond by seeing all dance as important enough to be written about week after week. What if all works were accorded the same consideration as the New York City Ballet receives from The New York Times—the same pieces reviewed 13 times in a season? And maybe the New Yorker would review companies other than the New York City Ballet and Mark Morris, and devote the same amount of space and depth of discussion to dance as it does the other arts. And maybe we could arrive at a place where many writers rotate frequently, rounding out the “point of view” arena.

So, let’s do lunch.

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Tere O'Connor

Tere O’Connor is the Artistic Director of Tere O’Connor Dance and a Center for Advanced Studies Professor of Dance at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He has created over 40 works for h...
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