Tere O’Connor Dance appears at the Joyce Theater in the second week of NY Quadrille.
It’s no secret that Tere O’Connor wants the dances he makes to be about themselves. He reveals this on his website, in his program notes, and in interviews. He puts it more eloquently than I can, stating that over his decades-long immersion in dance, “I’ve discovered that traits such as inference, essence, quality, reference, complexity, layering, and rhythm create another kind of meaning in dance more naturally than imagery or stated themes” (excerpted from the “From the Artistic Director” note in the program). But, as he knows, the materials of dance includes living dancers, whose superbly articulate bodies and responsive minds also inevitably remind us of situations and moods we go through every day.
I’m sorry to say that circumstances have left me without photographs of the dance to help you, dear readers, sense what my words cannot. You will have to imagine the dancers when you look at the above photograph that shows Joyce Theater reconfigured for the four different programs making up “NY Quadrille,” the two-week season conceived and curated by Lar Lubovitch. Moving over that floor in two O’Connor dances—one a premiere, one new to New York—were Eleanor Houlihan, Natalie Green, and Silas Riener in Transcendental Daughter and Michael Ingle and Riener in Undersweet. Perhaps you know these dancers.
When Ingle and Riener enter the platform, they do so in a rather grand manner, picking up their feet neatly, and the music that announces them and carries them along expresses in its own way the essence of their duet: a tension between formality and passion, between what O’Connor terms our “social facades and our sexual urges.” What we hear are excerpts from Jean-Baptiste Lully’s 1676 ballet-embellished opera Atys, as recorded by Les Arts Florissants under William Christie, in which elegant and mannerly dances, such as minuets and courants, enhance love-me-or-I-die themes (or perhaps love me until I die, when to die was euphemism for orgasm). The three-syllable French lament, “Ohimé!” is more elaborately anguished than “alas.” Amid annunciatory arias for tenor and baritone, sweet, higher voices weave and melt together in ravishing ways.
The two men are very dissimilar in the ways they move, and their attire (chosen by the choreographer) accentuates their differences. Ingle, short-haired and the taller of the two, wears a t-shirt and shorts that don’t cling to his body, while Riener is bare-chested above his brown tights, and his long hair is gathered into a ponytail. When they dance in unison, as they often do, they are handsomely in synch, yet Ingle’s strength seems softer, plushier, while Riener’s is more knife-like. O’Connor keeps them dancing strenuously, whether they are running around the perimeters of the platform; or strutting, their bent arms held up and wrists cocked as if they’re bearing fragile plates (an oblique allusion perhaps to baroque dance manners); or flourishing their handsome legs around. Little that Ingle and Riener do looks loose or flung; however extreme their movements, they never seem imprecise. After close to a half hour of dancing, the men are as sweaty as they’d be in a joust or an erotic encounter.
The musical selections are separated by pauses and, at times, disturbed or overcome by the choreographer’s contributions: liquid sounds—from one like water running into a bathtub to a powerful gush—or the clattering of objects. The lighting, by Michael O’Connor, changes the atmosphere subtly, suggesting the passage of time or a new slant on the encounters between the men. These meetings are both charged and exquisitely designed. When Ingle lies supine, Riener slides over him into a split, and that maneuver leads into slow acrobatics that end in an embrace. Once, the dancing simmers down into a familiar image of romance: the two briefly relaxing on the floor, and Ingle, finding Riener’s head suddenly in his lap, bending down to kiss him. As I thought I heard the baritone sing a few seconds ago, “si charmant!” The dance is rich in strenuous exertions and smaller, enigmatic gestures; it increases in speed and pressure when the gorgeously lyrical music does, but constantly composes itself as soon as similarity and difference, strength and weakness have contended. The men are wonderful in this, with Riener especially sensitive to alterations in the emotional climate that the music both controls and pours out—ambrosia in a crystal goblet.
Transcendental Daughter is not about a mystical or inspirational offspring (O’Connor makes that clear in his program note); it is a transcendental daughter. And, like a daughter, it can charm, mystify, and lift our spirits—both via its choreographed nature and the nature of the three strong, alert people who inhabit it: Hullihan, Green, and Riener. Green is the taller of the women and the skinnier, Hullihan is a bit softer in terms of how she moves. These dancers are so interesting that you think about what they might be thinking.
O’Connor has again handsomely illuminated the space, but this time, the music has been composed by James Baker, and it has a far less soothing message than Lully’s centuries-old score. It begins as a throbbing hum but transforms as it goes along, with such sounds as (perhaps) a helicopter’s rotors, a plucked guitar, light percussion, baroque music distorted, and might be high, whining voices. All, of course, woven expertly together.
The choreography too suggests in its form what O’Connor calls “constellations of colliding ideas.” While the dancers’ movements theoretically derive from these different ideas, they are seamed together in ways that imply continuity. Hullihan, Green, and Riener begin lying on their backs, each with one straight arm thrust up, and progress to a dreamy sequence of swaying their arms from side to side, then rocking them, then letting that rocking pull their bodies into rolling from side to side. But because dance has its own physical logic, you tend to accept possible cause and effect (or not) without asking whether, when the three stand up, they’re now “awake” or any more ready for action than they were. However, they now swing their arms more vigorously, bending their bodies more and more as they do so.
Sometimes these people move in unison and in formation, but at other times they adopt separate paths and/or activities. Once, when they travel along parallel diagonal tracks, the center person goes in one direction, while those flanking her set their feet toward the opposite one (you’d be surprised at how interesting this is to watch). The nature of the performing space, with its two banks of spectators, makes it very satisfying to see the dancers move toward and away from the center along the spokes of an imagined wheel.
Their attitudes toward one another become mysteriously absorbing—not just when they connect in unusual ways (at one point, Reiner treats Hullihan’s raised leg as a turnstile), but through their gaze. They often regard one another expectantly, as if planning the next move or agreeing on it. Riener stands perfectly still and watches the two women back away from him (the image hints at “meaning,” but that has been rinsed out of it). Later in Transcendental Daughter, all three dance gazing up, as if some object has appeared above them; we can imagine curiosity or dread, but they reveal neither emotion.
M. O’Connor’s fine lighting changes the look of the space quite often, and it’s tempting to wonder if there’s a connection between the light turning blue and the music emphasizing a beat just after the dancers, having exchanged a “what now?” look, bend their hands back and place their wrists to their foreheads (think, yet don’t think, of a times-past woman about to faint).
Despite its watchful pauses and silences, Transcendent Daughter is a demanding dance, with straight-up jumps, hops, and jumps with the dancers’ legs bent into a diamond (as in a ballet pas de chat). Yet, their arms get a workout too—swinging, gesturing, reaching to touch or grasp or signal someone. Traveling together, they close their hands into fists, open them, close them again. Near the end of the work, each dancer is focused on an individual ordering of all those arm movements.
We’ve been seeing this trio of O’Connor’s at fairly close range. And the dancers become “known” to us. We know what they are doing—we see it, although we do not know their desires or their regrets, nor do we or worry about the outcome of anything. On the other hand, they are irrevocably human. I suspect that what intrigues O’Connor is the tension between all these factors. Suppose snapshots fell from an album into patterns that linked one unimaginably with another, might you not be delighted by the coincidences? I think that’s a little like Transcendental Daughter, even though O’Connor has polished and linked his dance images in masterly ways that both please us and mess (gently) with our heads.