“Wrought Iron Fog”
Tere O’Connor Dance
Dance Theater Workshop
New York, NY
November 10, 2009
by Kathleen O’Connell
copyright © 2009 by Kathleen O’Connell
The titles of Tere O’Connor’s most recent works — ”Rammed Earth,” “Baby,” “Frozen Mommy” — are both particular and loaded; like it or not, they sound like interpretive clues. The title of O’Connor’s latest work, “Wrought Iron Fog,” is a resonant but elusive juxtaposition that breaks down the minute you try to make sense of it—less a clue than a koan. It’s loaded, but not in the same emotionally fraught way that “Frozen Mommy” is. It evokes something both highly crafted and diffuse, at once solid and evanescent. It’s an apt description of the work premiered at Dance Theater Workshop on Tuesday night: a reel of stream–of–consciousness episodes set to composer James Baker’s layered collage of found sounds, musical samples, and spoken text. Images and emotions coalesced and evaporated with the disconcerting aptness—and elusiveness—of dream-logic. It held you in its grip but avoided your grasp.
The work opened with the company’s five dancers (Hilary Clark, Daniel Clifton, Erin Gerken, Heather Olson, and Matthew Rogers) scattered across a darkened stage in silhouette while an ethereal, high pitched hum played over the sound system. Little flickers of movement—a swaying shift of weight, a curving sweep of a hand—jumped from dancer to dancer. Before long, the lights were up, the hum had been overlaid by a rhythmically plucked bass, and all five were leaping and turning across the stage. A few minutes later a voice intoned “There then more or less” (the text was extracted from a Beckett novel), two dancers departed under the pointedly wistful gaze of those who remained behind, and it was on to the next episode.
Each episode was built around the permutation of a repeated, often exquisitely beautiful phrase into which O’Connor had embedded motifs and gestures lifted from codified dance forms and movement disciplines as well as from daily life. The dense modules were propagated virally, first executed by one or two dancers, then replicated in a larger group. Movement and mood were often cued by the soundscape —sometimes with wit, sometimes too literally. The dancers moved on fluttery feet to snatches of birdsong or were blown around the stage to the sound of onrushing wind. They broke into a fractured contra-dance to samples of baroque music, bopped to a pop tune like teens on American Bandstand, and sold it like Broadway hoofers when the music grew brassy.
The work felt stylistically coherent despite the diversity of O’Connor’s materials. Richly detailed upper body movement was offset by a relatively dry lower body: he mined dance vocabulary more for its gestural effects than for locomotive potential. The dancers may have folded bits of ballet and Broadway into what they were doing, but they weren’t tempted to move like ballerinas or hoofers; they were incorruptible.
O’Connor used just about every available permutation of five dancers to structure his episodes. Two dancing against three might morph into a quartet dancing around a solitary figure, or into five dancing in unison. The groupings were as varied in rhetoric as they were in number: we were shown that a quartet is not the same thing as two pairs, for instance, or that it is possible for two people to dance alone together. O’Connor moved his groups in unison, in canon, and in something akin to heterophony, a musical texture characterized by the simultaneous variation of a single line realized in multiple voices.
Little shards of drama kept working their way to the surface, emerging without context and vanishing without apparent residue or resolution. Rogers flung Gerken around in a violent duet that looked beautiful, felt ugly, and suggested a history of hostile brutality—then all the darkness vanished into something else as inexplicably as it had begun. In a later episode, Gerken flew across the stage towards Rogers and one half expected him to scoop her up in an ecstatic catch à la Paul Taylor. But no, she just out-and-out tackled him and they fell to the floor in a furious grapple. Was it part of the same story? Who knows? There was nothing in the work to suggest that it was. But I remembered the earlier duet and wanted to shout out “good for you!” when she plowed into him.
The stream of consciousness sometimes dwindled to a trickle. Rogers and Clifton sat like two Pre-Raphaelite nymphs gazing at each other across a river bank in a delicious moment of unexpected and delicate tenderness. A few minutes later they minced across the stage on tippy-toe, vamping like fashion models. One could only shrug and say, “Yeah, so?”
Scenic designer Walter Dundervill covered the back wall of the stage with long, narrow strips of roughly cut white fabric and hung the wings with curtains of white rope frayed at the ends. It softened the bare stage without suggesting anything in particular—it certainly didn’t bring wrought iron or fog to mind. The dancers were dressed by Jennifer Goggans and Erin Gerken in dusky jewel tones—garnet, lapis, emerald, and amethyst. The men wore sleeveless, mandarin-collared tunics over leggings. The women were bare-legged in dresses of varying construction and shortness: a knee length wrap, a derriere-grazing romper, and a sheer, blouse-length tunic over a tanksuit.
The facility with which images were conjured up, exploited, and swept away made them seem as much the product of playacting as genuine emotion. Volatile matters—abandonment, abuse, injury, self-destruction—were presented with ironic detachment; it was all curiously oblique despite the individual vividness and obvious commitment of O’Connor’s excellent dancers. Intriguing though they were as fragments, the episodes lacked the cumulative power necessary to make a resonant whole.
The work ended as it began: as one dancer walked off the stage, the others returned to the center, where they stood as the lights went down. We were back where we started, but we hadn’t come full circle.
copyright © 2009 by Kathleen O’Connell
Photos: Yi Chum Wu
Top: Matthew Rogers, Hilary Clark, Daniel Clifton, Heather Olson and Erin Gerken in “Wrought Iron Fog”
Middle: Erin Gerken, Heather Olson, and Matthew Rogers in “Wrought Iron Fog”
Bottom: Erin Gerken, Matthew Rogers, Hilary Clark, Heather Olson, and Daniel Clifton in “Wrought Iron Fog”