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The Commitment to Witness

Wrought Iron Fog, Tere O’Connor, REDCAT, October 14-17, 2010 –

New York choreographer Tere O’Connor’s latest work, Wrought Iron Fog, was performed at REDCAT during its four-performance west coast premiere last month. O’Connor, a former Guggenheim and Rockwell fellowship recipient and creator of dances for Jean Butler, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and the White Oak Dance Project, is rightly regarded as an original figure in dance, as much for his deliberately varied creative processes as for the results he achieves with his dancers. Wrought Iron Fog leaves no doubt about its uniqueness while it solicits inquiry from its very first moments.

The work begins on a spare darkened stage, with a rippling blue curtain at the rear and dozens of ceiling-high light strands lining the sides. Electronic music is heard and Michael O’Connor’s sensitive lighting brightens to reveal the stage, transferring its darkness to the dancers, casting them in silhouette, their shapes moving in place. When the dancers become fully illuminated, the music changes to multiple string basses out of phase, as if mirroring our eyes’ recent experience of seeing the movers literally in a different light–our questioning of what we have seen, or thought we have seen, is sanctioned by the sound of instruments in overlapped non-dialogue, two simultaneous conversations of equal value, unable to inform the other except in being overheard by a third. Thus is the audience honored throughout the performance, as a welcomed and involved participant responsible for the final compositional act of witnessing instead of an impressed but passive observer.

That degree of trust is rare enough in dance performances that audience members could be confused at first about what to make of the proceedings–we must either undertake to resolve sometimes disparate combinations of actions or we must accept them as they are, just as the dancers frequently do. The work makes us comfortable with either choice, but it takes time: not until the dancers change their detached facial expressions worn at the start to full smiles, eliciting our sudden, surprising laughter, do we feel secure in our elevated roles.

O’Connor’s team of dancers–Hilary Clark, Daniel Clifton, Erin Gerken, Heather Olson, and Matthew Rogers, all choreographers in their own right–collaborated on the creation of Wrought Iron Fog over a demanding four-month period. These fine-tuned performers propel themselves with devoted abandon through an inclusive array of “dance” and “non-dance” movements, even nesting sections of improvisation within the production. O’Connor states, “I no longer create my works in adherence to a good/bad paradigm. I have become very interested in seeing what the dances can become through a process of witnessing as opposed to employing choreographic technique of any sort.” This commitment to artistic process produces dance that leads to sometimes prolonged ambiguity along with a sense of having traversed a wide emotional range.

The dancers’ assaying of that range frequently takes place through transformations in the dance–random pairings leading to gawky stretches or giddy hiccups or classical unison phrases, or sudden silence allowing us to take in the authentic sounds in that moment of bodies breathing and feet meeting the floor. All sounds are valued equally and are essential to the experience of the work; we are reminded that we hear our own heartbeat best when we have been exercising our own heart.

Along with the five dancers performing in this compelling world of movement and stillness is an additional presence of equal importance: the remarkably varied and expert score by James Baker. Baker, a longtime O’Connor collaborator, delivers sounds and timbres of all imaginable variety including recited text written by Samuel Beckett, music concrète, prepared piano, percussion, and sampled orchestral music. And while the score comprises a series of short pieces, many are strong metrical bursts marking fragmented time with a cumulative severity that the dancers and audience cannot ignore. The unity of the score with the choreography is more than adept: it is as though they were born simultaneously from the same parent.

Wrought Iron Fog (2009) Excerpt Tere O’Connor from tere o’connor on Vimeo.

While there seems to be no explicit narrative in Wrought Iron Fog, there are sets of relationships that are expressed in various pairings, most powerfully between Rogers and Gerken. At one point she jumps against him and he falls under her; she dominates him while his body tremors convey them across the stage towards the audience. This encounter followed one in which they had circled the stage while he repeatedly lifted her by the neck in a violent assertion of authority while the other dancers proceeded with their own focused actions without interceding.

There are other arresting phrases: in one, Rogers and Clifton are bent at right angles in forward fold, arms and legs to the floor, perhaps imitating the light strands on the stage. They rapidly rotate on their leg-axes, oscillating left and right like dueling floor polishers. In another, the men hold Clark’s hands on either side, displaying her to the audience; she rises, steps backwards, then falls, unflatteringly, at the back of the stage, seen by all. There is again no reaction from the dancers: the strange and uncomfortable events in this world are allowed to unfold without judgment, secrecy, or attempts to ease the discomfort.

O’Connor’s performers own this work–as an audience member one has the sense throughout of being in their good hands, that ultimately all will be well in the end, despite the in-the-wild violence that sometimes occurs. And in fact O’Connor in his blog credits them for their contributions to his work; since much of the conveyance of his ideas for this work was rooted in his own improvisation, which they interpreted after only one viewing, their involvement in the final design is one of interpretive authorship.

I regret not being able to see more than one  performance—I sense that each new viewing would yield new possibilities. In this unique work of exploration, this work that doesn’t proffer a narrative, a work that could have come only now in the evolution of postmodern dance and society, we can find insights into ourselves and into our relationships with others’ movements that affirm the present with detached awe.

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