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A Conversation with Tere O'Connor

By Katy Dammers

Dec 2, 2015

Choreographer Tere O’Connor spoke with Assistant Curator and Archive Manager Katy Dammers about his new piece The Goodbye Studies premiering at The Kitchen this week. O’Connor reflects on the complexity of his newest piece and its construction through deep relationships with his collaborators. 

Katy Dammers: I was struck by some moments in your work where the dancers collectively offer what I interpreted as moments of grief or fear. In what seems to be a growing presence of terrorism, news coverage frequently depicts reactions as collective gestures—whereas in your work I saw twelve different experiences. How have you been working on that in this piece?

Tere O’Connor: I feel like I’m talking about the current situation on earth, with a focus on groups of people in absolute flux. Although I’m not necessarily doing a depiction of that it’s generative in my head. Together with the way I look at choreography it frees one up to see the real nature of consciousness, so something like an abject fear resides right next to normalcy and shows up without a transition of any sort, which creates an assemblage of the parts in my work. In this piece I think the structure goes in and out of a lot of places real quickly that you may not be ready for, and I think that structure contains the hysteria of the moment to some degree.

One thing that has definitely been a real difficulty in my career is people not “getting” the work, when I’m not looking to get anything. It’s a really huge abyss. The most important thing is not the primary information in the moment, but how all information resides in relativity. How does the Paris attack reside next to food tastes good and reside next to how the Holocaust gets forgotten in this moment? All the constellations of ideas suggest a new psychology somehow. And that is something that I feel dance can look at and that I’m trying to kind of corral, as opposed to being thematic. 

KD: I definitely felt that. Some moments literally run at you—the movement itself rushes the audience. It made me question how anyone moves through life. So much is happening and you have to find some way of navigating while still continually moving.

TO: I’m trying to keep multiple ideas afloat. What is it to suggest that we can also live that way? Maybe it’s an idealistic one and maybe that’s what theater is for—to create potential ways of living. I’m definitely interested in temporal shifts—what I call time origami, bending time. One of the key dramas of a choreographer is the futile attempt to rearrange time. I’m really interested in the interplay between metered time, film time, real time, and dream time conflated and converging; and the relationship with the present moment that the dancers are feeling blending with what they’ve rehearsed and need to do in performance. There are all kinds of converging chronologies going on each night. Even though my work is very fixed and structured, we have created a million layers to talk about and everyone has their mind flying in those places during the piece. One of the other things I keep in mind as a choreographer is that there’s nothing you can say that’s really specific in a dance—people are going to be projecting onto it and that’s something that needs to be available within the work, it needs to be able to accept people’s projections.

KD: How have you worked with James Baker to determine the relationship between the music and the dance?

TO: I go every night after rehearsal to work with Jimmy. I make the dance in complete silence and the music comes in the end. I think a lot of people don’t have any idea that anyone would ever do that, but the structures in the dance are really free from the music. Sometimes there are parts of the dance that work really well in the silence so we don’t have to do much except kind of give the air a bit of beigeness, or just one tone that brings it from silence forward towards meaning of some sort.

KD: Last I talked you weren’t quite sure about the costumes, do you have any ideas?

TO: One of the first ideas I had was that I was going to make a correlation between the dance and impressionist painting, the moment when figure and abstraction were two sides of a coin. We were thinking at one point about using floral patterns and we’re still kind of doing that, even though the relationship to impressionism is just something I passed through to explain something to myself. Since the piece is born of us all coming together, we’re doing the costumes as a big group. We’re asking everyone what they would like to wear and bringing in a lot of different designs that will be anchored by other people in neutral colors. Any time people are ever in a group there will always be a splash of craziness and intermingled with these solid colors.

KD: How did you assemble the cast for this work? What did you look for when you were choosing people to work with?

TO: Over the last few years I’ve deliberately not been trying to keep a regular company because it attributes to the creation of a repeatable product. I bring new people in so I can’t use standardized language about how we’re going to work—I always have to be in the present with these new people. On top of that I’m looking for people who have technique and a million different ways of moving, but who they are and what they’re able to do with that it is ultimately more important. All of these artists are people who have an affinity to asking questions about choreography and creating interpretations of abstraction, and allow those questions to remain alive all the time. They are not answerable questions, they are something to push towards.

Photo by Paula Court

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