Below are excerpts from an interview that Jenn and I engaged in earlier this spring. When we started working on Secret Mary the blog had not yet been developed. So here, a little late, are some thoughts on the process of making this dance.
Jenn Joy: Hello from the still glittering Brooklyn snow. I have been reading my notes from the last rehearsal of poem and Secret Mary in that vacuous hall as piles of supplies for Sandy moved in and out of the adjacent sanctuary and thinking back to the performances.
Secret Mary feels to me so much like a series of shifting landscapes. The dancers establish perimeters through their initial spacing and then amplify the boundaries as they side step, spatially demarcating the choreographic terrain, but then as I watch it seems that the topography is also embodied as if the dancers play with level—standing, bending over, lifting, carrying, lying down—as so many shifting altitudes within the piece. Does landscape or topography enter into your thinking about the composition?
Tere O’Connor: I think dance is an act of traversing expanses of thought. Through moving, internal landscapes unfurl and register as trajectories in space. As a director, I am aware of shifting landscapes and suggested architectures that the human body references. My perspective on choreography reveals an organic dialogue with poetic space—an ongoing slide show of invisible architectural blueprints—shifting, growing, shrinking in hallucinatory ways around the inhabitants of the stage space. I attempt to order this multitude of shifting spaces to create kinetic reactions in the viewer. This is accomplished by directing the gaze of the performers and their intention. I design the differentiation of their reach, alternately aiming their extremities to draw large lines in the space or refer to a use of the arms that evokes manual labor or gesticulation. There are many other subtle tools of construction to draw the eye to spatial differentiation, manipulating the viewer’s eye to see the human figure now in an inferred domesticated space and now contending with the monolithic proportions of the theater and so on. A subterranean drama is created that exerts pressure on the dance yet it is difficult to trace and acts as a second kinetic layer parallel to the dynamics of the movement itself, modulating in and out of harmony with it. There is also a relationship to modernist applications of the stage space that informs my work. Since most of that work is in dialogue with the rectilinear, diagonals and lines and circles are willfully incorporated as generic ground zeros from which I launch into more anomalous spatial forays.
Jenn: How do you describe the quality of the movement in this work? Against the crystalline language within poem, Secret Mary evokes a different kind of physicality—one that feels more individuated, more specific to the performers, more questioning in its relation to traces of gender and sexuality. How would you describe this physicality? How much comes from the dancers or from your direction? And here I remember commenting at the first interrogation and devynn countering to say that this is not the way their dancing/movement looks…
Tere: This is a big question so I will provide some tidbits that may get us closer to an answer.
The physicality of Secret Mary comes in large part from the dancers as they contributed much to the movement creation. They have a lot of training, but also a strong sense of self-awareness that allows their pre-trained bodies to recalibrate the more “sophisticated,” acquired embodiments they have mastered. The background tension between their impulses and mine is a tacit force in the work, but we meet on harmonious terrain as well. We did a lot of improvisation as a way of thinking together and in the process there was a breeching of boundaries, creating an atmosphere of multiplying choices. Improvisation plays a role both in the development of the material and in the structuring of the work. Sometimes they improvise and I extract movement and shape it further as a way of bleeding more information from the material. I would place a new focus on the improvisation or they would and we continued to work that way to “thicken” the material. In the finished work there are a number of places where they are fully improvising.
Somewhat different from poem where I select a narrower movement realm, a larger spectrum of styles and movement individuation are incorporated into Secret Mary. There is no lexicon for the work that restricts its elements yet in the final edit I am making decisions that shape the work and these come from a different part of the mind than that used to design poem. I restrict the movement realm for some works, and others are more open. This is not a statement of any sort, just an aspect of fluidity from work to work. I am not looking to land on a single modality. It is characteristic of my work to incorporate many different styles of dance with their attendant histories, as divergent as they may be. It was wonderful for me to be able to stripe the work with the ballet training of Ryan and Tess’s deep commitment to improvisation and everything in-between. But really the discussion isn’t about the styles used at all. I am thinking more about the tensile structure of a dance and its qualitative modulations over the arc of a work. The surface of a dance is simply material for the internal motor of a work to render itself visible on. The style of movement matters only to a degree.
The movement spectrum in all my work is a polyglot experience, where continual hybrid manifestations in the form of diverse movement clusters are placed in close proximity or blended into each other with no effort made to define their relationship. Their coexistence promotes syncretic systems of meaning production. It is not about erasing the singularity of the components but framing them in relation to each other. This is a method I use both for making the works and structuring them.
The people in my work are not always “being human” nor do I perceive them exclusively that way. They shift from being people to dancers to ideas to qualities to graphic elements to absences to potentialities to characters to themselves and on and on. The intentions of the work and of its inhabitants are in a state of constant shift throughout its temporal unraveling.
I have been dealing with gender in my work since the day I started. I don’t want to engage with it as a topical element; it is a background condition. I have always wanted to live in a place where fluid gender and androgyny were a given. I prefer to create an androgynous atmosphere where the performers shift from masculinity to femininity without question and more importantly without any political proclamation. There is a deep, almost childish desire to be past this issue in my work. Many people who see this combo of poem and Secret Mary remark on the androgyny which makes me happy but isn’t something that is so prominent for me. It is partially that I am a lucky enough to have these cool young people offer their expansive selves to my work.
Jenn: How do you imagine the work of the gaze or vision within this piece? What happens when the dancers become voyeurs within the piece, even momentarily?
Tere: I think the word “gaze” causes an explosion of misunderstandings, so I will speak to how it exists in this work. One of the more important elements I am trying to learn about in constructing dances is how to harness the viewers’ internal dialogues with the work. Each audience member is processing at a different rate. Some are trawling along with the work and others are frozen at junctures they still need to take in. The dancers’ stopping and watching the others is a prompt to the viewer. “You are in this experience doing what I am doing right now.” It is the dancer as audience member creating a transitional space that makes the viewer’s mind visible on stage.
I also have a great love for the anonymous “supernumeraries” of life; all the people you don’t deal with at the airport or in any crowd who are just there. The easy disregard that we have for those people and for their full stories somehow enhances the “protagonist” stature of those engaged in action. The audience plays that role as they are not revealing their histories but witnessing ours…for now.
Jenn: I have an almost illegible note that says “impossible vision” which I think refers to the impossibility of seeing everything that is happening at once. Can you speak about the dense synchronicity or simultaneity within the work? Does this piece have any specific counter-points/references/influences of particular films?
Tere: I think the dense synchronicity that you mention is born of the “everything” aesthetic that I have worked with from early on. It also comes from the idea of the audience as editor. I am placing them in an expanded role urging them to make selections and to take note that they are already creating identifications and references without my understated request. Being subtly forced into choosing what one sees can bring into consciousness the fact that they are already making selections. I don’t work with causalities, yet a free-flowing, abstract choreographic sensibility moves us through many consonances and dissonances. I can’t separate out thematic information and I don’t want to, so the choreography is a network of possible relationships between the elements inside a work. Unlike practitioners of the aforementioned modernist aesthetic I don’t search for thematic presences to make abstractions of. The audience may or may not look for a singular through-line or theme but that is part of the porousness of this form and one of my beloved ideas about dance. One of the root metaphors I am engaging with in the creation of choreographies is the relationship of the force of human control and the involuntary effects of nature upon us. When things align or are in agreement for a moment we notice them because we see them as more valuable. Like when you are driving in a car and you wait for a tree you see down the road to line up with a pole further away. It is so fulfilling and momentary when it hits and so sad to lose. It feels like you and nature coming together but it is really just the car moving forward.
Jenn: What is the value of illumination in the work? And here the secrets of Mary hidden in so many illuminated manuscripts feels not only like a bad pun on my part, but also a way to ask about the varying textures of light within the work. How do you think about light in relation to illumination/vision/knowledge production with the piece? Tess’s opening solo feels quite spectacular with the strobe-effect but then the lighting becomes subtle, minimal, as a backdrop for the idiosyncratic gestures and pairings.
Tere: In this instance lighting is a manifestation of architectural ideas. Since Secret Mary is simultaneously a piece about experimentation and a paean to the early stages of making, I wanted the theatrical realm to be one of spare theatrics. Upon arrival at the rehearsal space that we made the piece in, generously provided through a space grant from the Lower Manhattan Cultural CounciI, I was shocked to find a long rectangular floor wedged into an office space. I felt that initial impact must ring through this whole experience. I wanted the rectangle to be invisibly present as all architectural imprints are in dance. In fact, they are dancing on an invisible replica of the rectangle in the performance overlaid onto the stage itself. The light hits, revealing the rectangle on the floor for a second and fades slowly when the dancers splat themselves upon the floor. They only leave the imagined rectangle once when they walk over to the side and stand in the blue light. This shape will ring out all the way into the set design for Bleed.
At the beginning of the piece there is a “lighting storm.” I was playing with an idea of the annunciation trying with theatrics to bring that forth and hopefully mitigate the inevitable religious connotations associated with the name Mary. One film (to answer your previous question) that was stuck in a crevice of my mind and became dislodged here, is the thrilling Je Vous Salue Marie by Jean-Luc Godard which is a revisiting of the immaculate conception featuring a young girl, Mary, who works in a gas station with her dad. In a certain way inspiration is an immaculate conception. So I wanted there to be a moment of hyperbolic heavenly creation to begin, where the lights are very present and then recede to general stage light except for a couple of moments. Lighting pushes us towards the obvious only to leave us without that for the remainder. I have returned to a place where I want dance to be the protagonist of the work and movement to be the generator of everything.
Jenn: And what of the silence? Of the emphasis on breath and sounds of the dancing itself?
Tere: The dual-purpose of braiding process and product in this project, equates stages of making with the character of each piece. Secret Mary was the first dance created for this project and is of course very precious for us. It is imbued with threshold moments, from the inchoate instinctual beginnings of making to the blind first stabs at shaping and asserting “knowledge” onto the material. The dance places the audience inside the terse atmosphere that characterizes the beginning stages of making something. It is an undecorated space created to evoke the hard-edged plainness of beginning and to create an aesthetic from that.
Jenn: Can you speak about your work as mentor and teacher within this particular work or as it connects to your choreographic practice?
Tere: My work as a teacher and mentor is present in this work as one of the most fulfilling aspects of my life. Over my career I have had phenomenal dancers associate themselves with my work and at all levels there is a constant elliptical transference of influence culled from the experience of moving together. The earliest memory of this and the first time I took note of the weight of this in dance was at the start of my 13 year dancing relationship with Nancy Coenen who remains a great friend. She was someone who I so admired in college. I tried do dance like her. When she said she would be in my work I was thrilled. She and I danced in my first duet Boy, Boy, Giant, Baby in 1985. It was the first work I made after school that wasn’t a solo for myself. She embodied a kind of self-deprecating royalty—a female Pere Ubu ricocheting between real emotional discovery and cartoon exaggeration. She was a brilliant mover. I would teach her the movement and then she would “Nancy” it in super subtle ways and we spent our rehearsal in this pendulum. We created a really nuanced embodied vocabulary for a moment, together, never really stating it but daily passing it back and forth until its authorship was indistinguishable. Ever since that moment I have looked for that in the dancers who grace my work with their presences and I have found it in abundance. Ryan and devynn and Mary and Tess are the next in a line of special beings I have been surrounded by. They are all very clear artists who are committed to investigation as a given in their work. Like all the generous artists I work with they are open to something occurring without knowing what it will be like. This blending of influences is so subtle and intimate. It is an agreement to be with each other in ways that stand outside cultural norms, in the U.S. at least. It is an iteration of the same process by which a viewer breeches my choreography with their projections and hopefully finds a quietly receptive network.
Teaching started out as a way of making money but quickly evolved into a necessary engine for my making. It is a way of staying connected to younger generations of makers. I lead students through a morass of contradictory realities that must find a poetic restructuring through investigation. I feel obligated to ask the same complex questions of myself that I present to students and mentees . Even more importantly I must withstand the ground shaking challenges they launch that strafe my certitude. I have had interactions with thousands of students over the years. Whether it is one of my dancers or a student who took a one week long workshop, their pronouncements and physical answers float in my mind forming an important part of the constellation of elements that comprise my dance making. Once I read an essay by a retired gay porn star who wrote that all the men he slept with were with him in every subsequent experience. They provided an erotic anchor for the amplification of sexual experience. Not blessed with this level of sexual good fortune I will content myself with parallel experience in the making of dances.
Jenn: A final question, perversely perhaps, I wanted to ask about the initiating prompt last… what did you see during the very first run after the dancers were instructed to make the work?
Tere: I always start working by moving. I don’t start with an idea. I don’t translate ideas into dance. I dance to engage a parallel discussion with the world of ideas and ultimately to unearth an umbrella of meaning that will serve as the container for a given work. This prompt was an extrapolation of that premise.
On the first day I said to the dancers “Ok lets run the piece which is 35 minutes long.” They improvised a work and attempted to dissect its make-up, to extract information. The process was an exercise in reading dance and immersing ourselves in a sensibility that favored choreographic systems. After many days of talking we began to build a new work out of the embers of those discussions. We did not try to replicate the first version they danced. We started rebuilding with ideas unearthed by dancing.