On Letting Go, Authorship and other Choreographic Matters

Issue #07: Rituals of Now

Tere O’Connor in conversation with Becky Hilton.

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People find each other because of ideologies not because of place

I didn’t really grow up with dance. I both fell in love with it and began to really question it at the same time. Although I really loved dance, I thought there was a lot of sappiness and banality in its history. So, I had both respect and a sort of distain for it, and all of my work seems to embody that critique – a love of it and a wondering about what it can do. In some ways, I’ve been setting out a research for my whole career that starts asking elemental questions about the form, trying to extrapolate information, which I might reapply and use as methodologies for making new work.

The first one, for example, was unison. I remember looking at unison and thinking – why is that so valuable? Why do people love it? And what is it? I’ve also looked at include tangent as an aspect of development in dance; creating a value system inside of the work, that journeys away from perceived cogency. I’ve looked at other things regarding language and how language is re-situated in dance. What I was looking at in BLEED was a resistance to imagery, symbolism or signs in dance versus the engines of meaning creation that don’t have anything to do with legibility or reading. What kind of ghosts or mechanisms can find themselves in the future of one dance or throughout a couple of dances? How do they make themselves manifest outside of things like theme variation or other reiterative qualities? I wanted to look at how dance holds information that is different from a more pragmatic form, such as writing or film – forms that really record.

The ghosts of the previous dances and previous moments in a dance are very powerful although they are somewhat difficult to assess and grasp, yet unexplainably important.

On Letting Go

I’ve come up with a concept for myself in which I’m trying to make use of the poetics of dance in a functional way. I use an idea called ‘erasure as construction’. The ephemerality isn’t romantic; it is something I can actually use in the work, to shape it. I don’t like the idea that ‘dance is just ephemeral’. It is not; it is constantly engaging with potential futures and loss. It is a drama that is intrinsic, maybe in all dances, it is part of the DNA for me.

In my work there are layers of things being built up, potential futures and losses that I reweave in a way that, to me, is more choreographic than it would be narrative. Things accumulate in a way that is specifically choreographic.

On The Politics of Rhythm

Rhythm is really crucial in the meaning of my work. I’m trying to write this article called The Politics of Rhythm. I see young people go into repetition and durational work. If you haven’t been able to corral rhythm into some kind of potency, the work is just going to be on a continuum of stuff going down the river toward the delta. The shock value that artists are creating with their imagery isn’t shocking if it adheres to commercial rhythmic modalities. This is an interesting thing for artists who work in time-based art to look at. I don’t mean rhythm like 5-6-7-8. I mean like RHYTHM, the way that the time of a performance can be cut up.

I’m not necessarily dissing on duration, but on the overuse of it. Vanessa Beecroft sets up images of women, it is ostentatiously about feminism, but that is not the most interesting part. She directs them to go through a narrative in their head. There is an activation of temporality in their head that the audience can’t read. To me, this is an artist who is taking into account the importance of rhythm. If they were just standing there, it wouldn’t be as enticing.


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On Authorship

I am trying to work on a sense of detachment. The thing is organised and then it slips away from authorship in an authored way. The thing is happening and collecting, then suddenly it feels like some of the hinges aren’t there, and then it falls and comes back; it is something about the way that I feel on earth right now.

I don’t think I look at my work as self-expression anymore. It begins as self-expression, and then it starts to become a dog that barks back at me that I have to take care of on its terms somehow. I’m not interested in foisting my knowledge or craft on people. I’m not in the congratulatory part of my career. I’m more interested in seeing what my work can become, what I call the ghost of the dance, that doesn’t lay in its imagery but in the collective consolidation of happenings. The best example for me was when I was young and I would go to Merce Cunningham. It would be going very fast, I could see this virtuosity and then suddenly, something warm would come up from underneath and start taking me over. It was the total-ness of the dance, something that is accumulating that I call the Ghost. What you leave a dance with isn’t the full dance, it’s something else that has been created by it.

I have a hope, or a belief system about dance, that it can detach from singular authorship, even at the same time that I am controlling the hell out of the work.

BH: Indeed, the same dance is a different dance for everybody, every time. There’s that Clare Bishop definition of ‘aesthesis’ – an autonomous regime of experience that is not reducible to logic, reason or morality. There is space, in a dance, for all the things we don’t share.

Yes, I agree. The reason my work continues to be movement based, is because I think dance is a document, it doesn’t need to be revalidated through language. Dance does not have this need. You can see a dance and say – that is that person’s novel, and I have received that information somehow. I think a lot of artists don’t believe that. They put their work through systems that answer to outside validations.

At this point, I feel that the market and art have collapsed so much that it’s in the DNA of the people making work. They don’t even know they are making a concatenation of imageries. They are replicating commercial time frames, like an image of a car in an advert; the car goes really fast and then digitally slows down. All these kinds of digitalisations propose a lack of tyranny; a message that says there is no single answer, there are multiple arrival points. It’s really an expression of a politic that should happen. There are no leaders or finalities or polarities, there is only a spectrum.

BH: Maybe we are fearful of options or ambiguity, which would explain the current turn toward conceptual and minimalist dance. Concepts that play out don’t really need to be done in a way and repetition is self-explanatory. It’s a kind of reluctant authorship.

I think conceptualism in dance has been problematic. There are ways that artists and people who are funding art or writing about art, could advocate for what the real centre of the form is doing. Instead, they relegate it to other ideas that are “understandable”, ways they can re-explain it. I’m committed to creating work that does not do that, and to talking about and being able to articulate what my experience with that is. Hopefully some people are in agreement with me.

I’m committing to doing this thing on earth, and every time I do it, to come back and say what can this form do? Not how can I get awards, but how I can go deeply into the work and not worry about being excellent or being a master. Parallel to that is my desire to create a friction against people whose knowledge isn’t advanced enough. People who foist information down on dance, as a barometer of their limits; I am very boisterous about that. I write a lot about that and I challenge people. I call critics all the time and say ‘I don’t understand what you’re talking about, this is coming from a really myopic place, which might be ok for you, but you have a huge national voice and you can’t write this.’ I think that they erroneously think that a critique resides in their opinion. That is not critical analysis.

I have a bit of resistance to some work that is going on now, because there are a lot of people saying ‘I am an alternative being’. ‘I do things that are shocking or outside of the bourgeois’. People are still talking about that and it does not exist anymore. Even the avant-garde is an embarrassing thought to me at the moment. Someone like Tino Seghal who says ‘Going to sit down in a theatre, that is from another century’ – I’d say ‘Idiotic youthful statements like these are from another century’. Inclusion and multiplicity are the politic.

Tere O'Connor, photo by Paula Court
Tere O’Connor, photo by Paula Court

On Choreography

What is it like if you find the work by letting a stream of material pass, owning something by letting it go? Conversely, those things are ghosting back as memories. A viewer will leave having triangulated the work from a couple of things he or she remembers that they liked. They take away a whole different work than the one you’ve made.

BH: I once saw this video of John Cage and Merce Cunningham being interviewed by a local TV interviewer in the Midwest in maybe the late 60’s, and she asks ‘So tell me about your work’ and they try to explain it. She finds the lack of story or narrative very difficult, Then John Cage says really kindly ‘Maybe you could understand it better if you thought about it more like it was the weather, and less like it was an object.’ I thought this was such a helpful way to look at a dance; as something with inherent changeability, like weather.

In my work, even though it is abstract, there are moments that start to collect and move toward a kind of abstract narrative that I can begin to include. It is not a cloud of nothing, it is shifting and starting to collect towards something and then it goes away. Like it’s part of a book sticking out of the mud, you only see that much of the book, and then it gets sucked in. You could look for its bookness but it would not be there, it would bring up this thing for a minute and then go away. The kinetics of my work are about the different modalities of reading that come up. Sometimes it is through a really ‘pop’ place and then it goes to other places where I might tell the dancers ‘you’re not representing human beings anymore you’re just in an idea’, so their intentionality changes. The modes of presentation and the juxtaposition can be more kinetic than the choreography or the dancing itself. I’m trying to work with intentionality as a layer.

I think what is really amazing that is happening now is that people are understanding that choreography can be applied in a lot of places. In our Graduate program we offer choreography to the architects. They can do a dance MFA coming from another discipline and I welcome it, I think that it needs to be awakened in people. I’ve realised all these things about choreography that really should go out into the world of ideas, even as I continue to work with movement. I think that we are in a place of absolute inclusion, choreography can be rendered in many applications that aren’t just dance.

BH: It is interesting that we are in a place where there are so many different platforms for receiving information available to us. I wonder how the multiplicity, and complexity of that is influencing us?

Something happening now that is really resonant is a kind of new geography, which happens not in terrain anymore but in the atmosphere on the Internet. People find each other because of ideologies not because of place. That is becoming much more important than the delineation of country borders.

Art used to be other and it was bought and brought into standardisation somehow. I don’t think there is a distinction anymore, like fashion is art. I think some of it is really, really great, but, I can’t find a group of artists anymore, I don’t think they exist. Everything is becoming completely standardised, and everything is moving together. I come here and it’s like the same city as Paris, every place is the same place, except for the odd kookaburra. Everyone is moving to Brooklyn to become an individual and they all become the same individual, a flannel shirted, bearded, pickler. Everyone is buying into a standardised version of individuation, as opposed to finding it. The assimilation time between other to centre is immediate now.

BH: Do you think some things can go further underground?

I don’t think there is an underground anymore. I think there is what is called the New Humans, the people that are born as a 30-year old woman with Manolo Blahnik’s on, with a Time Out in their hand, saying ‘Lets go to an opening’. They have no background, they have no culture, everything is a brochure-sized thought and that is what is running the world right now. It’s everything I see right now, like the Kardashians, it is very frightening.

On Art and Being Alone

Richard Serra said something that is so important about looking at art. He said: ‘Art is a place where we gather together to be alone’ and I love that. Everyone has decided to make these palaces of art where you come together to have your own experience, alone. It is a way of supporting the fact that you are alone, even though you are in a larger system than yourself. I love that about dance as well; there is no denotation in dance, there is no sign that means the same thing to everybody on earth. That is the most amazing thing about dance for me; it is really detached from the idea of the creation of singular meanings. People come to it, if they are not resisting it, it is theirs and they are sitting next to a bunch of people who are finding their own as well.

On long thoughts

When I was growing up and started to make work as a young person, I realised: I’ve got to really get behind some philosophy and to a place where long thoughts bring you to some kind of deep knowledge. I teach at a university, and I teach mostly grad students. The young people – I can make a blanket statement – are incurious and a long thought is not something they are looking for. Even if you give them a book to read, it is all about ‘Do I get something from this, can I have this and put it in my house and get money from this, what is this thing?’ There is no one saying ‘Think about this for a very long time, and read other attendant histories around it and then come up with a thought’. They are basically saying ‘Give me the thought’. Every country has the uneducated and they are rising up. Literally, people in the US are saying that university is a bad thing, that intellectuals are bad.

BH: It’s the same here. And I’ve noticed no one just sits and stares into space anymore, ever. No one does that kind of thinking. I think that watching a dance is a perfect time for that, for rumination. It asks for your time and for your attention.

In my work, I demand that the audience have to stay with it, it is not made to keep you going. It is like reading something; you have to stay engaged with the reading of it.

BH: There is a conflation of entertainment and art. Art can be very destabilising and discomforting, and not entertaining. A lot of the time with a dance you don’t know what you’re getting, you might have a weird thought coming from a long way away, or a sensation that you don’t want. It’s a whole different ontology. I think that is its power.

For me it is. I equate it with novels. In my work there are a million trajectories; potential futures, losses and a lot of undeveloped things. On my Bleed blog, Jenn Joy wrote this beautiful thing called ‘Secret Detonators’; she says that I’m planting things inside the work that may go off later, when you go home. There are embryonic elements that are there, and you might develop them and I might not.

This is a partial transcript of the conversation as part of Simone’s Boudoir, Dancehouse’s conversations series recorded in July 2014.
Many thanks to Chloe Chignell for the transcript.

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Tere O’Connor and Jenn Joy created a blog documenting his process and creative investigations for Bleed, 2014. http://bleedtereoconnor.org/