It continues. The reverberations of Acocella’s New Yorker article way back in September continue to be felt, in New York and here at home (see previous post titled The Literalists). Below are further rebuttals of her piece and alternative readings of the particular works she singled out. The guantlet has been thrown down, and this letter ends in a disturbing, yet necessary challenge.
Tere O’Connor’s work has recently been called ‘surrealist’ by critic Joan Acocella but O’Conner’s work doesn’t fit the historical definition of that art term. O’Connor’s work is not an attempt at revelation through a joining of conscious and unconscious imagery, but instead explores an overt struggle between these two realms. The powerful unconscious, the realm of the feelings, is explored in O’Conner’s recent work through the use of voice, in raw, barely-formed peeps and wails. Sometimes the sound also comes out in the form of a word, but due to the unfamiliar context, the meaning of these words in the present moment is elusive. We feel more meaning pouring from the intensity of the vocalization; sounds are let loose rather like releasing energy from a high-pressure valve, a task that can be, in it’s risk-taking, both thrilling and frightening.
So what is the struggle in O’Conner’s work all about? It seems to be about the attempt of the conscious mind to edit, remix and reframe early experience in a way that negates some overpowering pain of rejection and loss. O’Connor doesn’t really specify what has been lost or why there’s been cruelty and rejection in his past, but one can speculate that it has something to do with growing up gay in small-town America in a conservative, mainstream-religious family. What O’Conner brilliantly delivers to the audience in Frozen Mommy, however, is his knowledge that we all – gay, straight, male, female, so-called beautiful or so-called ugly – carry around these scars of rejection inside. O’Conner brashly presses the audience to admit that there has never been a boy or girl so golden that they have not, at some time, been made to feel their uncomfortable otherness, been made to experience a confusing mix of overt, violent rejection and subtle, passive-aggressive discrimination that peers and family alike constantly heap on each other. If it is true that each man is driven to kill the thing he loves, perhaps it is also true that each mother is driven to annihilate her child in moments of glimpsing frailties and imperfections; or more likely, she just quietly abandons that child and follows her more-positive urges by conceiving the next one. Frozenness might be seen in this light as a child-saving genetic adaptation.
O’Connor’s Frozen Mommy then can be seen as a kind of artistic self-portrait, with snatches of feelings, moods and actions from a brain-that-never-forgets projected onto his performers. This is the kind of self-portrait that knowingly enlarges to simultaneously comment on culture and self. The key word here is artistic; for in the end we don’t feel sorry for O’Connor, that he has experienced something painful that he taps for making a piece. Instead we are impressed by the artist’s tenacity and insistence on being in control of his own fate. The poignancy we feel in viewing Frozen Mommy is in knowing that this kind of artistic reframing is only half-successful; we can’t afterall, remake reality. And yet, as artists perhaps we can; O’Connor gives us each a glimpse of one possible way out of the enduring cruelty of being human.
What part does movement play in O’Conner’s dance works? On first viewing the movement in Frozen Mommy seems to provide a kind of pulse of life for the work. There’s a big emphasis on regimentation and breaking-away. There’s also an inner story, one known only by the dancers’ viscera and not by their brains. That story is the story that cannot yet be told in words but can only be known through its power and dynamics. As O’Connor manipulates his dancers in 3-dimensional space and time, he remixes history and present time, inner and outer space, sensory and motor intake and output and the known and the unknown in everyday life. As these aspects of space, time and dynamics are fundamental to the deepest roots of movement, O’Conner does in fact reveal a lot of choreographic meat.
What I find most interesting in discussing O’Connor’s work with other artists is that many respond to the work mainly for the pleasures of its structures and formal inventions. I, on the other hand, resonate more with its unconscious power and use of the voice. Whatever one’s point of entry, there’s no doubt that O’Connor’s whole body of work is extremely original; he makes dances unlike anyone else’s. So I find Acocella’s critique baffling; I can’t understand why anyone would call this work surreal. Her response overall seems anemic and fearful; perhaps an infusion of red blood cells, or maybe primal scream therapy would help – something, anything to wake up and subdue the fear that so unconvincingly disguises itself as dismissal.
Perhaps someone could write an article on something that’s REALLY SURREAL – the state that the downtown choreographer-artist finds him or herself in – career tethered to people (critics, presenters, dance bureaucrats) who seem to actually hate contemporary dance. Can anyone explain this strange state of affairs??