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October 17, 2010

Fog and Iron

07 Wrought Iron Fog.jpg

Somehow, after all these years, I have missed the work of Tere O'Connor, a downtown New York choreographer whose dances -- I'd come to surmise -- were of a specific, idiosyncratic style that had steadily garnered awards, foundation grants and important commissions for him from more well-known institutions like Lyon Opera Ballet and White Oak Dance Project. 

So I promised myself I would get to Redcat (Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater) in downtown Los Angeles this weekend to see O'Connor's "Wrought Iron Fog" (2009). I caught the 60-minute piece Friday night.

O'Connor has a long blog entry about "Wrought Iron Fog" on his company's website. He writes in dense, complex sentences about the piece. With his essay banging uneasily about my head, I anticipated that his work would be equally complex, and maybe as obscure-sounding as the title (which was partially inspired by the iron decorations inside the George Eastman House in Rochester, a favorite place for O'Connor to visit as a child).

I was as open as possible to the work, but I also allowed myself to be more audience member than critic. I wasn't going to try to categorize. I was not going to push meaning on the work; I would let it come to me, if it was going to. I approached it like a passenger voyaging through a country I'd never visited, looking out the train window, and delighting when ordinary objects looked slightly alien.

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O'Connor's work did indeed have that effect: It was familiar but off-putting, foreign. Steps and gestures tumbled through time in what looked like complete randomness. For the first half of the dance, performers Hilary Clark, Daniel Clifton, Erin Gerken, Heather Olson and Matthew Rogers looked painfully awkward. The eyes became adjusted to the sheer wildness and rawness of it, and patterns started to emerge.

The piece had a turbulent undercurrent, a tornado of abstract images that accumulated -- not willy-nilly, as might be expected, given what I've just said -- but forming an expertly constructed tower. O'Connor's skill at shifting our perspective and his control over the space were masterful. Sometimes the dancers were puppets, pulled and pummeled or sucked backwards and to the floor by some unseen force. Other times they were the leaders and we became voyeurs, as when Clark, Gerken and Olson undulated their hips and torsos, then checked over their shoulders to make sure we were watching. 

As Pina Bausch did in her early work especially, O'Connor used repetition as a kind of torture devise. Gerken, Clifton and Rogers repeatedly scrambled upstage and downstage, falling heavily to the floor before pulling themselves upright to do it all over again. Finally, they managed to keep themselves from crashing downward, and then stopped running altogether. The two men whirled in place, arms clasped overhead, as though they were spinning on a meat hook. The weirdly ugly body positions dominated my consciousness, more than the occasional balletic moves and leaps that O'Connor also sprinkled throughout. 

It takes an unmatched craftsman to sew together layers like that. James Baker's sound collage, with its incongruent noises and vocalizations (including excerpts from "How It Is" by Samuel Beckett) unspooled in a linear fashion with stops and starts. O'Connor's dance flowed like a powerful river, with tributaries entering and exiting the main branch, mixing with the "old" water, yet we hadn't noticed them until we'd already drifted downstream. Only once did a section of choreography "announce" that it was over -- the large unison section, after which we were plunged into the dance's concluding build-up.

"Wrought Iron Fog" left me uneasy, with a foreboding anxiety, despite comic passages of dancers portraying, it appeared to me, tweeting birds. They smiled overly emphatically at the audience and the men walked high on half-point in a stereotypically girly fashion. The dancers were, mostly, masters of this rugged workout; O'Connor's internalized style, however, kept me at a distance. Rogers, though, had a natural magnetism and my eyes went automatically toward him.

Los Angeles has had a tough time keeping alive high-caliber spaces dedicated to small, alternative dance. Happily, Redcat was carved into a corner of the Walt Disney Concert Hall building, and we now have a consistent season that gives companies like O'Connor's a home away from home.


Photos by Steven Gunther
Top: Daniel Clifton, Hilary Clark (partially obscured), Erin Gerken, and Heather Olson in Tere O'Connor's "Wrought Iron Fog." Above: Hilary Clark, Erin Gerken, Matthew Rogers, and Daniel Clifton in "Wrought Iron Fog."

October 17, 2010 7:15 PM | | Comments (0)

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