The choreographer penetrates a closeted existence in Cover Boy.
Tue Nov 29 2011
Photograph: Tere O'Connor
What does a choreographer like Tere O'Connor look for in a Cover Boy? In his latest evening-length work, he explores the closeted gay experience by queering the structure of his dance. A quartet for four men—Michael Ingle, Niall Jones, Paul Monaghan and Matthew Rogers (the only returning dancer from his most recent works)—Cover Boy looks at beauty, the body, fear and desire to find the positive in what would otherwise be thought of as a marginalized existence. It's temporal, of course. In anticipation of the work's premiere, which will be performed at Danspace Project beginning December 8, O'Connor spoke about the new dance as well as his career: This year marks his 25th season.
How did you start the new work?
The first thing I wanted to do was to not work with my company anymore as a destabilizing action. I really love those dancers, and it is hard to feel that feeling of wanting to not do it anymore. But I started to see some limits. It was also coming up that I wanted to source the seeds of my choreography from another place, which was a little more personal. That's always present in my work, but this is about putting a focus on it in a different way. The ways in which the work is queer are not on the legible front of the work; it's structural. It relates to things, like the queering of grammar.
What do you mean by that?
Using grammar as a weapon and a shield. Like when you're in a closeted situation—you know what you're going to say, but you can really be flexible with the grammar and change it if you feel there's danger of being too floral or too outside of a hetero-normative use of language. That's what's happening in my dances. The image you see and the network it travels on are in and out of sync with each other; that's both a product of and a kind of investigation into the experience of a closeted marginalized existence. I'm trying to look at this issue: the difficulty of being closeted.
What was it like in your case?
It was very difficult. And now there's a lot of concentration on how it's getting better, and it is, and I'm totally happy about that. However, there's this concentration on the heroism of coming out, and I think the concept of coming out is such a violent concept.
How do you mean?
You shouldn't have to come out. There should be no congratulations. There should be no event. So it's kind of like an exorcism, an expression and a celebration of the marginalized status of an artist—not only a negative thing but also just in having a different kind of observation. Once you're postrebellion, which I feel like I am, you can see something.
[Laughs] I'm working on a thing called postrebellion and postopinion. People are good right now at exhibiting their professed radicalizations. That seems like a new kind of virtuosity that I'm not interested in.
In art or in society in general?
In art. There seems to be an imprimatur of being contemporary if you go to some kind of extreme. That's a stuck place and I want to move away from that. I've always been an internal artist looking into the generative elements of making dances, which is what teaches me and what gives me my next step. So there have been some recent forays into abstraction with Rammed Earth and Wrought-Iron Fog that diffused some of the formalism and put [my work] into another path. Now that is going to be dipped into content again. I've been extracting some conceits from a closeted realm; I've worked hard on some [movement] phrases that will never be shown, but they exist in a hidden way. There's a lot of material that will be done in a dance disguise. It's hidden in another dance. It's a generative thing that gives it a certain kind of atmosphere in the bodies. And I'm also working with all these guys. I was going to call the piece Death in Venice, but actually Sarah Michelson and other people wouldn't let me. [Laughs] It's this point of looking at these young guys through a whole bunch of different lenses. Death in Venice can be taken as a sexual thing, but it's actually more about moving toward death. Everything I'm saying won't be like, "Oh there's that" and "there's that!" But these are the generative elements. It is a goal of mine to have the process make the piece happen and this took me into a direction that I didn't really think I was going to go in.
So you didn't have an idea before you started?
I never really do. I start from an umbrella of things that are bouncing around in me and because it's really important for me to not use dance as a translation of ideas, I don't ever try and go into, "I'm making a dance about this." However, there's a relationship of meaning and idea to the movement that is parallel. They don't necessarily describe each other, but they're born of each other.
How do you start?
I begin dancing with whoever is going to work with me. It starts from dancing to generate ideas. I think that's the thing about getting older: I trust and go in there and something starts to formulate. I am into craft. But trying to craft from some sense of accumulated experience is the worst thing I feel like I can do as a mature artist. So there's a tension in that that I like in my recent work. In this one, I am finding out that I am interested in dance as a catalyst for transformation, not as a place to define something.