Do you have an example?
How long something could be sustained as a kind of geometric form and then fall away from itself might be replicated here, just because I learned about that. But there’s no place where I’m keeping the movement. Anyone who’s studied with me knows that the first thing I say is, “Theme and variation is a satanic creation.” It’s borrowed from music, and I have never been interested in dance as a child of music. What’s happening is, I’m in the room with all of these people that were in all of the pieces, and that’s what’s really interesting! [Laughs] I can just turn to some of them and a whiff of whatever that one is comes up. This is something I really want to promote about dance in general: how this ghost experience of a dance—not the actual sign system that you may be reading from the images—stays with you.
The afterimages, or—I do refer to Cunningham a lot, because this was where I first experienced it when I was young: My eyes were reading the information [onstage], and I remember looking at it and thinking, Oh that looks like a leg. … And suddenly it was just gone. The world told me, don’t look at this from a place of language; this is consciousness. It’s about where language floats together with inference and affect and all of these things to create this cloud of information. That’s like a kind of synesthesia. It’s another way of delivering information that’s really central to me. The idea of the ghost, I look at that and feel an essence from that, and I take an action from that in the work, and that action isn’t a pictogram of what I’m thinking, it’s just been born of that feeling. There are these juxtapositions in the work of those feelings or those little poetic bursts that are happening all the time. Obviously, BLEED is where they’re all bleeding together. It’s the idea of erasure as a form of construction. I’m not making messages. I’m creating situations that amplify what I think choreography can offer us on earth. [Laughs] I think a lot of people think I’m cutting [the previous works] up and making a puzzle out of them. I’m really not. I’m not making something that is commercial, that can be thought about in one sentence or so. People call me an “experimental artist.” I experiment to make the best dance I can make, but I don’t look at myself as an experimental artist that puts me on some beret-wearing edge or something. It’s a much more complicated way of talking about things, and in fact the main thing I promote is complication as a way of living.
You don’t make it easy.
Yeah, but I wouldn’t even call that not easy. One exercise I do with my composition class sometimes is to say, “Everyone, just remember everything that happened in the last ten minutes and go.” And I mean everything. If you did an assessment of everything you looked at when you turned your head during a day and you just said, “That then that then that…” There would be a kind of narrative that would be so mind-bogglingly absurdist, yet you experienced that and it [affected] how you went through your day. So everything that’s going on is a part of what is happening and what you end up saying and how you present the facade of you. It’s all inside there. So this relationship for me of the surface of a dance to the inside of a dance is really important. They relate to each other in a different way from how nouns and verbs relate to grammar. That’s what’s going on in BLEED partially: This examination of, what’s the fourth thing when a sequence of things collide? Plus, another distinction is that some people have seen the pieces and some of them haven’t. It’s kind of what I’ve been doing anyway. My dances are usually a reaction to the dance before. Or include it or dis-include it willfully. [BLEED] is bringing into focus that that’s being worked on. Maybe in a lot of dance-making or in a lot of people’s art-making, this is something that’s going on.
Is this piece autobiographical?
One of the elements that’s positive about having been an old-school closeted person from a small town is the relationship of the inside of you to the outside of you. The outside of you is made up of normative sign systems that are agreed upon; the inside of you is doing something completely and utterly different, detached from the front. I do see dance like that too. We look at dance so much through these ideas of what does it mean, or what is it a translation of? Or trying to bring a kind of cogency that comes from language to dance when in fact my experience in the room with dance is that it doesn’t really want to do that. But I find it as a good friend having the experience that I have had. [Laughs] Going back to how my teaching and my choreography are related, I’ve been questioning this form since the day I started—with interest and with a bit of a snarl, but also just wondering, What can this do? Why am I doing this? I always start my dances, not in a way that’s cute or anything, but as what am I doing? [He wiggles his fingers in front of his face.] Am I unleashing something? Am I writing words in space? Something that one might be doing by dancing is creating pathways from one kind of thought area in the brain to the other, and there’s a landscape that the body is creating through space that somehow maps that. The key idea for me is consciousness. How does language reside in consciousness? It’s not as privileged as it is in the rest of our lives. It comes in and out of focus. A lot of times I think people want dance to do something that it just isn’t doing.
Well in reviews and stuff—kind of older ones—that say, “It started out like this, and it didn’t work according to that.” Well, how do you define the working? If a person wants to go to that trajectory, it is working on some level. And for me, that’s one of the things I have written about, this idea on viable structures, where sometimes I put together all this material, and it creates this thing that is a child with two heads. Am I supposed to make it a child with one head, or is that what I gave birth to? Maybe what I’m trying to do is to create the right context for that thing to be vibrant in, as opposed to fix it according to these tacit, agreed-upon ideas of good and bad that have to do with cogency. Theme and variation is always in there somewhere. One thing that’s of interest to me is that dance doesn’t work in any one way: The things that I love work on really different levels according to different criteria.
But you don’t love everything.
No, of course not! But I don’t try to answer the question, what was it? I think what happens now a lot is that artists capitulate to the questions that blend with marketing, like, I can’t be passive anymore with my audience. That’s a trend. And sometimes I can just feel there was a juncture that someone came to when they could either do something that was a little bit boring or answer some questions that aren’t theirs. That’s what I sense sometimes: that people took the path that somehow was congratulatory as opposed to choreographic. I’ve been saying to myself for years that I want to work outside of what I call “a good-bad paradigm.” A lot of choreography is that—put the best parts together. I think there are parts of my pieces that are boring. I want them there. They should be a kind of beige that sheds light on when red shows up. I watch a lot of film, and there are a million different kinds of films where just being is fine. Natural time is central to the aesthetic of a lot of these things. I think, in my work, I go from metered time to real, filmic time to dream time. That’s what has come out of my understanding of choreography. Time is divided into many different allocations, and the way they coexist is what’s of interest to me. That has a lot to do with BLEED. When these pieces were made, the experience of being with each of them is a time in history that is coming back together.
Tere O’Connor is at BAM Fisher Dec 11–14.