Monday, November 24, 2014

What Does It All Mean?

Tere O'Connor's "Bleed"
photo by Paula Court
A few years ago, my friend Christopher let me in on his approach to contemporary art.

"Just sit down in our seat," he instructed, "take a breath and open all your chakras to what you're about to experience."


That's probably the best advice to heed before you see Tere O'Connor's "Bleed." This work for 11 dancers, and the three separate works that informed it, were all performed in Seattle November 20-23, 2014 at On The Boards and Velocity Dance Center.

"Bleed" is an abstract, hour-long dance. Choreographer O'Connor told dance writer Melody Datz Hansen of "The Stranger" that he doesn't make work to convey meaning. He wants us, the audience, to experience his dances at the moment we watch them. Somebody described this to me as akin to watching something from another planet; beautiful, but alien. Somebody else told me O'Connor's "Bleed" felt to him very much like the dance version of what happens on a New York street:  constant flow, and change and serendipitous events. A random beauty, if you will.
"Bleed" by Tere O'Connor
photo by Paula Court

Movement by movement; moment by moment. That's the frame of mind and body best suited for "Bleed" viewing. I am not much for meditation, but I imagine this to be something like sitting zazen. "Bleed" wasn't about analysis, or thought. It was about immediacy. I had a rowing coach who always counseled "don't think; FEEL."  Get those chakras open wide and be there in the moment. I did my best.

Interestingly, the night after I saw "Bleed," I went to Meany Theater to catch a performance of David Rousseve's "Stardust." Both works can be categorized as contemporary dance, but boy, are they different from one another.

If "Bleed" is abstraction, "Stardust" is fully committed to story. In this case, the tale of a young, African American gay man reaching out for human contact on what he calls the "Innernet." The actual story is written out for the audience in a series of faux text messages projected on the wall at the back of the stage. Rousseve's movement isn't an interpretive version of the words. It's more a physical punctuation of the mood those words express.
David Rousseve's "Stardust"
photo by Steven Gunther

Tere O'Connor wants us to experience. David Rousseve wants us to feel. You open your chakras wide for "Bleed." You might want to ratchet them back just a bit for "Stardust," so you're not overwhelmed by Rousseve's message.

These two performances pushed me to think about what I love about dance (and art in general).
As a writer, I suppose I'm always trying to figure out what things "mean." And then to try to convey that meaning in words. But the artworks I love best are those that move me viscerally, that defy me to capture and distill their essences. It's a constant push/pull; choreographers like O'Connor don't want to be parsed. But hey, that's all in a day's job for me.

When I think about art that really pushed me off my axis this year, two dance pieces stand out:
Zoe/Juniper's "Begin Again" and Molissa Fenley's "State of Darkness" as performed by Pacific Northwest Ballet principal dancer Jonathan Porretta.
Zoe/Juniper's "Begin Again"
photo courtesy On The Boards

Neither work was narrative. But each succeeded in evoking a plethora of emotional and intellectual responses. They reflected aspects of what it means to be human. To (badly) misquote Gustave Flaubert, both succeeded in melting the stars for me.

I don't need an artist to hit me over the head with a story. And I tend to resent a blatant intent to manipulate my emotional responses. I want to art to challenge my assumptions and my responses to the world around me. I want it to make me look, to feel and to recognize humanity.
Oh yeah, and I promise to work on that open chakra thing.
Pacific Northwest Ballet Principal Dancer Jonathan Porretta
in Molissa Fenley's "State of Darkness"
photo by Angela Sterling

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