"I'VE COME TO realize that virtuosity is a cover for shame and self-loathing," admits choreographer Tere O'Connor. "Over the past few years, I've been attempting to lose all the dance training from my body--to discover what I would have done naturally at age 14." Disillusioned with the possibilities of abstract dance, this 42-year-old iconoclast began working with text in 1996.
"I create dances with the capacity to explode into theater," he explains, speaking from his New York apartment a few weeks before a visit to the Twin Cities. He has termed his approach theater of the obvious, a form he says "appropriates a children's-theater format to deliver obvious messages in a sarcastic and emphatic style."
O'Connor's burlesque sensibility is evident in "The World Is a Missing Girl," one of two works he will present as part of the Walker Art Center's "Out There" series this week. "I wanted to adopt an American vernacular to deal with life in America," says O'Connor, who became incensed a few years ago by a TV public-service announcement for a missing girl that he saw carelessly wedged between car commercials. At the core of his dance play is the mystery of a lost child, a metaphor for the negligence America shows to its children and the surrounding environment.
In O'Connor's hyperbolic world, five performers (none of them trained actors) shift roles on the beat, molting from ungainly adolescents to officious adults to actors trying on identities. They speak and move in non sequiturs, creating a gestural language that can be scarily robotic or touchingly vulnerable. When a sweet young thing in pigtails mutters, "Something is wrong with the Christmas tree," the others chant, "WELL, PUT MORE STUFF ON IT!"--a mantra of excess that becomes the remedy for everything from chemically treated lawns to empty lives. Alternately ominous and hilarious, "The World Is a Missing Girl" spins a fractured tale of dead-end kids making their way through fin-de-siècle cultural debris.
"I direct my dance plays from a choreographer's sensibility," says O'Connor. "Everything--words, steps, gestures--is choreographic information." This tenet means that the text can be manipulated as freely as the movement material. For instance, the phrase I saw my father's hand coming at me is repeated in different emotional and stylistic contexts, including a wickedly funny musical number reminiscent of Waiting for Guffman by way of David Lynch. Yet for all its fiendish cleverness and pomo savvy, this production exposes the raw innocence that links its characters to the lost child they periodically mourn and neglect.
"I set things up to tear them down," says O'Connor, whose reputation as a bracingly outspoken artist is partly based on his ability to subvert his own work when it gets too comfortable. "Choke" for instance, a work he will premiere at the Southern Theater, has nary a syllable of text. "I feel like a cartoon character with big X's for eyes who got bonked on the head or something," he confesses. "I just made this work and here it is...a complete surprise." He describes "Choke" as a cinematic form of hyper-realism based on film clips of movement his performers picked up from people on the street and replicated in the studio.
"This may be the most experimental work I've ever done," says O'Connor. "In America, to be a dance artist is to live with extreme squalor. I've gotten to the point where I just go with what comes up. What have I got to lose?"