The cave of Pech-Merle in France contains ancient paintings of spotted horses, woolly mammoths, and wounded warriors overlapping and interspersed with imprints of hands and abstract lines and dots. Working periodically between 25,000 and 13,000 BCE, artists created three-dimensional moving friezes by flickering torchlight, using the contours of the cave walls to give their images depth and motion.
I viewed the partially eroded figures by flickering flashlight. It made for a richly kinetic conflation of mystery, history, and our own contemporary presence as tourists altering the fragile ecosystem of the cave. How modern those images looked to us! How ancient!
O'Connor's latest dance, BLEED, presented by Walker Art Center this weekend, braids chronology and superimposes images in similar ways. Over the two-year process of creation, movement material was generated and sometimes partially erased only to resurface in different contexts and locations within the work. Historical and contemporary references bled into one another, reconfigured.
The concept of erasure as a form of constructing a dance is crucial to O'Connor. "Each image or section of a dance is absent in the next, but its essence remains to color the forthcoming events," he writes in an artist statement. "I craft these wafts of memory into my choreography, privileging them over the recapitulation of dance movements."
In addition O'Connor, who spends half of his year as a full professor at the University of Illinois and half in New York working with his company, welcomes what he terms "the dislodging of memories in the viewer" to commingle with the dance.
BLEED is actually a collapse of three separate dances into a fourth piece. A writer and thinker of immense complexity and multifaceted wit, O'Connor created a BLEED blog to document the work's creation. He writes about how the process of folding these three dances together involved "simultaneously remembering and forgetting the previous dances."
BLEED brings up loads of associations in viewers and critics: the rain and trees of the everglades, near-deaths and resurrections, movement ranging from virtuosic to pedestrian, rigmarole, and eruptions of drama within formal invention.
O'Connor insists that rather than starting with an idea or theme or piece of music, he uses dance as a way to unearth what he's thinking about. "I view dance as way of engaging with consciousness that can range from clarity to complete ambiguity," he says. "I work with the concept of rumination in the mind, and champion that as way of being present."
Over the process of creating BLEED, he says, he unearthed the idea of the crowd as protagonist rather than individuals. "We are bombarded with images of crowds of people," say O'Connor. "The Arab Spring, the Occupy movement, the Ferguson protests, and mounting protests everywhere else on Earth are becoming a dominant visual emblem. These crowds are the new theater, making their politics physically present in public space."
While BLEED emphasizes the group over any individual dancer, his 11 are virtuoso performers who, as O'Connor says, "have already figured out how to work inside a dance. For me, BLEED became about letting go, trusting my mind-body connection, jumping into decisions. I made material that different dancers do in very different ways."
O'Connor's cast ranges widely in age and background. "I was allowing into BLEED how each dancer does movement and even editorializes the movement. I want them to be alive in the moment."
Cynthia Oliver, a dancer and faculty member from the University of Illinois, wrote in an email about working with O'Connor: "His process allows you to bring another set of skills to the work. Your craft really. One has to be a code switcher, a willing collaborator in the articulation of multiple ideas simultaneously, and as a performer it is a great challenge."
"The intense complexity of living on earth right now finds a good friend in dance," writes O'Connor on his blog. "Spending some time with an information system that does not hope to deliver messages but rather acts as a container for multiple individual responses, might prove to be an antidote to the polarizing dogma that holds our world in its grip."
IF YOU GO:
Tere O'Connor Dance: BLEED Walker Art Center 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday $28