From Mania to Melancholy: Tere O'Connor at the Kitchen

Giggles that veer into shrieks.
Shards of almost-familiar music embedded in sonic dissonance.

Fragments of ballet juxtaposed against senseless, mundane gestures repeated senselessly.

Tere O’Connor’s Frozen Mommy aims to unnerve, and it does. The stripped-bare work continues the downtown choreographer’s deconstruction of traditional narrative structures and audience expectations. At its December premiere at the Kitchen, there was no video, no curtain, no set, and one lighting change. Dressed in motley street clothes, Hilary Clark, Erin Gerken, Heather Olson, Matthew Rogers, and Christopher Williams performed to a spare score by James F. Baker and O’Connor, with plenty of silent stretches. Yet the dance itself was dizzying, splicing wildly disparate tones, movement palettes, and cultural references in an abstract portrait of our fractured inner landscapes—and of what happens when they disrupt our carefully tended surfaces.

At the work’s beginning, the audience sat in darkness as a recording of staccato footsteps grew louder, then receded. When the lights came up, O’Connor repeated this thought. The dancers stood huddled off to one side of the stage, gesturing and talking a bit, their faces like blank slates. A mechanical Olson, arms rigid, feet moving in mincing little steps, was led toward center stage by Williams. But after setting us up for a duet, Olson simply left Williams there. He proceeded to walk, then skip-hop a small circle, bringing to mind a dog chasing its tail. These aural and narrative teases served as apt introductions to the hour-plus dance, with O’Connor tossing off one tangent after another, only to interrupt himself or let the thought die away (in one of the most literal examples of this method, various dancers ordered their fellows to “detach,” leading to abrupt shifts of movement in response).

These days, theaters are filled with dance performances consisting of ironic fripperies, witticisms, and non sequiturs—often in service to nothing greater than themselves. Thankfully, Frozen Mommy escapes that tedious fate: The more diversions O’Connor threw at us, the more our attention was drawn to the deep, unspoken sadness at the dance’s core. This fundamental upset came closest to the surface when O’Connor toed the line between joy and mania. In one memorable moment, Gerken spun and spun, arms out like a little girl. When she stopped, dizzied and laughing, the others—and some audience members—joined in. But the dancers held their laughter for too long, until it hardened into something far more brittle and manic than natural humor. The audience receded into uncomfortable silence. Later, O’Connor repeated this moment, with Gerken emitting little screams instead of giggles as she spun—his variation on theme and variation, perhaps. As memory blunts the past, so the first episode with Gerken seemed gentle by comparison.

The success of a work like Frozen Mommy depends heavily on its performers, and O’Connor chose wisely. From Clark’s broad, powerhouse humor to Williams’s insouciant wit, all found their own ways through tricky material. Throughout, they addressed each other by name, announcing themselves as a community of beings, not just a company. This community was by turns comforting and cruel; they looked their partners over with sneering laughter, then declared their love in silly, singsong voices. Looking for support and interaction from Rogers, Olson pulled his arms out and bent them at the elbows, as if preparing him to catch her. He remained pliant but passive, then finally enclosed her in a bear hug—only to have her ease out of his arms, leaving him to embrace air. Constant frustration.

Figuring out how to end such a schizophrenic piece presents a host of possibilities and difficulties. O’Connor’s solution, sadly, did not live up to the rest of the work, feeling forced and heavy-handed after the delicate comings and goings that preceded it. After more than an hour of frenetic, fractured action, the dancers were united to common purpose: All stood, hand on hip, facing the audience. Clark, always a magnet for the eye, stood front and center, with eyes closed, chest heaving, and wisps of long blonde hair plastered to her face. Others stared blankly into space as they held their positions in silence, save for rustling programs, creaking chairs, and the scratch of reviewers’ pens. Stillness and silence play tricks with theatrical time, making minutes stretch into hours. Suddenly, a set of lights went out, and Rogers collapsed to the floor. Sobs shook his lanky, curled-up frame. His fellows did nothing—indifferent or simply consumed by their own nightmares. The lights dimmed to black.

In giving in to the work’s underlying sadness through Rogers, O’Connor somehow lessened the sense of desperation that so powerfully drove Frozen Mommy. In life, after all, endings are never that neat.

Contributor

Claudia La Rocco

CLAUDIA LA ROCCO writes about performance for the New York Times and is the founder of thePerformanceClub.org, which won a 2011 Arts Writers Grant. She is a member of Off The Park press, where she is editing an anthology of poems by painters. She is on the faculty of the School of Visual Art's graduate program in Art Criticism and Writing.

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