What is a dance? Movement, music, meaning, steps, ideas? Every choreographer comes up with his or her own formula. For Tere O’Connor, as he said in an interview earlier this week, a dance is “a way to shape ephemera.”
It’s a useful thing to remember when watching Long Run, his latest dance, which just finished a two-day residency at the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts. The piece, for eight dancers, is maniacally well constructed, intently and precisely performed, vigorous, and smart, and yet almost completely resistant to interpretation.
There is a lot to admire. First of all, the intensity of the performers. You wonder how it is that O’Connor manages to get them to appear so fully invested, so present, in each moment of the dance. Their movements, derived from the everyday but executed with virtuosic precision, are bracingly clear. Their individual personas – Silas Riener’s ironic detachment, Eleanor Hullihan’s deranged intensity, Lee Serle’s gentle aura – project powerfully from the stage. How is it that O’Connor brings such intensity out of them? At any given moment, that intensity seems completely detached from what they are doing.
And what are they doing? Motifs like walking, running, hand dances, arm dances, falling, lifting, abbreviated pirouettes, jumping – are organized neatly into sections. Here, a group of dancers galumph in place, after which they execute perfect ¼ pirouettes; there, two groups alternate catching and lifting a member of their posse. Dancers enter and exit, sometimes joining in, other times introducing new motifs. The aural accompaniment, composed by O’Connor, alternates between silence and passages of muffled voices, natural sounds, tinkling on the piano, strumming on the guitar. Mostly, it provides rhythms, which energize, but do not define, the movement.
The dancers’ purely physical actions are interspersed with accents that gesture at some deeper expressive intent: a shy smile, a monster face, a lifted finger, a whispered “oh”. At one point, they manipulate each other like puppets; at another, two of them clasp each other in an extended embrace. Is there some deeper meaning here?
It’s possible. A program note by the dancer and choreographer Rashanun Mitchell mentions the way O’Connor’s work “twists and turns its way through narrative and abstraction.” I admit I did not find these hints of emotion particularly evocative. Rather, it seemed as if these emotional gestures were yet more artifacts, building blocks in O’Connor’s vocabulary. Often, Long Run feels like a series of perfectly-executed etudes.
At the end, it is the compositional rigor of the piece, its internal rhythm, that linger in the mind.