Riches in letting the not knowing be
As I listened to Pulitzer Prize recipient Junot Diaz talk at the Dallas Museum of Art a few weeks ago, I was taken aback by his audacity in publicly addressing the readers' anxiety over getting or comprehending a particular passage immediately. It wasn't necessary, Diaz explained, and he went on to say that even the author may not know what a passage means while writing it. Let it be okay, the not knowing, he explained, and it will result in a far greater payoff. Eventually it will resonate more deeply.
Audiences navigating contemporary dance as an art form are similar to those anxious readers, especially in this day and age of immediate gratification. They fear the real-time not knowing and so flock to big-bang, creatively ill-conceived touring dance shows that cater to the least common denominator. These pale dance approximations usually generate flashy excitement but ultimately leave us rather empty moments after exiting the theatre. They are the equivalent of cheap cupcakes with processed frosting. The popularity of dance/pop television shows such as Fox's So You Think You Can Dance suggests that dance may get, unfortunately, even more sugary and unsatisfying in the years to come.
In the 1990s, Austin was brimming with exciting contemporary choreographers such as Deborah Hay and José Bustamante, who offered innovative dance works on a regular basis. The University of Texas Performing Arts Center, Dance Umbrella, and Women & Their Work presented awe-inspiring dance-makers on tour – Pina Bausch, Sankai Juku, Ralph Lemon, Urban Bush Women, 33 Fainting Spells, O Vertigo, to name a few – who were the talk of the town for months after the curtain fell. Unfortunately, that has all but dried up. Meaningful dance works rarely appear on our city's stages.
That's what makes Tere O'Connor's intimate performances of Rammed Earth at Richland Hall, located just outside of Austin, such an occasion.
A recipient of three famed Bessie Awards and a Guggenheim fellowship, O'Connor has been commissioned to create numerous works for dance companies around the world, including Lyon Opera Ballet, de Rotterdamse Dansgroep, and White Oak Dance Project, as well as a solo work for Mikhail Baryshnikov. His abstract choreography comprises idiosyncratic gestures and full-body releases, punctuated by superb rhythm and timing. While most dance-makers choreograph to a fixed time signature that sits on top of the dance, O'Connor has mastered the art of falling behind just enough to elucidate wonderful and daring surprises.
Rammed Earth is an evening-length work focusing on the adaptability of architecture and interaction. "I have always thought of dance and architecture as cousins," O'Connor says. "Both are based on perception and memory. You are accumulating information as you navigate the space." Though not an audience-participation performance in the traditional sense, Rammed Earth does immerse the audience fully in the work. Each of the work's four sections requires audience members to rearrange their chairs in different locations so they discover for themselves multiple perspectives and layers.
O'Connor creates dance through an understanding akin to that of Junot Diaz: Let it be, turn off your need to comprehend everything, and you will be richly rewarded. Rammed Earth offers momentarily slippery and seemingly misleading surfaces and pathways, but if one lets it all in, without the intellectual analysis of getting it, a deeper meaning will magically appear. (With only 50 seats per performance, it will be nearly impossible not to feel the dance.)
So take this pilgrimage to Richland Hall. Let the performance encompass all of you, not just your brain. Go without expectation. More than likely, you will experience Rammed Earth for many days to come. That's the true payoff.
Rammed Earth runs Oct. 1-4, Wednesday-Thursday, 8pm; Friday, 7:30 & 9:30pm; Saturday, 2pm, at Richland Hall, 18312 Cameron. Advance tickets strongly recommended. For more information, call 450-0456 or visit www.danceumbrella.com.