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O'Connor's 'Rammed Earth' work much too abstract, disconnected

Friday, March 27, 2009
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Tere O'Connor's “Rammed Earth”

Tere O'Connor will repeat “Rammed Earth” at 8 p.m. today and 5 and 8 p.m. Saturday at the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Eighth Street, Troy. Go to empac.rpi.edu

— It's tough to figure Tere O'Connor. His pieces are so removed from anything that the dance world has experienced or expects that his work often leaves one either baffled or cold.

Take his “Rammed Earth,” now showing at the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. The most interesting thing about the 70-minute interactive dance is the deployment of the audience. The 50-odd people who watch the experiment act as the stage's boundaries and props. They are also witnesses to O'Connor's detached and quirky movement – mostly a lot of walking and running that is halted and then adorned by busy hand motions that look like chopping, dialing, knitting, stacking, sawing, whatever. The audience is certainly not there to be entertained, but to play a part in the anti-dance artifice.

That said, the arrangement of the seating, upon entry into Theater #2, elicits gasps. Chairs are scattered about. Each is tagged with either a “1” or a “2.” You sit wherever. This confuses a lot of people who want to sit together. Too bad.

The usher then announces that during the performance, we are expected to move. Instructions, she promises, will be clear. Blood pressures go up, but only slightly.

Then the four dancers show up. They walk between the widely spaced seats. They pass closely, so close that they create a breeze that passes over your face and ruffles your hair. They create an exciting intimacy as rarely do audiences come inches from moving dancers. The energy is a rush.

These four dancers are O'Connor's greatest asset. Hilary Clark, Heather Olson, Matthew Rogers and Christopher Williams pour their all into this odd exercise. Their action doesn't hold a lot of meaning. But they execute it as if it were urgent and precious. Then we move.

The chairs and their owners form a line, changing the circular sensation of the space to a long rectangle one. In this section, the dancers are at perfect odds. One jumps up, the other falls down. One balances on tip-toe while the other balances on their hands. One leans forward, the other back.

O'Connor also uses the back wall as much as the floor. The dancers press against it for balance, spring off it as well as violently collide with firmness. Visually, this section makes sense. But when the signal comes to move again, this time in two opposing lines, “Rammed Earth” starts to crumble.

The dancers are just as committed, but the movement is empty and interest wanes. With industrial engines whirling, to make it feel avant garde, O'Connor seems to be considering outer space as the dancers are focused upward. But O'Connor is reaching.

In the finale, with the audience crowded in one area, O'Connor tries to lure us back with a bit of affection between Olson and Rogers. (This is the first bit of humanity all night). But it's too little, too late.

 
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