What’s that ‘about’? On Tere O’Connor’s BLEED, and the “meaning” of dance Nov 24, 2014

by Imana Gunawan

When one looks at a dance, or any art work in general, there is always a strong urge to figure out what it “means” or what it’s “about.” It’s human nature. For many people, when those questions aren’t answered, the piece would feel unsatisfactory.

Those people may not enjoy BLEED very much, then. The piece, created by Tere O’Connor and performed at On the Boards, dwells less on defining concepts within a dance and more on how choreographic structure dictates what concepts are brought out as a supposed “meaning.” At least, that’s what the program note said.

But I didn’t read that note until I had finished watching the piece, and I’m kind of glad I didn’t. Being a dance critic, I consider my job to evaluate a dance, and part of that evaluation is trying to figure out what a dance is trying to convey and analyzing how effective the dance was in delivering it. Then I assess how the more technical elements come into play: whether the choreography, dancers, setting, lighting, scenery, music, and other things contribute to what is being conveyed. But this process is fluid, sometimes the concept behind the dance comes early in the piece, sometimes it takes a bit of an arc first before the heart of the piece is delivered, which allows me to analyze the technicalities first. Either way, one thing is always true: I listen, watch, and think like crazy.

Oftentimes, that over-analyzing mindset stays with me even when I’m not on the job, and that’s certainly true in watching BLEED. I was trying to find a connecting thread between each sections, but I couldn’t find an idea that stayed long enough for it to deliver some sort of “meaning.” It wasn’t until later when I read the program note that I realized the lack of meaning was kind of the point. The concept of obliteration was integral to this work: ideas are constantly introduced but then erased — some forgotten, some carried over in a reincarnated form.

As a dance maker myself, this process intrigued me. As I watched the piece, I can’t help but wonder: if the concept of erasure is central to the work, and if “meaning” wasn’t of concern, then how does O’Connor edit? There seems to be an idiosyncrasy on that front.

O’Connor’s genius here lies in the fact that each section of BLEED was so well-edited that none of the parts ever seem too long. Each idea was introduced and explored just so that each section lasts just the right length of time before the piece jumped to a different idea. This way, the audience doesn’t feel bored of a single idea. Yet in its entirety, the piece would do well with some nipping and tucking; there were just too many ideas. Typically when a choreographer makes work, they would edit the piece and cut elements out that didn’t advance what the dance as a whole is trying to communicate. But when O’Connor isn’t trying to communicate anything, then what does he base his edits off of? That conflict shows through in the work. Time after time, I see so many new ideas only to have it taken away from me. After a while, the ideas are so abundant that I stopped investing my thoughts in it. If it’s going to be taken away anyway, what’s the point of me paying attention to it? What value do I get?

When the lights fade to black at the end, I can’t help but feel abandoned, and I’m not one who often feels that way. I have no qualms about exploring a dance by myself without the choreographer telling me, through their dance, what I can or should think about when watching their piece. I can find “meaning” through my own analysis, even when the piece doesn’t provide too much context. Many people do the same, and many people don’t.

In this piece, there seems to be a great investment on the choreographer’s part to cultivate a work that everyone can access at their own comfort level. But at the same time, I feel like there’s less of an investment in making the audience access it — they could, but they don’t have to. It seems to me, as a viewer, that the process to make the work is more fulfilling from the inside than it is to watch or experience it from the outside. As an art-maker, I appreciate that. As a viewer, not as much.

So how does the idea of “meaning” within a dance play into all this? Why do people think it’s so important? I believe that a “meaning” pulls the audience to invest in a dance when they’re watching it; it gives them something to relate to, and to many people, it is what gives a dance value. Given that concept, maybe BLEED has less value then because it doesn’t have an explicit “meaning.”

But that’s just not true. Dance is such a fragile art form that it’s often thought because of its ephemeral nature, it needs to be “about” something for it to be worthy. But dance have always been powerful in an entirely different way: it engages the physique in such a primal way that it can communicate the human experience in a way that words can’t. The forces of that contradiction feeds into and interacts within BLEED. It exhibits the idea of ephemerality in a way that words just can’t capture. And that, is where the value lies.

Imana Gunawan is a Seattle-based print and broadcast journalist and dance artist. She is a senior at the University of Washington studying journalism and dance. She works as news editor of The Daily of the University of Washington, writer for SeattleDances, freelance dancer and reporter. Reach her on Twitter at @imanafg.