Interview: Tere O’Connor and Monique Jenkinson

Last updated on January 19, 2016

Transcribed by Justin from

Monique: By way of a quick introduction, [Tere and I] met through a program called CHIME, which stands for CHoreographers In Mentorship Exchange; it is a project of Margaret Jenkins Dance Co. and you can find more information about it a [It’s a ] really amazing program that connects … local choreographers with each other, in mentorship. A special program, CHIME Across Borders, invites choreographers from [abroad] … to work with a group of [local] choreographers; in this case three of us. We’re in [the middle of] our second, quarterly, week long intensive which started today.


So Tere, I’m just going to launch in and ask you … a basic but huge question: in your view what is the difference between dance and choreography? Or how you distinguish between the two?

Tere O’Connor: Well, that is a very good question. I’ve been working for 30 years making dances, so I’ve arrived at a feeling about that by working and going through transformations as I worked. And one of the very simple but profound ideas I came across was the idea that dancing can ruin dance, and that dance is a part of choreography, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be. Choreography is this vehicle for convergence and a way of diffusing certitudes and bridging polarities, and that dance is used in it, is [only] one application of it. But [choreography] could be applied in many areas including science, etc. In my use of [choreography], I do use dance, and I’m just really interested in looking at how it exists in the world right now as a politic of complication and a way of moving away from monothematic understandings or polarities that i think are at the basic structure of everything we’re dealing with. So, it’s not a form that for me is proclamatory; it’s a form that I set out into the world and it absorbs information and then creates a network of the relativity of those disparate parts. I have this phrase [that] I call the “nexus of irreconcilability”, [meaning] that I’m working inside a form that isn’t looking to resolve any questions and it isn’t looking to proselytize about anything or come to any conclusion, yet there’s also a rigor in it’s poetics. There’s a very specific way to look at working with the choreographic form, that’s this idea of a very free flowing usage … and how I’m working with that naturally moved me away from a tyranny of authorship. So my journey from the source material that I start with, after it goes through these choreographic applications, [is one that] starts to move further and further away from me, and become this other thing that I then try to help become itself. It brings me outside of taste and outside of what I might consider knowledge, and the application of my knowledge on this thing, and instead it has a way of being porous and taking in information and reflecting that back to me; not necessarily [as] a reification of a source I start with, and not [as] a depiction of any idea, [but as]  a  process and a document of a moment that we’re in. And it has its own quality. So … at this point in my life … I’m really promoting for myself, and in the world, a re-look at abstraction. But not abstraction as an obfuscation of a narrative, or one that starts relative to something and abstracts it (as the verb), but [from] a transcendent place; a place where we detach from identification and nomenclature and move into a situation that looks at the convergence of ideas; not necessarily the good bad paradigm, but the relativity of these things that are coming together, in the world, or in a dance.

M: In one of our [working] sessions [you spoke] about how architecture has to build something that has to work and that choreography is special because it doesn’t have to build a structure that has to hold something up. You said, you can build a room and then build a room with a thing coming off of it [gestures a wild form] and you couldn’t do that in architecture but you can do that in choreography, and aren’t we lucky [for that]!

T: Yeah, I think that’s one of the root metaphors of the form: it’s the ability to move into non-viable structures; [structures] that don’t necessarily have to function and, [as a product of imagination], there’s a theatrical idealism that is offered to the viewer that says “this is a layer of thinking”, you know, braided with functionality. You can also look at potentiality: structures that have their own movement, not necessarily towards something that’s functional. And the architectural model is one that for me is this idea that I feel like you undo architecture; you undo it’s object-hood by navigating through it. Its purposefulness as an object is really fluid because every person who comes across it is going to navigate it in a completely different way, so it doesn’t really have a oneness to it, and I think that’s something about dance; that if people allow it in, it could be a difficult form for people who are trying to find identification in it, but, if you can allow it in, it creates a  fluidity of information, that can be reapplied to your thinking into other things that are going on, and one of those is architecture. The winner of the Pritzker prize, Toyo Ito [Toyo Ito of Japan is the 2013 Pritzker Architecture Prize Laureate] in architecture, has [designed] amazing, shocking buildings that [seem] just like a brain explosion that becomes a building; like a potentiality that has material sprayed on it, and it becomes this thing. I think that that’s what choreography is also: it’s like the bodies are powder on ideas; they’re just bringing into vision ideas that are unfurling from place to place in a mind, and they become actualized, and [in that] a secondary landscape is created, or ghosts or histories or potential architectures. I think there’s a hallucination of architecture going on in all of dance because the body suggests architecture, so there’s this unraveling of potential architecture from the domestic to the monolithic, and an indoor/outdoor dialectic being suggested all the time; and people are bringing themselves to that and in a really personal way. That’s part of one of [another] element of complication in the form: that you can try to manage it but it’s going to be torn apart by the multitudes; by the 20 people that see your show [audience laughs].

M: [The architecture of dance] exists and ceases to exist in so many different ways in the mind of each viewer, and [in] the experience of each viewer in the moment.

T: The other thing we’ve talked about that I’m trying to hang out with and be obedient to in my work is this idea that erasure is a form of construction in

dance: you’re building something, but something that’s constantly being erased, and it’s a total, like, “dude, that moment just went by, now that moment went by, they’re all gone!”. You know, it’s a total bong hit situation, but at the same time it’s really very profound; it suggests something political that isn’t topical, or from now, but it suggests this knowledge, that thing, that certitude you have, it’s just gone the second you claim it, and many other levels of that. But also this idea of multiple voices and multiple viewers: there is an architecture (I call it that) being built in what people remember from that backward river of erasure. People will take little moments from your piece and make a little module of it in their mind, and no one’s is the same. So it’s this  reverse architecture [in] that you’ve created a river of temporality that’s suggesting no product, and people remember [it] with a constellation that is finite, in their brain, somehow. So there’s an elliptical relationship between architecture and dance that I’m trying to learn how to harness and let fuel my making.

M: And what about language? What is your relationship to language? Or, for you, what is the relationship between dance and language?

T: One of the most important things that I think is an issue with dance, even with the most  progressive thinkers, is that people, I think erroneously (or it has been perceived over the history of dance, or definitely western, new, modernist dance) that [dance] is a translation of something: there is a thing that gets translated into dance. And I’m really into making choreography the protagonist of my work, and the attendant ideologies that is has. So, one of them is that it re-situates language. It’s not in a fight with language but for me I think [choreography] jettisons noun and verb, out the window, and it  foregrounds grammar and syntax in a way that [is similar to the way we are] really talking to each other. We can’t really understand the same words. If I say “mother” and you say “mother”, we’re really thinking of different things. We’re saying a word that bridges that idea, but grammatically there’s a psychology going on with the ideas of the comma, or the parenthetical, or the exclamation point. [Also] people really personalize usage by re-applying grammar to the common words that we have to share. The words are the policing, and the grammar is the revolt, somehow. And so, I feel like dance is suggesting grammar forward, and more than that, but that’s the place where I think it applies. I [prefer] not [to] get really militant about that, but it is for me a difficult thing in that, I am not (probably as a learning disability, and thank god I found this form), I am never looking to name something in my work. I can’t, even. I’m not able to do that; to say, like, that’s a story, or [points] that’s a story, or… People say these things to me after [the performance], which I love. I love that story is evoked for people, but I don’t look at it that way…

Also for me there’s a queering involved with the dance that I was making because there was a language I made for the heterosexual community (I was from a crazy small rural area, so it was like old school closet story, you know, like death if they found out [you were gay]), so I became very, very good at language to keep everybody in order that was coming at me. And I was developing another language that was disassociated from their symbols, but blended back into my use of language, so that there was this “otherness” inside the way that I was using language. And then in choreography (which is the ultimate marginalization, in this instance) I was able to unleash that other thing that was being nurtured [at the same time] I was creating a protective linguistics around it. So, I think that this idea of facade -vs- internal life is all over dance. And language could arguably be considered a  facade, and a control element in the work. And I love language! I mean, I’m not against it. I love language. I’m really really into it, and it’s not even a, you know, “fuck you” [to] language. It’s just that this is an aspect of dance that just came forth as I worked; It just kept saying “don’t try to name this, this isn’t what I’m doing. This isn’t what I want to do”, so…I could blather on about that forever. It’s really important.

I started making dances, when I was very young. I lived in Italy and I was learning Italian and I was at a place of relearning a grammar even at the same time I was understanding what grammar was, as an adult. [So] I was reduced to this monosyllabic to double-syllable to two word phrases [in] this whole process of taking on language, [at the same time] as I was creating my own work. And that was very key for me: to have this insight, or maybe insight/affinity towards this look at language. But it was really interesting to be learning a language right at the same point I started making work. And I was pretty young. And I was completely deracinated; I was in this other city, speaking another language, and that also is a metaphor for choreography in general, relative to language.

M: That’s striking. [In CHIME] … some of the work that you’ve encouraged us to get very specific about [is] writing about what we’re doing. So, at the same time as liberating, or looking at the possibility of liberating, dance from constructs of language, [we’re challenged to consider] how we use language to then …

T: Yeah, it’s a paradox

M: … to further what we’re doing in the process. So, we’ve been doing a lot of writing in this process [with you].

T: The thing about the writing is: you’re writing in a way that re-situates language in a choreographic way. So you’re writing in multiple ways about the work. You’re not writing to analyze it; to narrow it down. You’re not re-applying thematic [or] mono-thematic ideologies to it, but you’re using the writing almost to expand it. Like we were [discussing] today: about this reference, that reference; that there are many references. Not just one.

M: …looking into the work…

T: So you can use writing to expand the complication [in the work] and find other layers and bring in multiplicity.

M: One of the phrases you use: “to see … where is the paisley in the work”.

T: Yeah, I like fabric a lot. And paisley to me is so amazing because it has, it seems to have, shapes and things that are individuated inside of it, but it’s much more importantly a web: the things, the individual elements are inextricably embedded in a weave. And so this idea of complication, for me, [is that] anything that could be read as one thing, in my work, I just spray it with complication, because that’s really an imitation of, audience… I call it, “audiencifying” the thing: that it needs to be belted with many points of view for it to become itself, and that’s the paisley idea. I was just writing a thing with Jenn Joy, this person I’m working with in NY on an email interview ,and I said that, “I’m trying to turn this paisley into gingham but I just can’t do it!”. That’s the idea. I mean, It’s really wonderful for me to find aspects of complication out there in the world, like in people like Hillary Clinton. Or women in politics who talk about things other than polarities.