CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — When choreographer Tere O’Connor creates a dance, he isn’t trying to tell a story, depict a specific idea or deliver a message.
O’Connor describes dance as “a sublinguistic area of expression” with its own properties that create another way of processing information different from language.
On Tuesday, Oct. 25, O’Connor will talk about his approach to choreography, as well as his recent work and current trends in the dance world, when he gives the Center for Advanced Study Annual Lecture. Titled “Choreographic Thinking: From Movement to Idea,” the lecture is at 7:30 p.m. in the Knight Auditorium at Spurlock Museum, 600 S. Gregory St., Urbana. The event is free and open to the public.
O’Connor is a Center for Advanced Study Professor of Dance at the University of Illinois, and he is the artistic director of Tere O’Connor Dance in New York. He was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2014, and he is the recipient of a 2013 Doris Duke Performing Artist Award, a 2009 United States Artists Rockefeller Fellowship and a 1993 Guggenheim Fellowship.
For O’Connor, choreography is the process of observation, and meaning is found in a dance’s structure, not in the interpretation of symbols.
“I’m not translating a pre-existing idea into dance,” O’Connor said.
“For me, the experience of working with dance and the material of dance for the amount of years I have has led me to understanding that it doesn’t contain the properties of storytelling or meaning in the same way language does. But people expect that from it a lot,” he said.
O’Connor does not try to depict ideas with movement, “like hieroglyphs with my body,” but rather generates movement based on how he is affected by his ideas.
“I begin to see the seeds of the overall structure of the dance. One work might be more traditional and build to a crescendo over time. In another work, (the dance) might be more fragmented. In another work, one half might be one way and the other half might shift. It’s more about structure,” he said.
If he were discussing language rather than movement, his approach would be analogous to emphasizing grammar rather than nouns and verbs.
O’Connor creates his dances in silence and later has music composed to go with the movement.
“Why are we making a piece of art to another piece of art? We don’t make a book to a painting. Why make a dance to music?” he said. “Early on, I said ‘I’m not going to do that anymore.’ Dance is the protagonist of my work.”
His most recent work is “Transcendental Daughter,” which premiered earlier this month at The Joyce Theater in New York. It will be performed at Columbia College in Chicago on Nov. 3-5.
“I was trying to look for the meditative qualities in dance, and really kind of lose all content other than the bodies that were there. The people that were doing (the dance) were the content. I wanted to create a dance that moves beyond abstraction,” O’Connor said of “Transcendental Daughter.”
He is in the planning stages for a new dance, “Long Run,” commissioned by Bard College. It will be premiered there in fall 2017.
“The starting point is the concept of empty space. I’m interested in the idea of how bodies in dance create architectural spaces,” he said.
O’Connor is not trying to make a finished product when he creates a dance, and he is constantly reassessing his work.
He teaches each spring semester at the U. of I. dance department, and he enjoys the challenges presented by his students and hearing their viewpoints coming from a different generation.
“Their questions and inquiries definitely spark newness,” he said.
He tries to offer them as many ways as possible of seeing their own ideas and finding out how to bring those ideas into dance.
“The making of dance involves the kind of undoing of language,” he said. “If people can release themselves from the desire to look for a specific experience, it can bring you to another thought system, another way of looking at information. It’s a more kinetic understanding.
“Dance can do something else completely without needing to be validated through language.”