On The Ground: “Think in a different way” Joanna Furnans on Tere O’Connor Dance

In a new initiative called On The Ground, the Dance Presenting Series engaged five Chicago-based dance writers to be presents for the week-long residencies that happen at the Dance Center. In addition to the performances, the writers also attend residency activities such as master classes, community classes, or discussions. Tere O’Connor Dance was here October 15-20, 2018, and Joanna Furnans observed as follows:

“Think in a different way.”

This is the first of many instructional Tere O’Connor quotes you will find in the response below. O’Connor is widely respected as one of the most articulate, sharp, and inquisitive choreographers working in the field today. While most dance makers (myself included) struggle to adequately describe their creative process and conceptual understandings of the form—Dance— in a way that doesn’t diminish the vast spectrum of its nature (if I may use a term that implies such universality), O’Connor is brilliant at it.

I was invited to sit in on a couple of his classes at Columbia College and I got to hang out with him and the dancers a bit during their performance week at the Dance Center. As a dance artist and writer, this experience ignited my brain, gave me chills, brought me to tears, occasionally made me yawn, and reaffirmed my push/pull relationship with this field. The longer I stay entrenched in the dance world, the more these beautiful (pull) and brutal (push) realities present themselves to me. It’s brutal because it’s lonely and unglamorous; so few people admire and respect the magic and craft of this art, and the effort to produce it is of little value to most in American society. It’s beautiful because if/when you do absorb it, you are forever changed into a person who longs to experience or create it again and again. I’m getting cheesy here, but this is what I care about. Plus, our country is too dire right now to not allow for a little cheese. So…

“Use a different sort of logic.”

Tere describes, as an example, the process of making a soup. Along the way he realizes that his soup “doesn’t want to be clam chowder, it wants to be potatoes.”

He describes his respect for nurses, a group of people who, by the act of paying careful attention, observe their patients back to health. He suggests we “nurse our dances; cajole them into getting better.”

He also thinks of himself as a mother to his dances, a proud helicopter parent at that. He dotes on and indulges his dance’s wants and needs until the final stages of the process when he becomes Edward Scissorhands or a crazed surgeon. Both/and.

He says “most people will never be critical of you or to you in person. We have to do it ourselves.”

Therefore, we have to keep changing our dances. We should “never take a phrase of movement and keep it as it is.” We have to question where our movement comes from ‘cause it might simply come from the dance classes we’ve been taking all these years. We have to remove material from its original sequencing ‘cause those sequences might belong to a logic that is not actually our own.

My fifteen year-old self remembers the eureka of Ms. Difranco’s lyrics:

Some guy designed the room I’m standing in

Another built it with his own tools

Who says I like right angles?

These are not my laws,

These are not my rules.

We are so accustomed to the usual frameworks that we don’t even see their structures. Which means we don’t necessarily have the imagination to break out of them.

At least I don’t. I know I don’t. I’ll criticize your structures ‘til the cows come home but I can’t really come up with something different.

He says, “Dance offers a validation of the imagination. [It is an opportunity to create] ideal structures that can’t exist anywhere else.” And he talks about some fantastical architecture; a cottage perched on top of a branch coming out of the side of a skyscraper. This can’t happen in real life but it can happen in a dance.

“All I want to do is train you to look,” he says. “And to help you figure out how to get out of the anachronistic forms that we don’t know how to get out of.”

What does anachronistic mean again?

(Def.) belonging to a period other than that being portrayed, especially so as to seem conspicuously old-fashioned.

So the problem is that our work keeps regurgitating old-fashioned images? Too many over-played motifs? Too many predictable series of events with the same old steps?

Maybe we got too comfortable leaving well enough alone. Maybe that’s why we find ourselves in this state.

He wants people to “dislodge their certitudes” and “undo normative modalities.”

He wants you to “do whatever you want. And be aware of what you are doing.”

He describes a scene from Sontag’s novel The Volcano Lover in which a ship carrying the expensive housewares of a wealthy family sinks at sea. Slowly, over time, a beautiful vase floats to the surface. Then, over there, a chest of drawers. He wants us to think about dances like oceans with “specificity bobbing to the surface throughout the trip.”

So we’ve got soups, nurses, parents, architectures, and oceans.

And we’ve got ghosts.


He talks about the ghost of his dances puffing out into the space. And once its out, it curls up and takes a nap in the corner of the room like a cat. And every now and then the cat gets up, takes a stretch, and walks around a bit. The ghost/cat exists at the same time as the movement. It is a distillate or tone cast on and around the dance (and audience) like a veil. Well, less romantic than a veil. More mischievous and unaffected like a cat. More loaded and reminiscent like a ghost. This ghost/cat is not not related to the dance but it is also not the essence of the dance itself. There is a tandem happening.

I think.

Whatever. Now I’m just getting off on the possibility of these words.

“Any word you use implies how you feel about the thing” he says. “You may not want that implication. You may not actually feel that way. [And you wonder] Why the fuck did I just say that?

“Nothing about dance wants to tell a story.”

I appreciate this statement and I am well practiced at not applying narratives to dances. But somehow, during my second viewing of Long Run, I found myself overcome by the feeling that this dance could become an outlet for my personal political processing. I indulged that desire.

After a luscious trio by Eleanor Hullihan, Silas Riener, and Lee Serle, dancer Emma Judkins urgently ran on stage. She circled them as they stood watching. She eventually landed upstage and started throwing her limbs around. Her manner was intense and peculiar: not frantic, not out of control, but also not pleased. There was something happening for her and that something was definitely not at ease.

Emma became my Dr. Ford.

She was communicating a vulnerable and critical message to an impassive, ineffectual audience.

Apparently I needed to see that.

Shortly thereafter, Jin Ju Song-Begin walks the stage alone. There is the anticipatory sense that she can do anything. That she can choose to do anything. The ensemble has left and the stage is hers. And what does this woman chose to do? She decides to sit the fuck down in the middle of the stage and rest. This felt radical. Of course later she gets up and displays the satisfying virtuosity—leaps, kicks, and turns— that we know she is capable of, but not before she takes up plenty of time and space for herself doing nothing. She didn’t dance for us until she was ready. And we had to sit there and watch. (Again) Radical.

I mean…these were my narratives. I didn’t expect to associate or impose them on Long Run, but it happened. I was grateful that it happened.

Tere says, “…a narrative reading could be available to you” but he isn’t hoping for it. His work is “born of what’s happening, not depicting what’s happening.”

My third viewing didn’t hold these narratives. Instead I saw Judkins entrance as a new, welcomed texture. Her material acting as a liberally used pepper shaker on the space. And Song-Begin’s solo was an introduction to the spreading of time that occurs again later in the piece when all the dancers lay down on stage for an extended moment of repose (or death?). Her solo was an infusion of helium in the air— a time-based bloat that expanded the possibility of tempo’s relationship to landscape and landscape’s relationship to the body.

Yeah, she/they carried all of that.

“Dance holds ambiguity,” he says. Thank God (or ghost/cats) for that.

Joanna Furnans is a Chicago-based independent dance artist. Her current project, Doing Fine, is supported by a 2018 Chicago Dancemaker’s Forum lab artist award and a 2019 Schonberg Fellowship at the Yard. Previous works were supported by the Chicago Moving Company, the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE), Links Hall’s Co-MISSION Residency, and the Walker Art Center’s Choreographer’s Evening.

As a dancer in the works of independent artists Karen Sherman, Morgan Thorson, and Chris Schlichting, she has performed at the American Realness Festival (NYC), the Fusebox Festival (Austin), the TBA Festival (Portland), the Walker Art Center (Minneapolis), the Institute of Contemporary Art (Boston), the Chocolate Factory (NYC), PS122 (NYC), and the Center for Art and Performance (UCLA), among others. Furnans has also performed in the work of Laurie Van Wieren, the BodyCartography Project, and Ginger Krebs. 

Furnans co-founded the Performance Response Journal and has been a contributing dance writer for the Windy City Times, Art Intercepts, and See Chicago Dance.