Go Deeper

Tere O’Connor and Rammed Earth

Posted September 14th, 2007

I met with Tere O’Connor yesterday. We talked about dance, sustainable architecture, and his new work, RAMMED EARTH.

O’Connor’s new work, which premiered Wednesday at the National Showroom, is named after the ancient building technique, rammed earth. In case you didn’t know, rammed earth construction is a process of compressing a damp mixture of earth (usually sand, gravel and clay) into a frame that molds the shape of a wall, and then allowing the mixture to bake in the sun. A rammed earth building can last thousands of years.


Photo by Bill Hebert

O’Connor explains that he’s interested in rammed earth both as a resident of the world, and as an artist. He points out that human beings have become obsessed with making buildings out of glass and steel, and that this is not sustainable—rammed earth, on the other hand, has recently joined things like organic agriculture among the ranks of sustainable living-chic.

“Rammed earth makes sense for dance,” he says, “it works in conjunction with the idea that dance is like an unraveled building.”

He tells me what he prefaces as a “boring” story about an experience he had several years ago, while watching Swan Lake. “The movement was totally abstract,” he says. “Most of it didn’t have anything to do with swans.” O’Connor says he would like to see a version of Swan Lake in which there are people repeatedly shouting “swan!” from the wings. He points out that dance, whether classical or contemporary, is too often (awkwardly) married to some kind of story, while the choreography is completely abstract. Swan Lake is a pretty good example of this problem: if the show had no costumes, set, or title, the plot would be barely discernible, if at all.

“Historically, dance is way behind,” he says. “Contemporary architecture is so far ahead of other art forms,” he says. “People can accept an abstract building.” We talk about how linear narrative governs most peoples’ sensibilities when it comes to art, and how people are particularly old-fashioned when it comes to dance.

He points out that, unlike tragic tales involving swans, architecture is everywhere in our daily experiences. “A lot of what we experience is a series of memories that we collect having to do with architecture. Rammed Earth,” he says, now referencing the piece, “makes architectural inferences that hopefully take you to something personal.”

If you see RAMMED EARTH, you’ll notice that pathways and certain systems of moving, whether around columns, or chairs, or people, are fundamental to the piece. O’Connor looks closely at situational dynamics, as an architect might. Then, he says, the question is: “how ample is the dancers’ capacity to invite reference from other people?” “Part of this,” he says, “involves fictionalizing them (the dancers), inviting, or intriguing the audience to a charged play area that people will want to go to.” The piece requires the viewer to engage on a personal level, and on Wednesday, it seemed to achieve this. It is also worth mentioning that the lighting and the unique use of the space is intricate and oddly personal, and that the dancers are wonderful to watch.

If this sounds like your kind of play area, see RAMMED EARTH.