The great russian poet, Anna Akhmatova, is reputed to have said, "There's nothing more horrifying than childhood," and Tere O'Connor's "Frozen Mommy" is a deft exploration of that observation. Using language, movement, sound, potent facial expressions and compulsively repeated gestures, O'Connor delves into our communal psyche's soft spots and rummages around; jostling the comfortable perception of adulthood as distant from childhood hurts and disappointments.
We know we're in for something challenging when, in darkness, we hear the sharp clip clip of high heels retreating down a hallway, followed by a definitively chilly door slam—Mommy's left and there'll be hell to pay if anything goes on while she's out. The lights come up, revealing five dancers grouped at one corner of the stage. They look like children who've been admonished not to move from where they stand. And for the next hour and fifteen minutes, O'Connor explores physically and psychologically what this restriction means.
This is turbulent territory. It's difficult to open these kinds of wounds without getting maudlin, sentimental, or self-indulgent. But this is where O'Connor shows his artistry. He balances moments of psychological turmoil with a wry humor, and as in a play, the funny parts enable us to tolerate painful truths. He cuts quickly from one to the other; creating a mosaic of emotional highs and lows that is poignant and funny. Emotional control, as represented by the dancers' movements in crisp unison and tightly held facial expressions, is routinely shattered by paroxysms of screaming, laughing, or wild, unrestrained steps that explode the tension. At one point, a dancer rolls his head violently around in circles until stopping and clutching himself in desperation. Another dancer looks on and blithely proclaims, "Yeah—head rolls—tragedy of man," and breaks into loud laughter. We feel for the first dancer, but we laugh heartily with the second.
O'Connor gives us messy moments of raw emotion as well. There's a duet in which one dancer yanks another around like an uncooperative rag doll and then dumps her unceremoniously in a heap. She's expected—like all of us at some point in life—to gather herself together without help. Another section has the three women dancing roughly to the sounds of repeated door slams. The sound drives them into a frenzy as they grasp themselves between their legs and pull their hips up and forward in an exaggerated "Three Graces" kind of pose. It's not sexual, but an apt physical representation of emotional pain that hits in the gut. Or, when one dancer, having reached up beseechingly like a young child asking to be picked up, is clearly rejected and left to lurch around the stage on stiff legs as though having been punched in the stomach. He comes front and center; breathing hard and looking angry, staring out into the blackness and confronting us with the injustice.
"Frozen Mommy" is a collage of such arresting moments, but it's also replete with sequences of full, lush movement that, even when performed in unison, is never predictable or cliche. O'Connor underpins the piece with repeated patterns and shifting groups of threes and twos, pulling the separate bits into a coherent dance. He also uses performers who can dance as well as they act. Hilary Clark, Erin Gerken, Heather Olsen, Matthew Rogers and Christopher Williams, who O'Connor credits in the program as integral to his creative process, are brave performers and endlessly interesting to watch. These performers will be in O'Connor's new piece scheduled to premier at DTW this December.
The appeal of O'Connor's work—this piece in particular—is that, besides being well-crafted, it's deeply personal without any attendant self-aggrandizing. He transforms his examination of human experience into a tangible abstract that makes us smile or squirm in recognition. This is nowhere more evident than at the end of the piece. All five dancers stand in protracted stillness in the classic pose of parental disapproval; one hand planted on a cocked hip and head tipped slightly downward in scrutiny of the offender—Mommy's back and she's not happy. O'Connor's success in "Frozen Mommy" is measured by our visceral identification with the despair of one dancer who, after withstanding a full three minutes of this disdainful silence, collapses to the floor in tears, unable to contend with the emotion of not measuring up. O'Connor knows, as do we, that carefully maintained composure is nothing more than a fragile veneer when stressed by fierce emotion.