ONLY extracts the performer’s idiosyncratic thought processes, intimate life questions and hidden stories and translates them into literal and abstract movements, text, video imagery and other tools of communication.  Themes of emotion, singularity, religion, violence, orientation, ethnicity, dreams and solidarity emerge as the audience witnesses a variety of honest, contradicting realities.  By exploring these perspectives, Only will juxtapose the ordinary and the perverse, the eccentric and formal, through personal and universal comprehension.  The audience and performer can then challenge ideas that separate them from or connect them to each other.

Arts & Entertainment • June 1, 2006

Everyday People

Michael O’Connor’s Only turns the mundane

stuff of life into physical theater.

by Jacob Stringer

Things would be a hell of a lot easier if only Only weren’t so hard to pigeonhole.

Sure, you could resort to describing choreographer Michael O’Connor’s first

professionally produced work, as promotional materials do, as “hybrid physical

theater.” But really, what could that possibly entail? In short, this collaboration

with Paradigm Dance Project could entail about anything and everything under

the sun you might want to plop in front of an audience.

The situation isn’t made any easier by the fact that O’Connor eschews the

proscenium stage altogether by opting for the relatively undefined space of a

gallery—specifically, the Women’s Art Center downtown on Pierpont Avenue. It’s

there that an audience, if they should so choose, can sit and experience the

many intriguing variables that make up the evening-length piece: i.e. video,

dance, spoken word, a bit of karaoke, some knife wielding and perhaps even, if

you can count yourself among the most fortunate, some mature content and

brief nudity.

It’s also hard to pinpoint in words the aesthetic of Only. For instance, the

movement is generally minimal and, for the most part, choreographed in a

pedestrian manner. Thus, not only are gestures and movement of performers

kept to the subtle and nonchalant, they also tend to comprise everyday motions

like walking and talking, sitting and standing.

In fact, O’Connor culled the majority of the material for the piece, both

thematically and theatrically, directly from the life and times of his three

performers Erin Lehua Brown, Danell Hathaway and Matt Stella. As a result, the

performance consists of expounded personal mundane biographies. Although

beguiling when thusly described, such perplexity offers little to no illumination as

to what Only truly encompasses.

“As far as the content of the work goes,” explains O’Connor, “It all started with a

handful of personal vignettes of my own—snippet performance art pieces. I

fleshed them out and gave them to the performers, so my stories are mixed in

with theirs. But everything else came from interviewing and profiling them—true

stories from their past, happening events, break-ups and moments of being

scared are all retold or re-enacted.”

It is O’Connor’s noteworthy “re” before those descriptors that provides the

artistic friction propelling the piece. Yes, it comprises everyday movement and

everyday stories, everyday people doing everyday things. The catch is that,

while sitting there in the gallery space you have just paid to enter, you become

part of an audience purposefully watching something that is not natural, not

everyday. No matter how authentic-seeming Only is upon delivery, you are still

experiencing a manufactured display.

And that’s the source of the artistic tension. Periodically throughout the

performance, it is challenging to remember that Only consists of contrived

dialogue, contrived design and contrived movement that harbor not a single

improvisation—not to forget actors doing what they do best, acting.

“Because the content is so human, I’d bet everyone in the audience can relate to

some part of the show,” says O’Connor. “I want them to start questioning the

stories and events of their past and present, see it shown to them by others and

decide if they like who they are. That’s really loaded, I know, and I’m not sure if

one can succeed at it. But that’s the underlying intent. Once the piece gets

momentum, I have to follow it, let it evolve and hope the objective stays true

along the way.”

Conceivably, it is within that juxtaposition that an aesthetic can be found. It’s

also precisely that charged dynamic where the motivating tension is set. No

matter how many times you remind yourself as an audience member that what

you are seeing is a contrived reality, Only assuredly will portray and exhibit a

piece of the ordinary exposed by some sort of light that will make you forget the

question or dilemma at hand. It’s not that you will believe what you are

witnessing is entirely natural, or even allow yourself to accept it on the surface

as a staged production; it’s that you will forget the question altogether.

It is apparent O’Connor has gone to great lengths to achieve just this. There is

no traditional stage to separate the audience from the performance. His

movement language begs for those in attendance to think to themselves, “I

could do that; in fact, I do that everyday.” And he has rehearsed his performers

over and over again so they can deftly deliver reality with an exposed smirking


All this so you will sit there feeling like a voyeur of the worst peeping Tom

variety as you watch three performers sitting on three folding chairs with their

pants around their ankles. Yet simultaneously you will also find your mind

engaging the spectacle at hand with a probing internal dialogue, just as you

would any provocative piece of art.

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