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Deborah Hay: The Outlier as Insider

By Michèle Steinwald, as told to Julie Caniglia

I was raised with the idea of right and wrong being very clear. In Deborah Hay’s world there is no right and wrong—it’s all centered on being open and aware of possibilities. Looking back on when I got to know her, in my early twenties, I count that as when I really started living life. I took a five-week workshop with her in the Netherlands at the European Dance Development Center, and later relocated to Seattle specifically to take another. In witnessing how she puts her beliefs into practice as an artist, and into action as a person, it was a huge relief to me. I learned that the world is so many different shades of gray.

Hay’s choreography is at its heart very practical, and is designed to force people out of their habits. She creates sets of instructions categorized as “1) impossible to realize, 2) embarrassing to ‘do’ or idiotic to contemplate, 3) maddeningly simple”; and asks questions that are “1) unanswerable, 2) impossible to truly comprehend, and, at the same time, 3) poignantly immediate.” In workshops, she tells students to “find inspiration in what you see,” a command that gets a bit more explanation in her work The Match: “It is possible to remove the tyranny of having to create original and unique movement if the performer understands that the question pertains to how one perceives rather than what one perceives.” That relief from the burden of trying to be original is one of the greatest things I’ve found in her work. If you see someone else bending forward, you might want to bend forward, too. If you feel like reaching out, you reach out. The demand to come up with something unique is actually quite different from being truly creative; playing only to originality only limits your options.

Related to that notion of how we perceive is another of Hay’s seemingly simple instructions: “Turn your fucking head.” That could be a basic, everyday ideal about being observant of the world around us. But in applying it to choreography, Hay is going directly against the way dancers are trained: to face the audience, look ahead, and imitate forms. Traditionally, dancers are vehicles of transmission for choreographers, literally embodying their directions, their wishes. So if you really are not supposed to see what’s on either side of you, what happens when you do?

One might also ask: Why the profanity? It’s partly a way to indicate that her practice is not sacred, because in so many ways it seems like it should be. While some use curse words to avoid the complexities of language, Hay uses them to energize or embellish those complexities. In this sense, cursing is about being expressive. And it can touch on humor, too. I love watching her expressions as she watches dancers. She might wince and look appalled, as if she’s thinking, “Oh no, you didn’t!” and then suddenly she looks delighted: “Oh yes, you DID!” She encourages performers to go somewhere “wrong,” and then discover how it’s actually right—or, to be more precise, all right. That can imply that Hay’s choreography is based on improvisation, but it’s not, even though it’s about being open to a process. I see performing her work as akin to playing basketball. You’re bound by rules, but you’ve also got strategies, goals, and formulas, and you must be alert to opportunities. She builds vision, psychology, and language into an ongoing series of experiments, which generate amazing experiences with both dancers and audiences. In this sense, she is a true interdisciplinary artist, one who goes beyond movement or technique.

Hay’s work in dance goes back 50 years to her cofounding of the Judson Dance Theater in New York’s Greenwich Village, along with Steve Paxton, Yvonne Rainer, David Gordon, and others. During her time with Judson, from 1962 to 1966, the group was challenging dogma around modern dance by working collectively—which sounds run-of-the-mill today but was truly radical at that time—and by including visual artists, poets, musicians, and filmmakers. During this time Hay also toured with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company when its artistic director was Robert Rauschenberg, who was known for using the detritus of everyday life in his own art and in his stage sets for Cunningham. Her marriage to another visual artist, Alex Hay (his giant paper bag and cash register slip from the 1960s were on view in the recent Walker exhibition Lifelike), created an additional link among these key influences drawn from the commonplace, visual perception, and movement. It was a vibrant time for artists of multiple disciplines to be working and experimenting together and, as Hay has said, “trying to shock the shit out of each other.”

In 1970, she and several other members of the Judson Dance Theater decamped to rural Vermont. Hay literally burned everything—she has no archives from before that year—to go live off the land. In a barn heated by a wood stove, with nothing left except her own body, she began a solo practice. Essentially, she flew under the radar, and in the process created an entirely new, grassroots way of teaching and performing dance. She developed a network of other dancers and choreographers who were also looking for alternatives to imitation and repetition and classical technique. They became hugely loyal fans of Hay, who, in a sense, became a dance world version of a Zen master. She provides directions, a score, and those sets of “impossible tasks” and questions. From there, she gives up a certain power as a choreographer: in the moment, onstage, the performers are making the choreographic choices.

The result is dance that buzzes with a distinctive, vibrational energy. Where most choreographers carve space and time like an architect, using bodies as material, she creates a heightened, almost molecular awareness of space and time itself. And where those dancers traditionally rely on timing and movement to avoid colliding with each other—remember, they’re supposed to be looking ahead—in Hay’s work they use their own vision. Rather than moving pieces of architecture, they act as filters for those space/time molecules. These differences are Hay’s response to an art form that, in many ways, seems stretched to its limits. Choreographers create extremes of movement, feats of athleticism, and technical precision; dancers achieve amazing levels of artistic perfection, performing at once in the moment and also with their own sense of spontaneity. They have the skill to push the choreography, as actors do with the words of a playwright or screenwriter. But even a transcendent performance still holds true to what the choreographer or the writer has prescribed. The variables—movement set to music in space—have not changed.

Hay’s exploding of these traditions has been recognized in the past few years by William Forsythe, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, and other top choreographers around the world. She had a breakthrough in 2004 with The Match, an ensemble for four specific performers whose experience and expertise matched her own: Ros Warby, Wally Cardona, Chrysa Parkinson, and Mark Lorimer. Their interpretations of Hay’s choreography— which won a Bessie (New York Dance and Performance) Award later that year—opened a window on The Match’s dazzling complexity, and also on a way for professional performers to push dance in new directions.

Hay’s career has since taken off and this year she was part of the inaugural class of 21 Doris Duke Artists—an unprecedented initiative of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation in which honorees, through peer review, are awarded for “exceptional creativity, ongoing self-challenge, and the continuing potential to make significant contributions to their fields in the future.”

I’ve seen dancers freak out as they prepare to perform Hay’s work. She is asking you to be in the moment, to rid yourself of habit, to reveal yourself. Her mantra is “invite being seen.” There’s so much purity and generosity to it and yet psychologically, it can be harrowing. One of the best examples of this comes with “Charles” in The Match—a role that all the dancers trade off performing. There comes a moment when you, as Charles, are at the center of the stage, instructed to “produce an incantation, not a plea” to draw forth the other three performers from the sides. An incantation implies a wholehearted, really big spiritual moment, something you can only achieve by emptying yourself. The other performers must wait for this before the piece can continue. The audience also waits, and you as the performer wait to summon this foolishness, this letting yourself go. But you are not the judge of whether this moment has authentically been fulfilled; your peers are.

The waiting might continue, and you might feel like you’re failing and yet there’s no spite or malice, it’s done out of love and a striving for some kind of authenticity. It becomes clear to everyone— dancers and the audience—why this is an incantation, not a plea. Hay doesn’t want bargaining, she wants the release when the others are finally drawn in and the piece moves on. Performing this is one kind of intensity, but watching it is also one of the most intense experiences you can have. It absolutely galvanizes everyone, and in doing so, goes far beyond dance.

“Invite being seen.” —Deborah Hay

Deborah Hay

Photo: Rino Pizzi

Deborah Hay, No Time to Fly, 2010

Photo: Rino Pizzi

Deborah Hay, O, Beautiful, 2002

Photo: Emma Dodge Hanson

Deborah Hay, As Holy Sites Go, 2011

Photo: Amin Weber

Mark Lorimer performs in The Match, 2004