A Year In: Dance artist Deborah Hay

The pandemic radically upended the shape of a dancework by the groundbreaking choreographer


The series ‘A Year In’ catches up with artists now that the coronavirus pandemic has passed its one-year mark.

If anyone can be righteously called an icon it’s dance artist Deborah Hay.

In the 1960s she pioneered modern dance at the now-legendary Judson Dance Theatre in New York, a collective of radical and influential dancers, composers, and visual artists that included Yvonne Rainer, Merce Cunningham, Robert Rauschenberg. The group rejected the limitations of technique, virtuoso and narrative. Everyday movement became inspiration for dance and the ethos placed process over a polished performance.

Based in Austin since the 1970s, Hays’ dance centers on undoing the body’s reliance on learned behavior. Her teaching focuses on a set of practices she terms “playing awake,” which engages the performer on several levels of consciousness at once.

Among her many grants and awards are the inaugural Duke Artist Award in 2012. In 2015, Hay received France’s Minister of Culture and Communication awarded Hay the title of Chevallier de L’Ordre Des Arts et Des Lettres.

Also in 2015, Hay’s first museum installation, “Perception Unfolds: Looking at Deborah Hay’s Dance,” was curated by Annette DiMeo Carlozzi for the Blanton Museum and later traveled to Yale Art Museum.

Working in collaboration with Laurie Anderson and lighting designer Minna Tikkainen, Hay created an evening-length work, “Figure a Sea,” for 21 dancers and commissioned by Cullberg in Stockholm, Sweden. It premiered in 2015.

“I am interested in choreography that does not look like anything and is performed by exceptionally astute and experienced performers. Movements are spare, disorienting, yet mysteriously human in their application within an inextricably bound space,” said Hay in press materials from the Cullberg.

Sightlines: What was the first of your work you saw cancelled or postponed or even erased?

Deborah Hay: I was developing choreography for the Cullberg Company based in Stockholm. It was a septet titled “Horse,” to premiere at the Gothenburg Festival, August 2020. Graham Reynolds composed music for the dance. We were weeks away from an Austin workshop with participants coming from destinations near and far. It was postponed several times before teetering to oblivion.

Related: “Horse of a Different Color: In Conversation with Deborah Hay and Graham Reynolds”

S: What part of the pandemic were you surprised to find being a creative benefit?

DH: There is no aspect to the making of “Horse” that was not shaped by the conditions imposed by the pandemic. It has been a compelling journey for me, for the dancers, and the Cullberg company. I quickly realized my gratitude for conditions I could not have invented and that shaped the trajectory of this dance. The piece became “Horse, the solos” and today is actually the second of two premieres, each for a cast of seven.

Because of COVID, an audience was not allowed into the theater. The lights and sound were cued electronically so the tech crew were also asked to leave the theater along with Jeanine Durning who has been coaching them live since summer 2020. No documentation of the two premieres took place. This was for the dancers, in costume, with lights and sound and each other.

S: What changes do you want to see in dance, after all this?  What changes could/should be made in how it’s practiced, in how it meets an audience? What could/should the so-called ‘new normal’ of dance look like?

DH: I have no thoughts on this other than a deep appreciation for the attention artists of color are receiving at this time. This breakthrough is crucial to how we see one another.

S: Artistically, what’s next that you look forward to, and are excited by?

DH: If the opportunity presents itself,Horse, the solos” with be performed for the public at the Gothenburg Festival at the end of September 2021. And then perhaps it will be seen in Austin in 2022.

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