Deborah Hay was weeks away from beginning rehearsals for “Horse,” a commission from noted Swedish dance company Cullberg, when the world shut down to the pandemic.
Graham Reynolds had already composed the music. Dancers were set to come to Austin to begin their work with Hay. The premiere in Stockholm was scheduled for August 2020. Then everything was suspended and upended.
Now, finally, “Horse, the solos” will get its U.S. premiere Jan. 28 at Texas Performing Arts’ McCullough Theatre. Before “Horses, Hay will perform a solo “my choreographed body,” a rare happening. “Every time I do it is it’s a premiere,” the 81-year-old modern dance legend told me.
Earlier in the day, the Cullberg will also perform Hay’s 2004 masterpiece “The Match.” Both performances are surround by discussions and film screenings, making it a veritable, and much deserved, Deborah Hay festival or sorts. (See the full schedule at texasperformingarts.org)
“I think what happened as a result (of the pandemic) is a lot more interesting because I had so many obstacles, even in the way of conceiving of this piece,” Hay tells me recently when we meet over chai latte. “What I learned along the way was a lot more interesting
Originally, Hay had planned a septet for seven members of the Cullberg. But that proved an impossibility with an ocean between her and the dancers.
“I realized there was no way I could create movement for seven bodies in space and time and not be there,” she said. “So I decided would create solos — seven separate solos that could be performed on stage at the same time.”
Hay began work on the solos using her daily movement practice, a dance exercise she does each morning in the confines of her condo’s small living room. Cullberg sent her a monitor and videocam (she had no television), but working remotely still proved a challenge.
Then Bob Bursey, director of Texas Performing Arts, heard of Hay’s situation and offered her use of the pandemic shuttered McCullough Theatre, along with technical staff support. Hay was able to film her solos for the Cullberg dancers on a stage.
Still, when the dancers returned video of what they had done, Hay realized that they had imitated her movement to closely, when what she had wanted was for them to use her movements as a prompt.
“I didn’t want them to imitate me,” Hay tells me. Instead the dances needed to create their movement from an intuitive understanding of “risk and efficiency.”
“I don’t know what choreography is anymore,” Hay says. “Actually I never have. As time has gone on, I leave more and more room for the dancers. I need them to not be well-behaved.”
Hay rejects the traditional hierarchies of dance in which a (usually male) choreographer sets out specific steps that the dancers must learn — steps often coordinated with music. Instead, she calls her dancemaking “an answerless questioning process,” one that encourages dances to create in each moment, allowing them a democratic degree of authorship.
Hay has describe her practice as “playing awake” and she poses questions that challenges dancers to shed their habits. Favorites are “What if every cell in my body is served by how I see?” and “What if every cell in my body could notice the feeling of time passing?” (Another prompt — “Turn your fucking head” — became of the title of 2012 documentary on her groundbreaking style.)
Born in Brooklyn, Hay’s mother, Shirley Goldensohn, was her first dance instructor. By the early 1960s, Hay had moved to Manhattan becoming part of a group of artists, dancers and composers known as the Judson Dance Theater. She trained and toured with dance pioneer Merce Cunningham, and collaborated to create happenings with artists including Robert Rauschenberg. Hay and her creative cohorts rejected narrative choreography and virtuoso technique, instead celebrating improvisation, experimentation, intuition.
Hay has been based in Austin since 1976, establishing her Deborah Hay Dance Company here. Her first decades here saw Hay experiment with solo work, and also present workshops for dancers and untrained performers alike which culminated in large group dancers for performers but no audience.
Since the turn of the millennium, her largest pieces have been presented elsewhere. Indeed the Cullberg performances, given the size of stage and the caliber of international dance talent, represent the biggest production of Hay’s work in Austin, ever.
The (somewhat) exception to that is, arguably, “Perception Unfolds: Looking at Debora Hay’s Dance,” a large-scale multi-channel immersive video installation at the Blanton Museum of Art. Curated by Annette DiMeo Carlozzi, the exhibition traveled to Yale University art gallery, .
Carlozzi, who herself studied with Hay over the years, including one Hay’s big group dances, calls Hay’s practice both rigorous and sublime.
“Deborah directs her performers to use absolutely everything that is available to them — their physical, emotional, intellectual, psychic, cellular awarenesses — to access an understanding of where the body is and what the next steps might be” says Carlozzi.
“Often this is in response to a prompt or image she gives them, and watching how differently each dancer interprets or understands that is fascinating.”
(Another presentation of Hay’s work in Austin came with “Match/Play,” a 2005 theatrical adaptation by theater collective Rude Mechs of Hay’s “The Match.”)
In 2000, ballet legend Mikhail Baryshnikov performed Hay’s “Single Duet” with her as part of his White Oak Dance Project’s celebration of Judson Dance Theater. Hay netted a Bessie Award in 2004 for her quartet “The Match,” presented by New York’s Danspace. The Forsythe Company and Toronto Dance Theatre also joined the roster of international dance groups commissioning and presenting her work. And in 2016, Hay was awarded the Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters, France’s highest cultural honor. Last year, UT’s Ransom Center acquired Hay’s archive.
Hay began work with the Cullberg in 2015 with “Figure, A Sea,” a collaboration with musician Laurie Anderson and lighting director Minna Tikkainen. It was the beginning several year artistic residency with “Horse, the solos” the final project.
Though they’ve known each other for years, Hay and Reynolds had never collaborated.
“I loved Deborah’s work forever and I knew that from the beginning that she doesn’t typically work with music,” Reynolds told me. “Deborah doesn’t want the music to tell the dancers what to do. She didn’t want big climaxes, she didn’t want melodies. What I was creating was a sound world that co-exists with the dancers — a framework within which dance happens.”
In Austin, Reynolds will perform his ethereal score solo, using electronics and a big bass drum.
After Austin, “Horse, the solos” goes to the Joyce Theatre in New York, the nation’s leading modern dance institution.
“Horse, the solos” had its premiere in Sweden in March 2021 in a most unusual way. At first, Cullberg organizers planned to have a socially distant half audience. Then it was decided that there would be no audience. The show would go on without an audience — and without anybody in the theatre except for the dancers.
“No audience, no photographer, no rehearsal director, no technical crew,” Hay told me.
“They performed to an absolutely empty theater. Their experience was life changing; they took their bows at the end of the show.”
Dancing alone, performing alone, has been a regular element of Hay’s artistic practice, and tenet of how she frames the act of dancing.
“It’s essential (dancing alone),” Hay says. “For me it launched a practice of ‘inviting being seen,’ using every type of awareness to offer being seen. That feeling is a part of the dancing experience. It’s generosity basically.”