On a mild March day right before the world shut down, I sat down with two Austin artists —true originators in their fields — to discuss their recent project together, a performance piece set to premier, not in Texas, but Sweden.
Since the 1990s, dancer and choreographer Deborah Hay has admired the work of composer Graham Reynolds, his prolific penchant for improvisation and experimentation not unlike hers. She knew she wanted to work with him, but finding the right opportunity was always an issue. Finally, it presented itself: with a group of dancers in Stockholm.
The Cullberg is an international contemporary dance company known for its conceptual and multidisciplinary works.
“They used to be known as the Cullberg Ballet,” says Hay, as we sit in her sunny living room, “but they are much more versatile, much more available as human beings dancing.”
Ms. Hay is never one to work within the confines of her own discipline. As a celebrated choreographer and international dance icon, she has made an entire career out of breaking the rules.
At 78, she is very much enjoying the height of her career. In 2016, she was awarded the Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters, in 2018 she was featured in an exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (as well as a performance at LACMA some months later), and in August 2019, she was honored with a retrospective of her life’s work: “RE-perspective” at Berlin’s Tanz im August dance festival. A newly expanded edition of her book, “Using the Sky,” was published by Wesleyan University Press later that fall.
As a founding member of New York’s Judson Dance Theater in the 1960s, Hay blazed a trail for fellow experimental artists and dancers. For 50 years she has been considered one of the most innovative and uncensored artists of an era: a jewel in the crown of postmodern dance. And on this particular day while we chat, her hair is swept up in a style which looks rather regal.
“It’s a cloth used to cover hams while you’re cooking,” she says. “It’s French.”
Hay has been working with the Cullberg since 2015, when she collaborated with sound artist Laurie Anderson on the production “Figure A Sea,” an hourlong piece the New York Times in 2016 described as sublime: “Shape keeps emerging from shapelessness, and it’s hard to say how.”
Last year Hay signed a three-year contract with the company as an artist associate. In 2019, a quartet of dancers performed her 2004 triumph “The Match” as well as a three-part solo, “The Man Who Grew Common in Wisdom” (1989) during her “RE-perspective” in Berlin. Her current collaboration with Reynolds, titled “Horse,” will be her fourth transmission with the Cullberg, and is set to premier in August.
Reynolds is a beloved composer and sound iconoclast who has worked in the realms of dance, theater, and film for decades, while remaining an integral part of Austin’s art community.
“He has this artistry and capacity to enter any area of music,” gushes Hay. “I don’t like working with music, and I knew Graham would take that with a grain of salt. From an artist-to-artist point of view, he would hear that as a challenge.”
Hay moved to Austin in the mid 1970s, at a time when the city was a college town dressed up with a state capitol. She had left her hometown of New York in 1970, first for Vermont, and then to Austin, where she has lived ever since. Her career relaunched in the 1980s with a velocity of international proportions which has yet to slow, taking her all over the world to perform and produce new work.
“Graham is so much a part of the Austin community, whereas I have very little relationship,” she says. “I did when I first came here, but I don’t anymore. So this brings me back home in a way.”
Hay spends her summers away from Austin, back East as well as in Europe. These days, when she’s not spending time with family in Vermont, she’s being knighted in France or honored in Germany. (The retrospective in Berlin last August included an exhibition of relics from her childhood in Brooklyn.)
Despite his own international reach, along with the beckoning of Hollywood (he has composed over 50 films scores including Richard Linklater’s “A Scanner Darkly,” “Bernie,” “Before Midnight”), Reynolds has chosen to stay in Austin, where he has lived since the 1990s. He owns a custom-built recording studio on the east side, and works constantly as a collaborator (or member) of multiple performance groups in town, such as the Rude Mechs, Forklift Danceworks and Ballet Austin. He’s even made an album about Marfa.
Hay and Reynolds describe working together as a kind of coexistence. Having historically rejected classical assumptions about dance (“I don’t need it to be pretty”) and music (“I don’t want rhythm or climaxes”), Hay felt safe in asking Reynolds to do away with easily identifiable elements, so that the music would not dictate the movement and the movement would not framed by the music. Both artists were excited to work on a puzzle with pieces which wouldn’t necessarily fit.
“Deborah is presenting the dancers with: ‘here’s an impossible piece of choreography, now go dance it,’” says Reynolds. “And to me she’s saying, ‘here’s an impossible sonic task, now go accomplish it.’”
So what does “impossible” sound like?
“Since the music is going to coexist rather than preexist, I’m not trying to picture the dance,” says Reynolds. “I’m not trying to imagine what’s happening choreographically other than knowing Deborah’s work. So creating an hour’s worth of music which is compelling, but at the same time, doesn’t have clear rhythmic structure, is a big challenge.”
“The piece runs for 57 minutes, with deliberate moments of silence interspersed throughout: there are a whole bunch of empty tracks which are one, three, five, even seven minutes long. It’s more about the spacing rather than the pacing, which is not the regular way we think of rhythm. And so how do you make these sounds not get old?”
Here’s one way to make sure it doesn’t get old: bring a 12-year old on board. Hay’s granddaughter Ella, a singer-songwriter in her own right, paid a visit to Reynolds’ studio with a whole notebook of her work.
“I made a Spotify playlist from her musical tastes, pop hits like Billie Eilish but also things that aren’t on the radio,” Reynolds says. “I built a bunch of little beats and tiny chord progressions and had her choose her favorite; then I had her sing over on top of that, just a simple couple of notes.”
Though he and Hay were both keen on adding this new element in order to widen the palate, neither wanted pop music that would overtly influence the dancers. By blurring the samples with delays and effects, it no longer ran the inherent risk of telling the dancers how to dance or what to do. Rather, the music and the dancers could live side by side, without one trying to own the other.
“You can still hear her sing,” Reynolds explains. “I even put her into a sample instrument, so now I can sit at the keyboard and play Ella.”
Hay and Reynolds are quick to point out an additional component regarding their Cullberg collaboration: award-winning Finish lighting designer Minna Tiikkainen, whose minimalist sensibilities perfectly suited the project.
“In a way, the dance and music are not bouncing off each other, Minna is bouncing off of the music,” says Reynolds.
I ask how many dancers will be performing in the piece. Cullberg would like 11, maybe 13, but Hay would prefer just nine. (“Figure A Sea” had 21.)
“Nine is a good number on stage,” she says.
This past January, Hay conducted a six-day dance workshop in Austin which allowed her to experiment with the first few minutes of “Horse,” a way to figure out what looked interesting and what didn’t. She also made five different five-minute videos of herself performing, segments she could then practice in order to learn what to convey to the dancers (she is slated to begin teaching them the choreography in Stockholm later this May). These videos, she explains, reveal what the dance will be, and how the music will open up in both time and space. Always one to utilize language in her work, she has also written out these five-minute sequences, along with a set of descriptions on how to perform them.
“I am trying to undermine any way of doing it. It’s a process I find fascinating and that’s how I’m coming up with the work,” she states. As for the music, Hay says it should shape the choreography, but not the performance itself. “I probably won’t even use the music until the premier. We’ll see.”
Reynolds chimes in, once again emphasizing how the music and movement are two parallel experiences happening simultaneously.
“If the music gets big, they [the dancers] move big. If the music gets fast, they move fast, and that’s the difficulty in this,” he says.
I ask Hay where she’s practicing her choreography, to which she opens her arms onto the cheerful space the three of us are sitting in, filled with art and books and perfectly placed stones in front of her fireplace.
“Right now this works great for me. In my living room, I’m learning how I want to teach it. I’m learning what I’m going to have to say to these dancers, to get them interested.”
As for the name of the piece, she chose “Horse” since it is a strong, straightforward word. The original title “Anytime, Now” felt too much like her previous work, she explains: poetic, evocative, another jeu de mots.
There’s a quote I just love, she tells Reynolds and myself while leaning back on her sofa, sort of stretching: “The horse is the inner voice of the Bodhisattva.”
The three of us take that in for a moment.
‘Where’s that from?” asks Reynolds.
“It’s from Jerome Rothenberg’s book ‘Technicians of the Sacred.’ I don’t even know what it means, but it really touches me.”