Ransom Center acquires archive of pioneering choreographer Deborah Hay

Based in Austin since the 1970s, Hay is a pivotal figure in the development of post-modern dance.


Modern dance pioneer Deborah Hay has established her archive at the Harry Ransom Center, the University of Texas research library announced today.

Hay’s archive constitutes more than 60 boxes of material spanning the full breadth of her life and career, including films, music, letters, diaries, photographs, production files, dance scores, interviews and manuscripts for her published books.

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.

Her works, including “The Man Who Grew Common in Wisdom,” “The Match,” “If I Sing to You” and “Figure a Sea,” have toured nationally and internationally to critical acclaim.

“Deborah Hay’s archive is unique among dance archives,” said Eric Colleary, the Ransom Center’s curator of performing arts. “She has consistently documented her work in ways that go beyond the typical film recording or press release. You can see the daily process and practice of one of dance’s most celebrated choreographers. Engaging with her archive is a deeply embodied experience.”

Hay’s choreography sometimes extends to written “scores,” literary texts that serve as extensions of the embodied performance.

“What my body can do is limited,” Hay has said. “This is not a bad thing because how I choreograph frees me from those limitations. Writing is then how I reframe and understand the body through my choreography.”

Deborah Hay
Pages from the original score for Deborah Hay’s “The Aviator.” Courtesy Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin.

Born in New York City in 1941, Hay first learned to dance from her mother, Shirley Goldensohn. In the 1960s Hay pioneered contemporary modern dance at the now-legendary Judson Dance Theater in Manhattan, 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 process was more important than a polished performance.

“I cannot think of anything else in my life where there is so much unlearning and learning happening at the same time,” Hay said of her artistic practice.

Hay’s archive joins many other important dance collections at the Ransom Center including the papers of critics Richard Buckle and Robert Greskovic and dancers James Clouser, Rhoda Winter Russell and Gayle Young along with important collections of Katherine Dunham and Ted Shawn.

Deborah Hay
Yvonne Rainer (left) and Deborah Hay perform “They Will” at Judson Church in 1964. Photo: Peter Moore ©Northwestern University. Courtesy Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin.

In 2015, Hay’s first museum installation, “Perception Unfolds: Looking at Deborah Hay’s Dance,” was curated by Annette DiMeo Carlozzi for UT’s Blanton Museum of Art and later traveled to Yale Art Museum. In 2018 Hay was featured in an exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and in 2019, she was honored with a retrospective of her life’s work, “RE-perspective” at Berlin’s Tanz im August dance festival.

Most recently, Hay created “Horse, the solos, in collaboration with Austin composer Graham Reynolds, for the Cullberg Company based in Stockholm. Upended by the pandemic, the piece was delayed, then reshaped. It premiered in March 2021, but because of the ongoing pandemic, 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,” Hay told Sightlines in March. “No documentation of the two premieres took place. This was for the dancers, in costume, with lights and sound and each other.”

“I quickly realized my gratitude for conditions I could not have invented and that shaped the trajectory of this dance.”

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

The Deborah Hay Papers are open for research at the Harry Ransom Center.

“Libraries have not played much of a role in my life, a pitiful story better told in person,” Hay said in Ransom Center release. “Thus the invitation to be included in the Harry Ransom Center collection is both ironic and humbling. The honor swells as I become aware of the treasures housed in the Center’s extraordinarily well-conceived and designed features and the inherent order within its walls. And yes, may my papers add to the lifetime of any independent artist and others seeking some tricks for survival.”



Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
Jeanne Claire van Ryzin is an arts and culture journalist who has covered visual art, performance, film, literature, architecture, and just about any combination thereof. She was the staff arts critic for the Austin American-Statesman for 17 years. Her commendations include the First Place Arts & Culture Criticism Award from the Society for Features Journalism. Additionally, Jeanne Claire has been awarded professional fellowships at USC’s Western Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and NEA/Columbia University Arts Journalism Institute. In 2022, she was awarded the Rabkin Prize in visual art journalism. Jeanne Claire founded and led Sightlines, a non-profit online arts and culture magazine that reached an annual readership of 600,000. And for two years, she taught arts journalism at the University of Texas College of Fine Arts. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, Architecture magazine, Dwell, the Review of Contemporary Fiction, Art Papers, and ICON design magazine, among other publications.

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