The de-choreographed body: Works by Deborah Hay

The present moment gives us a wealth of lenses for approaching Hay's work


Deborah Hay is alone on the proscenium stage, de-choreographing her body. Based on her published books, her archive, recorded and reported interviews, documentary films, and oral histories, we can understand that she is asking questions — “what if?” questions, not just with her mind but with her entire body, her cellular body. The questions are simple yet impossible to answer. There is no room nor any need for metaphor.

The movements of Hay’s body have a liminal quality, like those in a dream. Her voice reveals deep samples of a language so foundational it has no words. Every slight change in orientation, reorganization of limbs, uttered sound, and breath is a non sequitur to the last, an entirely new result. The constant is an infinitely dimensional presence, the effect of a practice Hay calls “inviting being seen.” The house lights glow a quiet orange over the audience for a good while, inviting us in to see, or perhaps to invite being seen ourselves. The solo, a rare performance of a lifelong work Hay calls my choreographed body . . . revisited, was part of a one-day celebration of her work at the University of Texas at Austin.

Hay moved to Austin in 1976, after working alongside Merce Cunningham and Yvonne Rainer as a founding member of the Judson Dance Theater in New York, and worked here for more than two decades before commissions and residencies pulled her to New York and Europe.

Although Hay still lives here, I, like many Austinites who moved here after the mid-2000s, had never seen her work performed live until this event on January 28. In addition to Hay’s solo, UT presented performances of two Hay works by the Swedish company Cullberg, where Hay was associate artist for the past three years: “The Match” (2004) was the matinee, and “Horse, the solos” (2021) followed Hay’s solo in the evening concert. In between, there were pre- and post-performance talks, a film screening, and a lobby display of a few pieces from Hay’s archive, which UT’s Harry Ransom Center recently acquired.

Hay is 81. Her body has been choreographed, like all of ours have: We’re told our whole lives where to sit, how to stand, when to be still and how to move, how much space to take up, when to command a presence, when to stand down. Hay has been honing her practice of undoing these choreographies for decades, both as a soloist and in work with countless dancers to tap into the fullness of their perceptual abilities.

Yet the present moment gives us a wealth of lenses for approaching her work, such as body positivity, inclusivity, mindfulness, antiracism, and emergent strategy. We’ve been choreographed by what disables and accommodates us, our biology, our injuries and illnesses, pregnancy, birth, loss, healing, relationships, aging. These imposed and acquired choreographies, says Hay in a 2012 documentary, using one of her favorite prompts to help dancers stay alert to new perceptions, are good reason “to turn your fucking head.”

Deborah Hay
Cullberg performs Deborah Hay’s “Horse, the solos” at UT’s McCullough Theatre. Photo by Thomas Swafford

In theory, the work of undoing these choreographies is radical. In practice, I found it also glorious. Only a few minutes into Cullberg’s matinee performance of Hay’s 2004 quartet “The Match,” in the humble McCullough Theatre, my breath caught: I, like most of us, have been living in only a small part of myself, using a fraction of my body’s capacity to perceive. In silence but for the sounds of their feet, four in sneakers and four bare, the dancers conjured open a tap, enabling them to freely dance the stuff that is, as I perceive it, our human material.

Let me break it down, in an effort to stay concrete. Hay’s central “what if” question in “The Match,” noted in the program, asks the dancers to explore perception of “time and space as unique and original from one moment to the next.” The question is impossible to answer, and therefore the response must be playing. The playing is the dance, and the human material is the ever-generative stuff of play. The dance isn’t improvised: the dancers are responding to focused inquiries and spatial stage directions throughout the work, although part of the energy of “The Match” comes from spontaneous decisions of which dancer moves into the spotlight, b-boy style. But the material, the stuff, in each moment feels brand new. It’s infinite, a scarf pulled out of a sleeve in every direction.

This human material is recognizable because it’s the stuff we’re all made of. It’s our rise and our fall, evident in “The Match” in wildly nuanced movements that expand, then succumb to the tethers of pattern and rhythm. The material burbles in sound, expression, and gesture, showcasing human absurdity to bittersweet and hilarious effect. This material wears the effects of time and space, physical strength and fatigue. Nothing is predictable but the dancers’ relentless inquiry — each moment is just as fresh and bright as each other moment. The result, for me, was so much gratitude and hope.

In the trajectory of Hay’s career, The Match reflects the momentum that propelled her work away from Austin, and the pressure of this is palpable in the arc and virtuosity of the work. After the UT performances, the Cullberg company moved on to New York’s Joyce Theater, but they took only “Horse.” Hay herself stays with us, and a Ransom Center exhibition of her archives opens Feb. 4.

I like to think — I feel — that the essence of “The Match” rests with us in Austin for a while, too. Its bursting sharpness and good humor felt as deep and broad as Hay’s community of friends and followers here, which includes people with backgrounds in dance and without, people from Austin and people who came from elsewhere to work with her, people who stayed here and people who brushed up against those passing through. At the McCullough, there were many lobby and over-the-aisle reunions, much waving, photos taken and shared. In their reminiscing, I heard the awe of having been there and tales of lasting influence.

In a 1987 review of a Hay performance in New York, critic Jennifer Dunning mused about “an organic quality . . . that recalls that Ms. Hay is from Austin, Tex. It is hard to imagine the quality of landscape and weather that is present in every moment of her dancing.” Hay chose us — those who were here then — ten years before the first South by Southwest festival, when beer-chugging audiences still watched Austin Ballet Theatre perform at the Armadillo. Austin is a land of what ifs, and in another permutation, Hay might have been its queen. Almost 50 years after she led her first workshop at Laguna Gloria, I hold the space for wishing that we — those of us here now — in this Never Never Land city, could foster more developed relationships with our performing artists who, over time, prove to know exactly what they are doing.

Hay seems to always have known. One reason her archive is such a boon for the Ransom Center is the uniqueness of her documentation — in many ways, it precedes her work, not the other way round. Her dance scores show spatial shifts in drawings, lines, and symbols, but individual movements — the human material, the stuff — are prompted by what rehearsal director Durning called “compact and poetic” language. Precision in diction is part of Hay’s method — the more direct the route to the cells, without the baggage of emotion or connotation, the better.

In the pre- and post-performance talks at the McCullough, Hay was equally direct, differentiating, for example, between improvisation and experimentation, and asking interviewers to clarify their thinking. Despite Hay’s linguistic precision, or perhaps as a result, some of what others have written on her work has fallen into the traps of hopeless metaphor or risk-averse generalities (a headline from the 1980s: “Performer Avoids Obvious Choreography”). In my attempts to avoid these traps, I know that much of what I write here will be, is already, wrong.

Deborah Hay
Freddy Houndekindo of Cullberg in Deborah Hay’s “Horse, the solos.” Photo by Thomas Swafford
Deborah Hay
Johanna Tengan of Cullberg in Deborah Hay’s “Horse, the solos.” Photo by Thomas Swafford

The origin story of “Horse, the solos” proves the limitations of the written and recorded archive when it comes to documenting lived experience. The short film “Dear Dancer,” shown before the performance, records some of the process of the developing the dance. Unable to travel because of the pandemic, Hay worked with the Cullberg dancers through writing and video, while rehearsal director and longtime Hay dancer Jeanine Durning served as an essential in-person liaison in Sweden. Of course, the dancers had to keep distanced from each other. Thus, what was originally planned as an ensemble work became a set of seven solos.

In March 2021, in Stockholm, the dancers premiered the solos simultaneously onstage, with programmed lights, full costumes, and recorded music, to an audience of no one. (Hay had a similar experience when no one showed up to one of her 1980s Austin performances and found it life-changing.) As a record of the pandemic moment for performing artists, an archive that exists only within the dancers, it’s perfect. For the rest of us, it’s a hole in the record, also perfect.

Looking back at 2020-21, which many of us have yet to fully process, one might recall a time when everything felt important and also futile, when our worlds got both smaller and larger, when activity was either marathonic to breaking points or slowed beyond prior imagination. In the post-performance talk, Hay explained that Horse has to do with survival as a balance of efficiency and risk. Durning spoke of helping the dancers conceive of time and space in infinitely smaller units. In Dear Dancer, one dancer refers to a list they are keeping, of people they want to hug. What happens during the creation of a solo when you are yearning to smash yourself against another person?

During the dance, the music, composed and performed live for this performance by Graham Reynolds, ebbed in sustained rumblings, scrapes, and brushes around the dancers, who were dressed in reverent red. As in The Match, the dancers surfaced newness upon newness of our human material, but the pace of the inquiry in Horse was pensive, wise, and gracious. It was clear the dancers were performing a gift. The dancers can now touch each other, but they rarely did. Drawing from a common well of human material, it seems natural that at times they found themselves in complementary shapes, but they were not codependent. An ensemble of solos, each was a star fueled by sustained inquiry and actualized presence. Together and alone, the dancers played with the shadows and glare of spotlights, and then altogether out of light, to the edge of the stage — the lighting design, by Minna Tiikkainen, was a presence of its own.

“Horse, the solos” conveys a revelatory kind of togetherness. What if each of us were fully actualized in our sensational presence, and what if we each held space for others to experience the same?

The Cullberg dancers demonstrated incredible mental and focal stamina — they are all in. I very seldom saw a flicker of a dancer trying to resolve a break in their inviting being seen. Hay, in her solo, held a rippling clarity in her face — this uncanniness I’d read about felt, in person, something like the face being the body, the body being the face.

I hope there will be more opportunities to see Hay’s work here at home. The archive is one important thing. But you really do have to be there (here) to feel the wisdom in what the body holds, the wisdom in what it lets go of, the wisdom in what it seeks.

Jonelle Seitz
Jonelle Seitz
Jonelle Seitz has written about dance and culture in Austin since 2007. Her work has appeared in the Austin Chronicle, Fjord Review, AdobeAirstream, and occasionally in her letter series, The Gym.

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