If only it were possible to capture the colour of Deborah Hay’s language on the page; the long thoughtful pauses, the enviable American diction of each final consonant pronounced, the transparent emotionality of feeling each phrase before moving to the next, sharing her excitement when faced with an unsolvable paradox. The textures are so wonderfully nuanced, one could listen for hours.
On reading the transcript of our interview, it occurs to me how much is lost once translated to type, and how esoteric it may appear. As in:
“…it’s just noticing what happens when you choose to see differently, you know, and it’s catastrophic loss of former behaviour, not to call looking at you ‘seeing,’ but rather looking at you seeing.”
Deborah Hay is an improvisation artist, a choreographer, a performer, a teacher, a philosopher, a writer. She has pioneered new ways of practising and thinking about dance that are still challenging dancers and audiences. Her provocations have longevity because of their profound rhetorical nature.
Questions like “What if every cell in my body has the potential to perceive wisdom every moment, while remaining positionless about what wisdom is or what it looks like?” are foundational provocations for movement—almost mantras—in her practice. (She also often repeats questions immediately, as hearing it only once can be dumbfounding.) Such questions are accepted as impossible to answer while inspiring immediate physical reactions that undo habitual behaviours.
But so much about her practice has already been written, and more importantly, written by Hay herself with such succinct articulation that I need not attempt to improve on it. After researching intently for our interview, it was of course most interesting to let her do the talking.
“It’s pointless to judge what anybody is doing because the material is so uninteresting in terms of movement, it’s really uninteresting. But are they staying in the [question]?…[M]y practice as an audience is to choose to see you in the question, and knowing that everybody goes in and out of it. So that there’s no achieving anything. So that the dancers who’re practising the performance can be at peace with seeing the audience and not being judged.”
Herein lies one of Hay’s most exciting perspectives. That dance and audience perception of dance need not be limited to what the body can do, nor what the movement looks like, an idea that is still hard for audiences to come to terms with.
Dance exists in time, to state the obvious yet sometimes overlooked. Specifically, dance and its audience exist in the same time. It sounds miraculous, although it’s the plainest fact of life. How does one experience time passing? (Another of Hay’s long-term enquiries.) How do we view movement differently when consciously perceiving time passing between the performer and ourselves? This suggestion alone shifts our aesthetic relationship to bodies before any action has a chance to take place, broadening the possibilities of what can be perceived in performance beyond the movement alone.
It’s a perspective on watching dance that, while now more established, can possibly never become mainstream. Perhaps this is because it subverts the economic idea of a value system, by valuing most preciously something that cannot be captured, or even easily articulated. Hay admits herself that dance is her “form of political activism. Not what I do and not how I do it. It’s that I dance.”
Hay is often seen as a guru-like figure, whose links to Buddhist practices are admitted. Yet from Hay herself there’s no solemnity in the commitment, in fact the opposite.
“A question has a lightness to it. And I feel like it’s really easy for me to get heavy. Like, I think about the world and I could just spiral downward…And dance is where I don’t take it all that seriously…A lot of people say they want to laugh in my performances, and that they can’t, because, you know, they feel embarrassed or withheld or…But it’s hysterical this whole thing. Isn’t it? It’s just weird.”
There’s an incredible freedom watching Hay’s work; an undidactic experience. And I don’t mean for ‘freedom’ to sound comfortable or pleasant; freedom is a confronting reality. Nothing to reference, full of confusion and mundanity. The experience is unknown, with the possibility of real discovery. For audiences used to having expectations pleasurably gratified, this freedom can be frustrating.
“I feel like dance audiences…are not passive. They’re not sitting back. They really feel like they are reading this material…I feel like audiences are looking at my dance like they would look at art. You know, they’re not goal-oriented.”
Hay’s work, like our interview, finds a more solid incarnation on the page. Through writing she has worked hard to define in practical terms how she is working, as a counterpoint to the dissolving of definition that she delights in through her embodiment.
“I realised I better start writing, because I don’t want to be remembered the way they’re writing my work. So I’m grateful for that, feeling so strongly about it and taking the steps necessary to pick up the pen. The power in that...I was feeding them some other perspective to have a look at movement and it began…I think dancers at a certain point recognise they better get smart, about writing our work. What I am writing is the experience of noticing the feedback from every cell in my body, so that’s ‘bblbdldlblkdlkdleleb,’ and how do you then take that in to a linear thought?”
There is a strength revealed in Hay’s writing as a documenter of dance, different from the video. In writing, we can better articulate the unseeable of dance. In Hay’s case, her felt experiences that resonate from movement find a translation. These words can then feed back into movement to create potential, rather than replication or repertoire, enlivening the body to infinite rediscovery.
“What I’ve learned, I’ve learned from dance. I want to proclaim it, that my body is a resource for all of this material. That it’s dance where that kind of research can be happening. My body is where that research is happening.”
The setting for our discussion was completely ordinary, nothing lofty nor glamorous about it. The beauty of really interesting artists is that one can feel completely rich in their company, whatever the setting.
Cellular Wisdom: Interview with Deborah Hay
RealTime issue #120 April-May 2014
In March, dancer, choreographer and teacher Deborah Hay was in Melbourne to mentor dancers in Dancehouse’s Learning Curve program and deliver a performative lecture.