issue 27 :: September 2015

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Interview: Deborah Hay

Deborah Hay

I didn’t know very much about Austin when I moved here after college in 1993, but I knew dancer Deborah Hay lived here, and had worked with Merce Cunningham years before. And because of that, I knew what dance performances to go to right off. I remember a strange show at Women and Their Work in 1994 that was one of the first performance art events I saw in town. I’ve managed to see her perform once every year or so over the years. I’ve always enjoyed the confident playfulness she displays on stage. Hay has written two enlightening books about her workshops and performances in the 1990s, Lamb at the Altar and My Body, The Buddhist. The photos used here are clickable, and will take you to Vimeo and YouTube files of her dancing and speaking.
—Josh Ronsen
Thank you very much for talking with me. This is 16 years overdue. Daniel Plunkett and I had wanted to interview you for N D magazine but then he stopped doing it. And then time passed. One of the things I hope to get out of this is to have musicians think more about how to work with dancers and maybe understand how dancers think as opposed to how musicians think.

How did you become interested in dancing?
It’s all I’ve ever done. I was groomed for the role. I was groomed for the profession.
As a child you were enrolled in classes...
My mother was my dance teacher but I don’t want to do history. I’m really not interested.
What is your conception of dance? What do you think you’re doing or what do you want to do?
It changes all the time. It’s hard to define it right now. I would to say that dance is how I practice seeing, that’s how I’m relating to it now. I am reprogramming how I see through dancing, whatever that means. I’m teaching myself some tools so I’m not editing what I’m seeing when I’m dancing, making use of my visual field when I’m dancing.
In the moment of your dancing...
Whatever you’re seeing on the stage?
I’m seeing whatever it is. What I’m seeing: near, midrange, far. I’m making use of the space. I’m teaching myself how to resource the space that I’m in when I’m moving my body on stage, as a source of movement.
So then each dance becomes very individual?
What’s the same is the rules of how I’m applying my practice. I’m always in a place of being refreshed when I’m dancing. I don’t organize my movement, I’m organizing how I am seeing. I’m not terribly interested in making movement. Movement is the least interesting thing to me about dancing.
Is that because you have a lifetime of stored up gestures that you can call on?
I have a lifetime of gestures that I can reprogram. We all do. We all have a lifetime of movement to access at any given moment. My work is noticing it and reorganizing it as it is happening.
I’m very interested in how you in particular and and dancers in general have this storehouse of... You practice and rehearse I assume... How do you go from rehearsing or practicing to the stage?
There’s no difference. I practice performance. Just like you, I’m sure, as a musician practices performance. You’re practicing with your instrument. You are the practice of and being played by your instrument, I’m doing the same thing, there’s no difference. Of course there’s a difference, because there’s an audience there and your adrenaline shoots up, but as far as I’m concerned I don’t even use the word rehearsal. I’m not like other dancers. My language and my vocabulary, what I’m using is pretty much the antithesis of what 98% of people out there are calling dancing.
It’s very refreshing. How is dancing different from something like gymnastics? Gymnasts uses their bodies in very defined ways and dancers obviously use very different definitions, but they are both developing the range of human motion.
It’s goal oriented, and my work is not goal oriented. I’m sure you can relate to this, you’re playing a piece, you’re not trying to achieve anything, you’re playing the piece, observing the practice of the playing of the piece. I am in the practice of the playing of my dancing. There is no goal. There is nothing I’m trying to achieve. I’m trying to learn from my body. I’m a dancer; my body has learned a lot as a dancer. I’m trying to learn more and more and more. So there is no... I don’t have a goal, and I haven’t for many years.
There’s never a point where you want the audience to feel a certain way?
No. I was talking to somebody about this the other day. When I perform, I am my most critical audience member, critical in the terms of “I’m watching her” from many perspectives at once and monitoring her attention. In the last 5 pieces I’ve made, in the last 10 years, I’ve used a quote of Beckett: “Strictly speaking, I believe I have never been anywhere.” That really gets to my guts, ’cause that’s the dance I am noticing happening, that I’m here and then I’m gone, and I’m here and I’m gone. On one hand you can look at that and think it’s frightening and devastating, and on the other it’s fantastic, as a performer. There’s too much else to notice. It is so fantastic, so much to notice.
Deborah Hay
You just mentioned your critiquing of yourself: is that while you are performing?
I’m seeing myself from many different perspectives at once, whatever that means. Who knows? I may say “Deborah, I can’t see the attention in your hands, in your left pinky, could you amp it up a bit?”
You’re trying to focus yourself more?
I’m trying to attend to more. It’s a matter of language. I don’t like the word focus. That is to reduce. I’m trying to notice not focus.
I hope you don’t mind these pedantic questions, but I want to understand dance better.
I don’t think you’re going to understand, except in a very radical way. I’m saying this, Josh, because I feel like..., I don’t know who else could have an interview and say “movement is the last thing I’m interested in.” What my body can do is not interesting to me. It’s not. Especially as I get older. I feel that dance is so seductive to the person who is doing it that it weakens their attention outside of their bodies. It’s a real trap of the art form, to become attached to certain movements, to feeling good being beautiful. Last weekend I saw these young people. They were having such a great time dancing so beautifully, but so what? For somebody like me, I have no interest in watching somebody kick their leg high and fall and come up and look at the sky. It’s really not interesting to me, because I see it as a trap for other people. I see it as a form of seduction, self-induced, and not just self-induced, but pedagogically-induced seduction. That’s what people are taught. That’s what the whole tradition of dancing is: can I seduce a student into loving this movement? being so beautiful? It’s just not interesting.
Deborah Hay
And maybe that is the link to gymnastics, trying to make a perfect... form, it’s about the perfection of the form, not living it?
It’s about the perfection of the form, so what? What does that got to do with me, as the audience? I can enjoy it in the name of gymnastics, I can enjoy it as basketball, I could enjoy it as football, but when I see people, beautiful people making beautiful movements and clearly getting off on their beautiful movements, it feels like watching people stare at their navels. It doesn’t do much for me. Other people it does. I’ve had conversations with people and they say it feels so good to see a body that can do all that. I’ve just looked at too much dance to be that generous, because I care about the evolution of the form and I don’t see it evolving.
What advice would you give to these young dancers?
I do a lot of teaching and I do a lot of rerouting of that attention through my work. As a composer I talk a lot about time and space.
Deborah Hay
I find that very interesting and very liberating. But then, let’s say, if you’re going to perform tonight, would you bring into the piece certain movements that would be a part of the piece, or any movement could be part of the piece today?
It depends. To me, a movement description would be... the closest movement description in the piece I’m making right now, called “Figure a Sea,” S E A, what if you are a speck, in that sea, not seaweed, a speck. A fraction of a body of something that’s not fixed in that sea. That’s the movement description: show a speck in the sea and you go from one side to the other. What would that look like? And nothing illustrative, nothing representational.
So you’re not going to try to emulate the waves...
No. I don’t give images or anything. What I’m trying to do with my work is to remove any handles that the performer can lean on to fill in time and space.
So you wouldn’t even go in thinking about your experiences of the Pacific Ocean or...?
No. There are two things about “Figure a Sea:” the body is the figure and inside is the sea. So there is this chaos within the figure that’s going on all the time. At the same time that you’re in space, that the stage space is the sea, anything could happen in that space. It’s all to upset getting to be able to do something right, it’s all about upsetting the need to do something well and to get things right. I need that in dance as much as anybody, and that’s where my language comes from. How can I let go of my choreographed behavior? How can I get beyond my choreographed body?
Because you’ve done all that before?
We’ve all done it. A lot of people have done more than me, but my choreographed body when I’m dancing, is not interesting to me, or what is interesting about that choreographed body is how to trick her out of her patterns. How do I create more vulnerability in my attention so I’m not, the word is strong, but, so I’m not a victim of my behavior, my timing, my gestures? How do I trick myself out of that kind of programming?
Deborah Hay
It sounds very hard to do.
Yeah, it’s impossible to do.
So you’re always setting yourself up for failure? Does it bother you to fail?
I don’t think of it as failing. I’m experimenting and my body is a great place for me to experiment, and I don’t think of it as success or failure. I’m making experiments and learning from her.
How do you do these experiments and not have them become patterns that you then have to reject?
My experiments last for a couple of years and then I move on. I’m learning one and that takes me to the next and then to the next... When it is time for me to move on, another one is there that interests me.
Deborah Hay
That’s very interesting.
Why do you say that?
It’s interesting that you’re not trying to make something perfect.
Are you?
I’m trying to make something perfect in the sense that I can’t criticize it, that I can’t wish that I could go back and do it again differently. So that’s my idea of perfection, not necessarily perfect like a square, but rather a musical shape or form that I’m happy with.
And then what you do? So you’re happy with it then what? What happens next time you pick up your instrument?
I know what’s worked in that situation maybe I can use some of that in the next situation. If I fail I’ll try to figure out why that failed for the next time. I’ve been playing music for 20 years or so and I’m still working on this, still learning.
How do you practice? How long do you practice?
I’m sick a lot so sometimes I’m not in the frame of mind but in playing guitar I always try to keep the calluses on my fingers up. I’m still figuring things out. I see other musicians who do the same thing time after time with little variations, but they have the big picture figured it out, for them. I envy that in a way, but then I need to do more each time I perform.
I’m just reading the biography of Philip Glass and I was really surprised. He said he set up practice in between 10 and 1 everyday. That was his practice time and for a long time he just sat there at the piano and did nothing. But he kept that up and part of it was other than for those 3 hours, he was not going to practice or think about anything composed. It was really nice to hear.
I wish I had three hours every day where I could do that. The idea of not trying to make perfection is not a new idea but it is still a mind blowing idea. I’ve read your books I know you’re not trying to make something haphazard or careless, but it is this interesting notion of working on something but not working towards of a fixed goal.
There are so many different situations. My solo practice is one thing, my making pieces that are going to be performed by a cast of anywhere from 4 to 40 is another thing. In developing material for a piece, I do a lot of staging and directing and I never consider what I’m doing improvising for any of my work. I feel that there is no time to improvise in my work. There’s so much to attend to, very clear attentional questions. But if I look at a group of people performing my work, what doesn’t work is when I see an absence of attention. I feel I have cultivated my eye enough so I can say “I can’t see you, you’re too inward, I don’t see you in relation to me at all, I don’t see you in relation to the other dancers.” I never say things like this to them, but that’s what I feel like I can see. That’s why I’m so concerned with seeing. It seems amazing to me as a performer in my body in this moment, if I’m not including all of this material that I can see. I have a new book coming out in October called Using the Sky. Where does the sky end? This is all material for me here. I’m teaching myself to be in a relationship with the world that I’m living in when I’m dancing, not to isolate myself, to include the audience. I don’t know how intimate or not your audiences are when you’re playing, but in so much of dance the dancers are on stage and there is 180 degrees where the audiences is and it’s black. The dancer doesn’t have this much material to add to support their dancing.
If the dancer is trying to make something perfect maybe they don’t want to see the audience.
I find blackness distracting when I’m performing. If I can’t see I find that’s material thats just wasted as far as I am concerned.
What do you do when you see people checking their email?
You know there is movement there. There’s energy there. People are doing what they can do. I see people sleeping that’s okay.
Does that ever make you think you have to be more exciting?
The few times I can remember that happening, it was disaster.
Because you’re putting this conscious control into a purpose?
You’d be interested in this. In the early nineties. I was performing in my house where I lived at the time on Lorraine Street in Clarksville and Merce Cunningham was in town. I really love David Tudor, he was a real hero for me. So I invited Merce and I invited David, along with the company, to see me perform in my little house studio, and the only one who came was David Tudor. I was so excited David was there and I really wanted to show him what I was doing. And just that language that I wanted to show him something, it was awful, because I wanted to show him what I was doing. It changed everything. It was burned into my psyche, that experience. And it was the language [I used to myself] more than anything else. I set myself up. I wanted to show him something as a performer. What do I have to show anybody? I want my audience to have their own experience and I have to have my experience of what is happening here and it includes my audience. It’s a huge huge trap. Boom. Boom. Boom. I see people fall into it.
When I perform, I want to do what I think I have to do, but I also want the audience to enjoy it in some way. I want to challenge them and yet I don’t want to disgust them.
What in your language, what does enjoy mean? What does that mean to you?
For me it gets back to this idea of not being able to find fault with something, not to have this fictitious person say I’ve wasted his time. I’m still working through these ideas, and thus I’m very interested in how you relate to your audiences.
I’m performing. I would never say I’m performing for an audience, and part of the performance I practice is inviting to be seen by the audience. That’s all I can do. I invite you to see me in the practice... of seeing, at this point. They’re going to see me or they’re not going to see me. There’s nothing I can control about it. There’s nothing I’m doing to make it easier or harder. But that’s active, it isn’t an idea, it is an activity I’m engaging in.
But then you’re seeing the audience...
Oh yeah, they’re part of the material for me. They’re part of my visual field. I’m making use of my audience. I’m not ignoring them however I’m seeing them. It’s all material for my moving body.
I think I’m at the stage where for most of what I do, I’m trying to ignore the audience.
[laughs] It’s crazy isn’t it, if you have an audience there, why would you ignore them?
I’m saying that’s what I’m doing, I’m not saying that’s the best thing.
I’m sure you’re not alone, there’s certainly a huge— it’s our tradition.
How are using sound currently in your work?
My last piece I used voice a lot, trying to ask outrageous things that come out of my body, like sing a fake patriotic song, things that seem ridiculous, not using language.
And you’re doing the singing?
Yes, and for a piece I’m making for the Culberg Ballet in Stockholm, Laurie Anderson is doing the sound, the music and sound. For this piece, she’s coming up with about ten three minute samples of how she resonates musically with my language. When I’m teaching the piece, I will be able to make choices of how I will use... I may use one [sample], I may repeat one over and over. I don’t know. She’s giving me carte blanche to use them, but usually I don’t use music, I haven’t used an outside source for sound in many years, since I worked with Dickie Landry, Terry Riley, Alvin Lucier. Pauline Oliveros, I’ve worked with for a long time. Ellen Fullman… and then I weaned my way away from music. I think the dance is the music.
The music was a distraction?
It got to be a distraction for me, too much of an influence. This thing with Laurie Anderson is going to be very interesting. She told a story—we did this thing together in New York in April: “I played the section of a piece for Deborah, and she said ‘can I hear it just a little lower?’ and I turned it down and she said ‘I really like it, can you make it just a little lower?’ and I did it three times and I turned it off and she said ‘that’s perfect.’” It’s going to be interesting. I’m not sure how it’s all going to unfold.
And this is going to be a solo dance?
No, it’s for a major ballet company who I’ve worked with before. they’re really wonderful, very beautifully trained. Very versatile. 21 dancers, in an evening-length work.
How long are you going to have to work with them?
6 weeks.
Deborah Hay
“Figure a Sea” rehearsals, 2015
That’s a long time.
It’s good.
And that’s going to be in October?
September 25th. It premieres in Stockholm, and then it will tour. There are already three places committed to it.
No, not yet, of course.
Laurie Anderson is going to give you the samples and then she will expand upon the ones you like?
I’ll have a sound technician working with me in Stockholm who will be able to do whatever I want with them once I make the choice of where they’ll be in the piece or how long they’ll be.
Working with the 21 dancers, the dancers will know what [sound] will be repeated 10 times or whatever you decide?
Possibly, but maybe not. I may not even let them hear the music until the performance which is... but that’s the way it was when I was working with Merce Cunningham and John Cage [in 1964]. We wouldn’t hear John’s music for a piece until that piece was on stage. It was amazing.
The dance was all set and then the music would be on top. Was that ever distracting?
I can remember it being distracting, especially at that point because his music was so loud. His music was driving people out of the theaters. I walked out of the theater. He mellowed in his age. Who do you play with Josh?
I have my own group. That’s how I like to perform, with the same people that so that we know each other musically. I have a lot of friends in the New Music Co-op, and if I have a composition I know who can do what. Brent Fariss is someone I work with a lot.
I’ve been so out of the new music world here in Austin for a long time.
I’m always trying to do something different. In February I directed a Dick Higgins theater piece for 13 actors.
Ah! Where was that done?
Salvage Vanguard/Church of the Friendly Ghost. Julie Nathanielsz was one of the actors. I was going to ask Heloise Gold to do the part, a bird, and squawk at certain things. In that [Stacked Deck], all the actors were cued by the lights and the music. It was written in 1959 but it felt like something from the mid-1960’s.
I haven’t heard his name in a while. Alison Knowles, she’s around, she still doing things.
She’s been very nice to me when I have written to her to ask questions. Dick Higgins was very kind to me. I was going to interview him and then...
I’m curious if your understanding and study of physics, do you think it’s influenced your relationship to music?
I think the idea of experiments I use a lot, defining a problem, figuring out what the variables are, seeing how the variables interact with each other. In physics, you want to fix everything, except for one thing, or maybe two things, and you can see how these two things play off each other. But in art, you’re trying to channel something in a certain direction, so it’s not really like physics, where you more or less have to accept what you’re given, what reality gives you. With art, you can... cheat, and push reality in certain ways, or even create a new reality in some sense.
In physics, you have to accept what reality gives you, that’s great. I think art combines the two. It’s both, don’t you think. It’s accepting, and making choices. I feel they both run parallel somehow.
In dancing, you have limitations of your body, you may want to jump twenty feet in the air, but you’re going to need a trampoline or harness. In music, I may want to have a chord that makes people cry, but that might be very hard to do. How do you notate your work for others?
Lamb at the Altar: that whole book is a notation, and in My Body the Buddha there are I think three or four dances that of notated in prose form. I write my dances.
So then in the workshops you go through each line?
No no. When I’m teaching a piece, I come in with a written score, and we learn the material, and as I’m seeing it, I’m changing it, changing my language, seeing how this language effects it this way. So after a piece has been performed, that’s when I really write the score. It’s a form of drafting the score. I think of myself as choreographing my pieces after they’ve been performed a bunch of times.
And then you can bring that choreography to other people?
Yeah, I can.
Deborah Hay
Would the second group change the choreography?
I did a piece in New York for 5 dancers it was called “O,O,” and it was an evening length work, and then I brought the same piece to 7 French dancers in Paris. All of these dancers were choreographers, and all I wanted to do was have some fuckin’ presenter show them back to back because it was an encyclopedia of information, but it never happened. How cultures dealt with the same language in their bodies. It wasn’t like there is a huge difference but the subtleties, like speaking French and speaking English. It was extraordinary.
I’m not going to ask you to choose a favorite but did you...
Just very different. The French were just incredibly theatrical and dramatic, and the Americans were just piercingly clear and practical. One was like a storm in one was like a thunderstorm.
That sounds surprisingly stereotypical, that’s really weird how... I would expect artists to be above that.
It was very interesting. But I wonder if it’s possible. I have videos of both. Maybe that’s something I should do, show them on a split screen.
I wanted to ask you: I have on my phone your app from the Blanton. [KLRU filmed a piece about the event. -Ed.]
Oh, you do?
I don’t play these games so I’m not any good at controlling it.
I can’t do it either.
Have you played with this?
No, not at all. A good friend Eric Gould did it. Did you see the show? I guess you did.
Yes, Jennifer and I walked through, playing with the shadows from the projectors. In this version [on the phone] you can go through the screens, if I could figure out how to go forward. See, they’re there in the background but how do I go forward? But I thought this is a very novel presentation of these... do I say there are 4 dances or one dance performed by four people?
It’s one dance performed by 3 people on 4 screens.
If I could control it, it’s just a wonderful way to display the dance. It’s much more in line with actually being in the room with the screens than just watching it on a DVD with split screens.
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