SeattleDances is pleased to introduce a new, occasional series of guest contributions. In providing a more open format, we hope to continue enriching the culture of dance writing in Seattle. To start things off, Shannon Stewart and Mary Margaret Moore have contributed an essay on their work with Deborah Hay in advance of their show, Who’s Afraid of Deborah Hay?, which runs Saturday-Sunday, April 5-6, at Washington Hall. Tickets and show times here.—SeattleDances Editors
The Hay Way or the Highway: Why Here, Why Her, Why Now?
Shannon Stewart and Mary Margaret Moore share the internal process of learning, adapting and performing solos by Deborah Hay
PART I: SHANNON
You train for years and years and years. You learn the ins and outs of every technique you have access to. You take classes that teach you ballet, jazz, modern, yoga, pilates, capoeira, hip hop, break dancing, West African, salsa, swing, Cunningham, Graham, Limon, Ailey, Fosse, Bartinieff fundamentals, authentic movement, Feldenkrais, voguing, burlesque, drag, dubstep. You learn to improvise, to partner, to make shelves with your body, to dance while singing or sounding, to dance while talking, to dance while thinking about your organs, to dance with music and against it, to dance with very little effort, to dance with extreme effort, to dance so that everything is seamless and fluid, to dance with precise initiation and follow through like a well-calibrated machine, to dance like you are in water, to dance like you are spelling your name with your nose, to dance like you are being attacked by outside forces, to dance like you are a video slowed wwwwwaaaaayyyyy ddoooowwwn. You dance ballets, you dance festival pieces, and you tour a bit. If you are lucky you travel great distances to study with widely-known innovative teachers and makers in dance.
You arrive in Scotland to spend two weeks working with Deborah Hay and think, why here, why her, why now? You applied, were accepted, and raised funds from your community to participate in Deborah Hay’s Solo Performance Commissioning Project in a tiny ecovillage called Findhorn. There are twenty of you. The North Americans: six from the US, one Quebecoise, and a Mexican man. Almost all of the people from your continent have relocated to Europe, where everyone else in the group lives: Portugal, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Poland, Germany, France and Italy.
PART 2: Mary Margaret
I finish an undergraduate degree in Art History at Cornell University and a four-year collegiate commitment to Division I Women’s Volleyball. My diploma has a special mention on it for “Distinction in All Subjects.” My body is aching for a different kind of recognition. I turn one tremendous privilege into another—I move to Paris, teach English, and take dance classes.
My body knows how to perform under pressure.
My body is used to being witnessed for long periods of time whether things are going well or terribly.
I feel the stadium’s eyes on my skin and I’m home—we are both here for the event to unfold.
I am used to not knowing, in the field of competition,
Where not knowing is paired with scouting, training, and strategy.
I am not good at feigning confidence, I just like playing inside of physics and space…
And I am strong, and quick, and responsive.
Oh how these things serve me as I step into dance class after dance class!
I stumble. I observe. I laugh when others are silent. I like losing my balance.
I look for the language I know in the movement patterns that I don’t know and I feel it out. I dig up my childhood experiences in ballet class.
I am learning to dance more quickly than I am learning to speak French.
I have a faulty relationship with “technique.” Taking class with professionals I never get the whole story, but their bodies are a constant source of information. So are the wood-floors sunbaked through the skylights. I am an anthropologist/ethnographer.
I am certain that “dance” and “technique” have never truly met.
PART 3: SHANNON
I saw Mountain, a piece of Deborah’s in San Francisco in 2007 made of overlapping solos performed by Galen Hanson, Peggy Piacenza, and Amelia Reeber. I remember being so confused about what-the-fuck-was-going-on and simultaneously feeling like I was home—literally home in the Northwest. Maybe I was homesick at the time, feeling out of place in the sunny, extroverted Bay Area in my dark clothing and what I consider a healthy dose of cynicism and desire to get far away from people from time to time. Mountain is supposed to be about the majestic Mt. Rainier but was actually made at the base of Mt. Baker, the formidable, avalanche-prone mountain I mostly traipsed around on feet strapped to my snowboard or attempted proximity to while hiking on the arm of nearby Mt. Shucksun.
In Mountain, the title and feeling of the piece were in perfect accord. Deborah captured the essence of what it feels like to be human in the midst of immense natural beauty—that you are so small and inconsequential and magnificent all at the same time. That there is an order you cannot understand; that the seemingly mundane is the result of a very delicate balance; that unfathomable beauty and catastrophic destruction are partners dancing an endless tango. To put it in Deborah Hay speak: the only continuity worth appreciating is the “continuity of our discontinuity.”¹ I remember Amelia gliding/bourrée-ing across the stage cooing like a far away bird before a video projection of her Washington State driver’s license with Mt. Rainier in flames as she drove a toy dump truck around the stage with a remote control. Comedy and tragedy at once with absolutely no fanfare.
With this in my mind, I arrive in Findhorn feeling like Deborah and I already share some sort of secret Pacific Northwest bond, that I probably will get her and what we are about to do really well.² I came from spending a few weeks in Berlin and Paris, and took a very bumpy flight through the winds that whip across the top of Scotland. I had just left two beloved European cities to arrive in the middle of nowhere—a landscape of mudflats, oil rigs, and sheep. Again, I feel it. Somehow, I am home.
PART 4: Mary Margaret
An American I am doing some movement exploration with in Paris says, “Deborah Hay… I am going to do a solo performance project with her… I think you would like her.” I’ve never heard of her, but I look it up, and after reading Hay’s biography, I read this on her website:
Introductory notes to A Lecture on the Performance of Beauty
I choreographed a solo dance, O Beautiful, in Spring 2002.
In December 2002 I hired a costume designer for O Beautiful and suggested the costume have a post–apocalyptic look.
In February 2003, after several performances, I decide not to perform O Beautiful in that costume anymore because of its influence over my dancing.
I continue a daily practice of O Beautiful through spring 2003. It becomes Beauty. I find a nice pale blue linen costume.
One day in late spring, I take off my clothes in the studio because it is very hot. I like the feeling of performing Beauty nude. It feels like the right costume for the dance.
I bring the blue linen outfit with me to London in June 2003. This way I have a choice to perform Beauty nude, or not, depending on how I feel in relation to the audience. At my age, it is not as if I want to perform without any clothes. The first dance on the program is my 40-minute solo Music. The audience is extremely receptive. After intermission, I step onstage in my pale blue costume, and ask for a volunteer from the audience. I whisper my wish that we walk upstage and that she is to undress me before returning to her seat. I hold that performance of Beauty perfect and complete.
I don’t feel like reading anything more, for now. The relationship described between audience and performer is the sweetest calling to my body.
In the next weeks I read more, and fall more and more deeply for Deborah Hay’s writing. I apply for the 2009 Solo Performance Commissioning Project, and my friend, Ben, is already going. There is an overflow of interest and my name is put on the waitlist…
Four months before SPCP 2009 I receive word that space has opened for me to participate. My process begins as I make my first true declaration as an artist and make my first case for support from community and patrons.
PART 5: SHANNON
Okay, so this is the meat of the story—the weeks with Deborah. But how to describe it?³
Of course there is the drama of making it all the way there to the top of Scotland—like any well worn travel story full of mishaps with the added comedy of being in a country where we speak the same language but don’t understand one another.
Then there is the everyday life of participating in SPCP in the ecovillage. We stayed in modest trailer-like homes. We met everyday in a hexagonal room with a skylight. We ate our meals communally, all vegetarian, mostly sourced from the Findhorn gardens. Sometimes we walked to the nearest town and ate at the bar. Sometimes we went to the North Sea, took off our clothes and jumped in. We still had the internet. For the first few days we tried to maintain our routines and responsibilities and then the grip loosened and we felt untethered.
We gathered in a circle read through the choreography of Dynamic the first morning. The next couple of days were spent mostly doing the practice without the form (this entails using Deborah’s improvisational tools without the choreography of the solo).
The practice is a series of impossible to rationally understand questions that you ask yourself as you improvise and try to change the way you perceive and react to what you perceive—Deborah says, It’s not what you do, it’s how you perceive.
WHAT DO YOU MEAN, HOW YOU PERCEIVE???!, I ask her at one point. I mean, we perceive with our eyes, ears, smell, touch, etc. I don’t get the how, we know how. . . what do you mean how?
She says, it’s a catastrophic loss of behavior. You want to shorten the distance between your perception and your dis-attaching to what you perceive. Not detaching. Dis-attaching. In order to dis-attach, you have to know where you are.
Along with this, you are trying to think of your whole body at once as the teacher and to not be seduced by what you physically can and cannot do. What if how I see while I am dancing is a means by which movement arises without looking for it? It’s anti-establishment behavior, she says.
Hmmmmph. I try again. And so on.
We proceeded to learn and practice the choreography to Dynamic, the very last solo she made for the SPCP, something she has done for 14 years on and off. She gives us feedback. Sometimes she is brutal. Sometimes she is generous.
Throughout the course of these two weeks in Scotland, the practice, the sea, the community, and the hexagon work in concert to create a seismic shift of sensation in my body and mind. Linear thinking stops making any sense to me. I feel the cells that make up the skin on the back of my body perceiving, like my peripheral vision is widening and wrapping around me. I can see and sense it happening to everyone else. The air changes. The colors intensify. I spend more and more time at the sea looking out into the expanse.
Part of me is afraid to leave Scotland and try to return to dance as I know it outside of this bubble. I’m afraid that I am experiencing a way of being and relating to my body that is not supported by much of the world that I exist within. I’m also afraid that this awakening feels connected to a devastating loss—“a catastrophic loss of behavior”—the striving to be something, get somewhere, show something, make something happen. The problem with desire is that it is too linear. The desire to be a certain kind of dancer, maker, performer, artist (successful! lauded! revolutionary! appreciated! financially sustained!) hangs tenuously in my nervous system —something that has served me and not served me at all. Which is trivial next to the question, is this kind of desire serving the world at all? If I stayed in Findhorn, I would have cut the thread. Two years later, as I write this, I feel it is a necessary lifeline that I maintain and question and maintain and question.
Deborah says, this is not a belief. It’s a presumption. The depth is on the surface.
And so I let it be.
On our last day in Findhorn, as we are talking about how we will continue to work with the solo (through an everyday practice and eventual adaptation of the work), on what seems like a whim, Deborah decides that she will change the everyday practice requirement from three months to nine months.
Throughout the following nine months, I change my mind a dozen times about doing the solo, adapting it, trying to perform, trying to get support for it or get it presented. I try adaptations, I try writing the solo, imagining the solo, conceiving a film of the solo. I maintain and question and maintain and question and maintain and question.
At this moment, I am deciding to let the adaptation of Dynamic live inside of me—the tenuous thread, the trying to stay interested and available while otherwise ambitionless. I will attempt to share that in a performance of Dynamic this weekend.
PART 6: Mary Margaret
Leaving Findhorn was proportionately epic—proportionate in relationship to the magnitude of possibility that I experienced during my days in Findhorn with Deborah and our group. It also felt like a sign (and a lesson).
On the morning of my departure, I overheard someone in the store say something about weather advisories, but it seemed the usual wind and rain. I wasn’t ready or prepared to leave yet, and definitely couldn’t get on board with travel logistics. I hoped the plans I laid months ago would gently carry me back into what felt like a world that I was NOT ready for. I had arranged for a cab to the train station that would shuttle me to another train that would get me to London where I would catch a plane to New York. I would make it to New York just in time for the wedding of two dear friends. This nic-of-time planning is a familiar friend.
The cab driver deposited me at the train station and drove away. It took me some time to notice that the station was utterly deserted. For a moment I considered that my driver had made a mistake, or, was he intentionally trying to strand me? One last lesson from Deborah about “What if where I am is what I need?”⁴ I look for clues. I feel I am in a very foreign land, and this takes time, time I realize I don’t have if I am to connect with my next train, and plane, and wedding.⁵ I am very aware that my heart is beginning to beat faster.
I barely hear a car engine and barely chase it down before it loops around the parking lot to head back in the direction it came. It’s a grey van. The woman driving rolls down the passenger window. She says she will take me to the police station, but no further. I’m not sure about getting the police involved, but climb into the passenger seat.
Sitting just inside the opened door to the police sub-station, the storm gathers outside and the minutes tick by feverishly. No one but me is in a rush. I need to play time instead of letting it play me.⁶ Finally the policeman presents himself and agrees to drive me to the next town to catch my second train. I have no idea how far away that is. Is it possible that the weather and policeman are intimate and will let us pass? Buoyant and live, and loose from my moorings. Willful trickery expands my perception. A general dissolving of agenda. “Ready. Fire. Aim.”⁷
¹ This is something Deborah tracks in terms of progress in her practice. 1) First there is the continuity of your continuity, 2) then there is discontinuity of your continuity and finally there is the 3) continuity of your discontinuity. It is the perfect analogy to the interaction of humans with nature.
² I quickly realize this is ridiculous. Deborah Hay is a New Yorker (Brooklyner to be specific) who lives in Texas and has traveled all over the world to many incredibly exciting and austere places. She has worked with some of the most brilliant performers, and I definitely do not understand any of what we do the next two weeks.
³ I did a lot of reflective writing in my blog at the time. Get the blow by blow here.
⁴ Hay creates a “laboratory” for her movement practice. In the lab, a plethora of questions are at the dancer’s disposal. These questions, “What if…” invite the dancer to dislodge themselves from their choreographed bodies. This particular question is more fully expressed: What if the question “What if where I am is what I need?,” is not about what I need but an opportunity to remember the question “What if where I am is what I need?” or “What if there is no space between where I am and what I need?”
⁵ I’ve heard Deborah say this time and again over the last few days. It is in the choreography, it is in the practice. Truly rewiring myself to allow the “whole body as teacher” takes time and I find I’m meeting time with fresh eyes. But here at the train station I feel two time signatures colliding.
⁶ Deborah’s syntax is all over my body. I can’t help the constant flow of questions and notes for the dancer. They are not even words anymore, just sounds, or gurgles inside. “It is all about how you play time,” she says.
⁷“Ready. Fire. Aim.” This is a secret weapon that Deborah Hay lays on us after several days, when we’ve begun performing At Once for each other. With all questions of the practice, and now the choreography as obstacle, some of us begin to be careful, and get lost in our thinking. This phrase, so short and dynamic, reminds us to continually launch and let the body notice the feedback.