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Deborah Hay and The Gift of Experience

Upon entering Washington Hall, audience members at Who’s afraid of Deborah Hay? were directed upstairs to the balcony overlooking the performance space, and handed both a program and a fortune cookie containing a Deborah Hay quotation. Mine was “What if there is no space between where I am and what I need?”

Shannon Stewart performs Deborah Hay’s Dynamic
Photo by Jeff Huston

Hay was one of the Judson Church Group, the radically experimental and influential artists of the 1960s. Her experiments continue today in the Solo Performance Commissioning Project, in which performers work intensively with Hay to learn a solo she has choreographed (with the choreography sometimes being of ideas rather than specific dance steps). They then commit to working on the solo daily for nine more months before performing it, in the process adapting and putting their own personal stamp on it. As the culmination of this process, Shannon Stewart performed Dynamic (2012) and Mary Margaret Moore performed At Once (2009).

As Hay worked with performers, she was well known for pushing them to avoid habitual behavior, and instead respond to their surroundings and the input of their senses with more immediacy, less hesitation and planning. She challenged them with questions like the one in my fortune cookie, and “What if how I see while I am dancing is a means by which movement arises without looking for it?”

Before the performance even started, Hay’s focus on being open and responsive to one’s senses had me hyper-aware of what I was seeing and experiencing, and how every person there was having an individual, different experience. At the 7 PM performance, the windows of Washington Hall were open, evening light and sounds streaming in, creating an airy spaciousness; a look and soundscape that would surely change dramatically for the 9 PM performance.

Before solos started, both Stewart and Moore danced through the performance space below, emerging and disappearing from view. Setting the tone for what was to come, Stewart’s movements were often bird-like, light and quick, and, like a heron, her long limbs were alternately ungainly and supremely coordinated. Her movement was enhanced by her costume of shiny black shoes, black leggings, and a black, long-tailed vest with waves of sewn fabric suggesting feathers. Meanwhile, Moore’s movement was calmer, more weighted; she frequently paused and observed the space. Her workman-like coveralls likewise supported her different movement quality. From any vantage on the balcony, some part of the performance space was blocked from sight, changing what dancing was seen by each audience member. Stewart and Moore flipped a coin to decide who would go first, and directed the audience down into seating in the performance space. This further emphasized how individual each person’s experience, and the experience of each performance must be. At this performance, Stewart danced first; it would have been a very different evening if Moore had began it.

Stewart was heard before she was seen. People chuckled or groaned uncomfortably as the miked sound of her chewing something crunchy filled the air. She emerged with her mouth still full, looking slightly surprised that she was already on stage. As she danced, her bird-like quality continued, if a bird can be a bit bashful and convey a wry humor. For much of the beginning, she moved around the space, almost settling down, but not quite, as if she couldn’t find the just-right spot to relax into her skin. Gradually she came into the space with more solidity, moving with a specificity of gesture and focus that suggested she was navigating her way through a complex environment invisible except to her—though the  detail with which she did this almost made it visible. Later, as she high-stepped around the space, her movement and costume also suggested the master of ceremonies in an old-fashioned circus. While singing (still miked) she disappeared up a stairway, and emerged up on the balcony, having exchanged her vest for a loose blue top. She stretched her arms overhead, creating one of the most striking images of the evening (for me), as she was perfectly framed by the light of the arched window behind her. As thrilling as this moment was, I was intensely aware that it was a complete accident of where I was sitting, and wondered what moments I didn’t see that might have delighted others audience members.

Mary Margaret Moore performs Deborah Hay’s At Once
Photo by Jeff Huston

In contrast to Stewart’s wry humor, Moore’s solo was contemplative, even melancholy. She entered with a heavy, hesitating step, then stopped, her mouth quivering as if about to speak, yet unable to. Her eyes glistened and she appeared on the verge of tears with the effort, until she was able to bring forth a wordless song. Her movement became more secure, yet throughout she appeared to have a burden to deal with, consider, and at times struggle against. At one point she squished into a corner and undid the top of her coverall to briefly reveal a surprisingly delicate white lace top. The mood lifted momentarily, as with a smile she spritzed the air around her with an imaginary spray bottle—perhaps she found spray repellant for what troubled her? With her lace top again revealed, she finished by singing while stepping in place, each step ratcheting her arms overhead until her fingertips met. Her song ceased as her arms fell, sometimes to cover her eyes, sometimes completely dropping with a moaning sigh. As she repeated the sequence it seemed both a moment of defeat, and a moment of victory as she found the strength to bring her arms up yet again.

Very often, the focus in dance is on the choreographer as the architect and brains of a work. The generosity of Hay’s choreography is to foreground both how a performer is also the creator of a dance, and then how an audience member creates it anew in his or her experience of watching it. Stewart and Moore are both talented, thoughtful performers who aren’t afraid to bring their individual perspectives to bear on their work. It was a privilege to see them in material they have delved into so deeply.

Whose Afraid of Deborah Hay travels to Conduit in Portland April 18 and 19. Learn more about Deborah Hay here, Mary Margaret Moore here, and Shannon Stewart here.