Time Spent with a Demigod

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

"Saw Deborah Hay last night. I enjoyed it but I'm a little confused. Literally every choreographer/dancer I know speaks of her as if speaking of a demigod. I thought it was kind of interesting and thought she was amazingly precise and imaginative but...I don't understand, really, what all the fuss was about."


A friend sent me this email last week, after attending “No Time to Fly,” Hay’s first solo in six years.

Part of Danspace Project’s excellent “Back to New York City” series, curated by the choreographer Juliette Mapp, it does indeed show Hay to be in rarified demigod air; had a meteorite fallen on St. Mark’s Church Saturday night, when I attended, the contemporary dance world would be in need of radical restocking measures.

So, is all the fuss warranted? For me, yes. Hay, an alumna of the 1960s Judson Dance Theater collective, which helped to redefine our understanding of dance, is a singular presence in the arts. Watching her 50-minute solo, which was lit with shimmering subtlety by Jennifer Tipton, I was transfixed by Hay’s moment-to-moment concentration as she moved through various physical and imaginative states. Staying with her through the shifts in consciousness that underlie her own movement practice felt like a form of practice in itself: how to live an aware life. Hay, whose periodic vocalizations served as a sort of sound score (like her movements, these were sometimes tender and sad, sometimes earthy and silly), sticks to a wonderfully unadorned physical language. A delicate but decisive sideways step here, the almost invisible curve of a planed arm and tilted chin there. Everything seems essentialized, and Hay is so wonderfully, ridiculously present at every turn.

To put it another way, there seems no membrane between her art and her life. It was an honor to spend time with such a fully realized human being; better than being with a demigod, if you ask me.


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Comments [11]


I'm not sure if there's anything worse than being ignored. That and indifference seem like the most painful possible responses to putting your heart and mind out into the world. Perhaps sometimes we deserve to be ignored but it's pretty awful. And I'm not a proponent of big, but I do believe that performance could be a meaningful part of more people's lives than it is.

I just came across this section in the dance history text (mediocre and by Susan Au) that the students in my department read: "Deborah Hay gradually simplified movements in her dances so that anyone could perform them. Combining elements of meditation and folk dance, her pieces evolved to the point where the audience was superfluous and the dancers performed mainly for their own benefit and enjoyment." Again, I'm not sure I agree with it but I think that was exactly what I was wondering about. Perhaps what she is working on for her own benefit and enjoyment is particularly rigorous and subtle and beautiful -- so I prefer it to certain other kinds of dance that might fall into the same category-- but it leaves me as an audience member feeling a bit like a voyeur which is maybe frustrating particularly because so much of what she is exploring is presence and I want to be present rather than watching her be present. I want The Artist and Audience are Present.

It sounds like that is very much your experience, Claudia, of her work, like you find a particular practice of presence in the ebb and flow of watching her work.

I wonder if I feel four main experiences as an audience member watching dance: In one I'm like a voyeur (which has some presence because I have to actively move forward and watch). In another, I attune so closely with the performer that I feel like I am having their experience rather than watching it. In a third version, I am really myself meeting the performer. And in a fourth, the performer is "entertaining" me or manipulating me and I feel passive.

Maybe art is really just another way of saying "playing with presence."

And Brennan, I keep wanting to respond directly to some of your thoughts and then my brain short-circuits! It's very rich.

Apr. 21 2010 12:17 AM
Claudia La Rocco from Arizona State University

There are worse fates for artists than being ignored, no? And virtues to staying small - to go back to the sacred, think of the differences between the Shakers and megachurches. I'm not a religious person, but if I were I suspect I'd be hanging out with the nearly extinct Shakers on their big old apple tree farm. (A ridiculous comparison, I know - but why is our default position always to equate big with good/successful?)

Aynsley and Brennan - you both seem to have really specific definitions of presence. Maybe it's worth considering it as a spectrum, not a fixed point?

Apr. 19 2010 11:59 PM

Yes! Art is personal and sacred. So to tease out (and not get anywhere) some of my thoughts/questions....

Maybe because it is so deeply both of these, I don't want to feel like those facts are advertised. Being self conscious about these as artist or audience maybe lessens the truth. (Marina sitting in the middle of MOMA highlighted by big spot lights and--at least at the end of the day on Monday --looking almost plastic and excruciatingly fixed does not feel present. It feels like an extreme comment on present --a commodified present?--at the expense of actual presence.)

Maybe there's work that goes so personal and with such integrity that it turns inside out and reaches back out. And then there's work that just stays personal. It is an incredibly fine line between the two, dependent on both artist and audience member. Perhaps our performance audiences stay small and composed of other artists because we don't often enough allow the work to reach back out.

OR maybe as a culture we don't value such personal deep plunging and integrity and we don't imagine that the sacred could appear on a Saturday night or a Monday afternoon. So we don't have audiences or our general audiences don't know that they too are part of the picture--their own practice of observing and participating is necessary. So sometimes (and especially upstate I feel this) I want to advertise these facts myself. I want to scream, "These people are not just frivolously running around playing at 'art.' These people are looking at the very nature of experience, at the very nature of your life." And I start to shake and want to cry because instead of welcoming and supporting these practitioners and edge-explorers of life, we sometimes ridicule them or, even worse, ignore them.

Apr. 10 2010 04:52 PM

As always, I am bit late to the game. All this was so great to read as I continue to remember and relish Deborah Hay's solo.

I look forward to the Marina A. outing and discussion, as there is a lot of resonance with so much of the work the Pclub has been addressing lately (Sehgal, Hay, and yes, even the Wooster Group).

@Evan: Hope we can have that discussion about the "anit-ephemeral" sometime. Soon. Very invested in this question. I am not so sure that memory, which is where performance lives and may be the actual medium of so many of these (post-medium) contemporary practices, is all that ephemeral.

I also think it would be productive to press against words like ephemerality and "presence." Not only to interrogate the fetish for these words in the culture industry (although the circulation of these terms is a sure sign that someone somewhere has been able to make commodities out of these practices). But also to ask what what these words mean now and how they might signify differently across history and geography. In contemporary America, to value presence seems to me to be a rather treacherous enterprise--our current economic order demands a kind of continual present moment (the now) and insists upon ephemeral interactions (buying and selling fictitious capital)--a temporality that makes it hard to have history and impossible to collectively imagine a better future. What does it mean to claim/work with these terms today in our work?

Apr. 10 2010 01:32 PM
Claudia La Rocco

Hmmm ... what makes it a selling out? Couldn't one say art is also personal and sacred?

Apr. 10 2010 01:20 PM

Still not allowed to comment since I"m not done grant writing! BUT I look forward to the Abramovic discussion because both she and Hay raise questions for me about the relationship between performance and meditation. I think the two forms are deeply related if not the same thing. And I am personally obsessed with this side of performance. But (perhaps like your frustration with art world talk of performance) I also start feeling a kind of protectiveness of meditation... Abramovic sittting in "The Artist is Present" is not so different from what zen teachers have been doing for centuries. It takes place in a different setting and context which perhaps opens eyes differently but it almost feels like a selling out of something so personal and sacred. Hay's work feels more subtle and gentle but I still wonder about meditation on display...

And I think I may disagree with everything I've just written!

Apr. 08 2010 07:37 PM
Claudia La Rocco

@Martha: I do love that idea of there being no beginning or end to art, as you write -it's especially present in Hay's work, and is another way of thinking about the ways in which dance isn't so ephemeral.

Actually, it's there in the work of so many artists who have stayed true to a practice. I realize that I used the exact same phrase about a lack of membrane in an interview I did with Simone Forti in the latest Brooklyn Rail:

Oops! But it's so true!

Apr. 05 2010 04:18 PM

I hadn't ever seen Hay before (although like the rest of you, had heard about her for years -- and was a bit afraid I'd been death-kissed), but I did find her mesmerizing, every movement held me and I loved the surprises, subtle though many were. I did a review of the piece for Dance View Times...

Apr. 01 2010 07:02 PM
Claudia La Rocco

also .. I think there's no should or shouldn't when it comes to what you think when you watch. It is what it is.

Apr. 01 2010 06:31 PM
Claudia La Rocco

Please don't be frustrated with yourself! If I had a dollar for every Genius Artist whose work leaves me cold, I'd be typing this from my new Apple iPod (did you see the dual NYT review? Read it last right after I first read your comment, and it made me laugh to think of the two opposing opinions sitting next to each other the way our takes are here:

I didn't see the work as hesitant or detached so much as playing with the in-between emotional, psychological, etc. states we move through all the time while going from point a to b. Most of the time we pay so little attention to those in-between places; it felt luxurious to spend an hour in them.

It's interesting to hear different takes on dance as ephemeral or not - please tell me more about the anti-ephemeral idea. Who is it who wrote that essay on dancers' bodies being "mobile archives"? Great.

One other thought, having now read your post - going in with high expectations never fails for me ... whether in art or romance, it's always the kiss of death.

Apr. 01 2010 06:30 PM

Unfortunately, I wasn't transfixed at all. Watching Hay was frustrating and rather exasperating for me, and I continue to be frustrated with myself because I'm not grasping the brilliance of Hay that everyone else admires.

I thought her performance was distant, detached, and hesitant, though I seem to be in the minority on this. I respect her exploration of various states of consciousness, but throughout the performance I found myself occasionally trying to internalize her movement and think about how it would feel in my own body - it felt awkward and unnatural, and maybe that's why I became so frustrated watching her (maybe I shouldn't have even been thinking about this during the performance).

Hay's exploration of the ephemeral nature of dance is interesting, but I'm not so sure I agree with it (in fact, I know a choreographer who believes that dance can be "anti-ephemeral"). Dance itself can be fleeting, but its impact can be far from it. More on this in the link below.

Mar. 31 2010 07:57 PM

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About Performance Club

Open to everyone, the Performance Club is a freewheeling conversation about New York performance of all kinds, from experimental theater to gallery installations to contemporary dance. We go, we talk (online and at bars and cafes, with artists and amongst ourselves), we disagree and, sometimes, we change each other’s minds.


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