Austin choreographer Deborah Hay continues 'challenging the hierarchy' in dance
Choreographer Deborah Hay has been based in Austin since 1976. And this year, she is one of three resident artists at Texas Performing Arts on the UT Austin campus. The work she has honed during her residency, Horse, the solos, will have its U.S. premiere at the McCullough Theatre on the university campus Saturday.
Hay has never been conventional in her approach to choreography, and the COVID-19 pandemic forced her to maintain, if not even expand, that innovation, creativity and flexibility.
Hay was supposed to go to Stockholm to work with the Swedish contemporary dance company Cullberg, but pandemic shutdowns made that impossible. So, like many, Hay turned to working virtually via Zoom.
"I knew I could not choreograph a septet and not be in the room and see how space and see how time were used in the room, " Hay said. "So I thought, 'OK, I can't do this. I can't do a septet. I can do solos. I could look at one person through a screen.'"
What Hay had originally envisioned as a septet — a dance with seven people — became a set of solos.
"Horse, the septet was now Horse, the solos, seven different solos on stage at the same time. And that's when it really seemed to me to get very exciting," Hay said, "because I'm always challenging the hierarchy in the way dance is presented."
Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below to learn more about Hay and her work Horse, the solos. After its premiere in Austin, the piece — with music from Austin musician Graham Reynolds — heads to The Joyce Theater in New York City for a run in early February.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
You said risk and efficiency are some of the prominent themes in Horse, the solos. How do those themes play out in the work?
When I choreograph and I'm working with dancers, I need them to challenge the choreography because as far as I'm concerned, I hardly know what choreography is anymore. So if I set up a structure, I need them to challenge it. I need them to take risks with the understanding that they have an empathy with my work and they respect it and they're with it, but I need them to not be well-behaved, I guess, is one way I can put it.
And efficiency is really sticking to the practice that they're all doing and their relationship to the other dancers so that it's not extraneous. There's no extraneous material. There's risk and efficient. And they're together. They need each other.
In thinking about this work and the original go at trying to produce it, the pandemic came into play, and I'm thinking that risk and efficiency became very interesting themes to be trying to work out while the pandemic was going on. Tell us what happened in the course of trying to get this work produced.
I couldn't go to Stockholm to work on this septet. How was I going? I knew I could not choreograph a septet and not be in the room and see how space and see how time were used in the room. So I thought, "OK, I can't do this. I can't do a septet. I can do solos." I could look at one person through a screen. I can't look at seven. I can look at one, and I could give feedback on the material that I send them.
I didn't even own a screen. I mean, I have my computer screen. So Cullberg bought me a big monitor. ... So I was able to work with them on Zoom one to one in the studio. It was a form of acrobatics for a year.
We're speaking in the McCullough Theatre right now. I can see the stage. I can sort of imagine dancers in here and you and dancers working together. But you were removed in so many ways from each other. How did that feel to go through the process with them with these parameters?
It was difficult and interesting because Horse, the septet was now Horse, the solos, seven different solos on stage at the same time, so I'm trying to disturb the sense of hierarchy. Like, you're in the spotlight and everybody else is the ensemble. Trying to just challenge that notion on stage that one person is more, is the highlight.
And that's when it really seemed to me to get very exciting. When I recognized that, it became very exciting to me because I'm always challenging the hierarchy in the way dance is presented.
A few years back, you said in a previous interview, "I'm not terribly interested in making movement. Movement is the least interesting thing to me about dancing." I'm curious if you can talk a little bit more about that because I think most audience members might watch a dance performance and think it's all about movement.
First of all, thank heavens for my movement. Thank heavens for all of our movement.
It's the least important component in choreography for me. What's more important for me is how we perform. I always say that I am in the practice of performance, or I am in the performance of my practice. I am in the performance of my practice as opposed to doing anything because that gets too fixed for me. So instead of doing a dance, I am in the performance of my practice, of attention, of interest, of curiosity, of engagement, of relationship.
Audiences are just — I think they're working hard. I think they're really doing well in letting go of wanting to see what they want to see and being much more open. I find that everywhere, some places a lot more than in other places. But, you know, I want my audiences to be challenged. I don't want to hand anybody anything.
There are some people who may think about a dance performance and think that they don't "understand" dance enough to be able to go and see and experience everything that a choreographer or performers or the team may intend. Can you just talk to folks who may think that they can't access everything that a dance performance is?
I think it's very complex, mainly because I think many choreographers are catering to what's known. You know, it isn't a challenge. It really is showmanship. And, you know, in many ways that's great. And there's space for that. But I've spent most of my professional career removing any handles from the experience of getting it. If I could erase giving it the handles, then maybe they could have their own experience, you know, right there. And notice that it's changing from one moment to the next. And, you know, without having to fix on what it is they think they should know or do or feel or respond, etc.
I think of it as a political act not to want to get it even for the dancers, not to want to get it, you know, but to just notice how much is happening.