Out of Many, One

Deborah Hay in a Large Group and Alone

by Robert Faires

She dances alone. And yet there are 17 people dancing with her. So it is when Deborah Hay, Austin's most recognized dance artist both within and without the city, performs her latest solo, Voilá. The piece is a distillation of the work my heart, developed by Hay and the 17 trained and untrained dancers who took part in Playing Awake 1995, her most recent large group workshop. Movements, ideas, themes, and sequences have been lifted from that dance, presented this past spring at the Temple Fine Arts Theatre of St. Stephen's School, and incorporated into or reworked for the solo piece. But Hay is doing more here than making reference to the steps of other dancers. She is embodying them as she came to know these people through the four months of the workshop. The large group workshop is an invention of Hay's which developed out of frustrations she experienced leading dance classes during her first years in Austin. In her book Lamb at the Altar: The Story of a Dance, Hay describes the origins of the workshop this way: "I move to Austin in 1976, and through 1979 I am frustrated by sporadic attendance in my dance classes. I create options to bypass this behavior. I schedule weekend intensives, three-hour workshops, group dances/not classes, instantaneous performances/not workshops. I clearly remember thinking, `I only want to work with people whose choice to study with me is a priority in their lives for months at a time.' Thus, the large-group workshop format is born.

"In January, 1980, it is a revelation to me when 38 people register for my five-month dance workshop scheduled to meet every weekday morning for two hours. In late May of that year, 37 people premiere HEAVEN/below, an hour-long choreographed dance, performed for the Austin community."

Since that time, Hay has conducted a similar workshop every spring. The number of participants has varied from year to year -- ranging from the teens to the forties -- but certain constants have evolved: a four-month commitment, two hours, five days a week; both trained and untrained dancers are welcome; every workshop concludes with public performances of a dance developed in the workshop; the name Playing Awake, a term which, Hay says, "makes reference to years of playing dead -- as in childhood games and as tired adults."

The idea of play is integral to Hay's concept of dance and the kind of movement she pursues in the large-group workshops. In it, she finds an alertness to one's place in and connection to all which is; to play is to be aware of one's body in relationship to other bodies, to the floor, the sky, the heat, and to move in concert with those and other things, not necessarily consciously but with a heightened sensitivity. Think of yourself in a game of hide-and-seek. Whether hiding or seeking, you are alert to yourself and every part of your environment. You are alive to the feel of the tree in front of you, how much it obscures your presence from others. You are alive to sounds which betray the steps of someone nearby, to movements within your field of vision. You are alive to the smallest of your own actions (lest they betray your presence to another in the game). That is some of the consciousness Hay is after in her dances and in the workshop.

In the workshop, participants explore movement in the context of "playing awake." Often, this means steering dancers away from movement that is what they expect dance to look like. Hay stresses that "alignment is everywhere," which she explains as being like "every cell in my body is hooked into a cosmic hose that grounds and elevates me simultaneously. Alignment in everything I see shifts my focus to include all of life intermeshing into one gigantic pattern of movement -- and I merge in its dance." Here, no movement is seen as inherently un-artistic. Some movements may be less interesting than others, less full of conviction, but they are not bad in a traditional aesthetic sense. If the movement is performed while playing awake, no matter how awkward or erratic its appearance, it is dance. In fact, Hay often finds herself "piqued by clumsy, slapstick, bizarre, plain, and daring movements and relationships."

These are frequently the kinds of movement which find their way into her large-group dances. They find their way in because Hay does not choreograph these dances in the traditional sense. Rather, she begins the workshop with a theme, often expressed in a meditative phrase such as "I am the impermanence I see" or "I invite being seen admitting dying in my living," and then leads the group in exploring movement which relates to that theme. It is an odyssey of sorts, a creative journey with a destination only dimly glimpsed in the four-month distance and full of unexpected stops along the way.

The workshop is in a way an odyssey of community, as well. It is a group of individuals, most of them strangers to each other, coming into close proximity for an extended period of time, engaging in activity which necessitates openness: bodies moving together, interacting, touching. These people must find ways to come together in order to find the dance. Because the core activity is physical, it can bring people together and forge very close ties very quickly. "At first," says Hay, "you may think, `I don't know anything about these people and yet I'm rolling on the floor with them.'" But that activity is very much what develops the bonds among the workshop dancers. "You come to know them in such intimate ways," the dancer notes. "It's not that I'm setting out to start a new standard for community, but it's the nature of the beast."

Thus, each performance piece that comes out of one of Hay's large-group workshops reflects the character of that workshop's participants. Actually, it goes deeper than that: The movements are inextricably bound up in the individuals who create and perform them. So, when Hay uses a large-group piece such as my heart as the template or inspiration for a solo piece such as Voilá, the movements or sequences she evokes from the earlier piece cannot be divorced from the dancers who originated them. "I have been watching these people with the eye of the choreographer every day for four months. I have this whole history present in this creation."

That is not to say that in her solo Hay is simply mimicking the movements of the dancers with whom she has worked so closely; she has them inside her, in her mind and heart, and she is processing her sense of them. In her movement libretto for her solo dance Lamb at the Altar, drawn from the large-group's Lamb, lamb, lamb,..., Hay describes certain sections as follows: "Her movements are influenced by the performance of an 80-year-old woman who is practiced at baton twirling...." "Her dance includes Brenda: plump, Puerto Rican, and proud. She is influenced by the memory of Brenda's baton twirling, vertigo, and disinterest...." "Her movement contains the memory of Panamanian Marta, a vision of simplicity and virtue...." Hay is not trying to do precisely what another dancer has done but to find some essence of that person's movement in her memory of it and evoke that in her own way.

"It's not imitation or pantomime," Hay insists. "It's sort of this real investigation of other people's movements." She begins by approximating the original activity, then she reworks it, striving "to clear out the specificity" of the original dancer and use her natural rhythm and way of moving to make the action hers. The process is sometimes lengthy -- it may take weeks of dancing for Hay to feel that she has been "freed up" from the specifics of her source -- but ultimately, the movement becomes Hay's.

And ultimately, the solo itself is Hay's, a piece distinct and separate from the large group workshop dance (hence the different title). Still, it remains of the earlier piece, as a daughter always remains of her parents, and there is thus the sense of the other dancers being with -- more accurately, within -- Hay as she dances alone.

Hay has been creating solo pieces out of the large-group workshop dances from the beginning, when she developed Leaving the House from HEAVEN/below. But she has not created a solo for every large-group workshop. Voilá is her first since Lamb at the Altar was created following Playing Awake 1992. What prompts her? Of the creation of Lamb at the Altar, she writes: "Poignant undefinable references arise from the choreography as I watch the public performances of Lamb, lamb, lamb, lamb,.... I want to taste every detail of the movement. I want to perform everyone's part, separately, and in all combinations. This deeper penetration into the physical, theatrical, and metaphysical body of the dance is where my solo begins."

From the desire rises the more prosaic activity of pruning and altering the dance to fit a single performer. "I have this group piece," Hay says, "that has been developed over four months. I know the material and the sequence of material. I start with the things I love most and favor most. Often, I throw this out later on. I know the dance must be shorter. I know the space must be carefully crafted. You can watch 17 people for much longer than you can one person. There are more things to look at, more things to hold your attention."

In addition, Hay takes the solo as an opportunity to build on what she saw as incomplete in the workshop piece. "There are times I would look at the video and see things that were not as fully realized as they might have been," Hay says. "I'll change things, change the order of things. At times, it's almost deliciously like a child's game -- and I've done this -- I'll write all the movements on slips of paper and then throw them into the air and let their fall suggest the order." She pauses before adding humorously, "Anything I can do to keep me from making decisions."

As she reshapes the piece, Hay continues to explore the ideas and themes which drove the development of the source dance. This frequently requires Hay to challenge herself as an artist. For instance, in Voilá, Hay incorporates speech into one of her dances for the first time. It isn't something Hay would ordinarily have been inclined to do herself. "I know I have an attitude about storytelling," she admits. "I'm very bored and disinterested in the form as it's been overused." But in this case, spoken stories had been an integral part of the source dance. "The second day of the workshop," she relates, "I had everyone write a monologue about something they felt passionately." The results of the exercise were so striking to Hay that she incorporated parts of them or representations of them into my heart. "These monologues had very much to do with this piece," and that was reason enough for the choreographer to set aside her lack of interest and attempt something new. The result, she reports, has been "very liberating."

Hay challenges herself similarly in the short piece that accompanies Voilá in her current performance. Exit is the first piece in her professional career that Hay has set to music. She has utilized music in previous pieces but never timed her movements to the musical progression. Still, when she encountered Samuel Barber's elegiac adagio from his String Quartet, the piece so impressed itself on her that she decided to attempt to set a dance to it. "It scared me to death," Hay says. "I thought, `What do you do to such beautiful music? What's left to do? Why do anything? Why not just let it be?'" So what pushed her to do it? "Because why not do anything? If something can make me so uncomfortable, then it probably means I should pursue it. I'm thinking about leading the next large group workshop outdoors, the whole thing, and the prospect just makes me sick. But if something bothers me that much, I feel I should do it. I was born to test the waters." Exit/Voilá will be performed Nov 9-12 at The Public Domain, 807 Congress.

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