'Match' Maker

Deborah Hay's latest dance leads to a new start

Deborah Hay
Deborah Hay

Two years ago, Deborah Hay was ready to quit.

She was ready to give up dance, give up choreography, abandon the art form to which she had devoted her life and in which she had made pioneering contributions. Not because she had tired of it after four decades in the field, certainly not because she had nothing left to discover about dance or say with it. She was worn down by the grind of getting the art out there and trying to make a living as an artist, of the relentless self-producing and self-promotion, the hustling for gigs, the begging for support, the letters, the grant applications, the handling of a thousand, thousand details in order for a performance to happen: securing the space, finding designers, negotiating schedules, informing the press, printing fliers, etc., etc., right down to taking reservations and selling tickets.

Just because you've received a Guggenheim Fellowship in choreography, just because you're praised in The New York Times, just because you're recognized as an influential figure in contemporary dance, just because you dance with Baryshnikov, doesn't mean everyone's falling over themselves to help you make dance. As with so many independent artists, most of the responsibility for getting the art out there fell on Hay's shoulders. And despite her many accomplishments and reputation, it was a constant struggle that never got any easier. And as with so many independent artists, it burned her out to the point that she was ready to quit.

Then Hay had an idea, an idea for a new work. What if a group of dancers were given a set of instructions, but each dancer was free to explore those instructions in as individual and unique a manner as possible, not simply in terms of movement but also in terms of their uniquely individual perceptions of time? And what if there were solos for each of the dancers, but the solos were shifted among the dancers for each performance, expanding the exploration of individuality in response to this set of instructions? And what if, after performing this dance, each dancer went off alone for three months and created her or his own solo version of the full dance, and then all the dancers reunited to perform the dance again along with their solo adaptations?

Well, as often happens with artists, the idea intrigued her enough that even as burned out as she was, she wanted to pursue it. Hay decided to make one last big push. If she didn't find any support for this, she would take it as the sign that it was time to walk away from it all.

That dance was The Match, which is being performed, along with various solo adaptations of it, this Thursday through Sunday at the Off Center. As it turned out, Hay found what she was looking for – and more. She was accepted by the Joyce Theater in New York City as one of six artists-in-residence at its Joyce SoHo space, for which she was given 240 hours of free studio space to develop the dance. She was able to secure four experienced, extraordinary dancers, drawn from New York, London, and Australia, to collaborate in its creation. And she had the Danspace Project, an organization that supports the work of independent experimental choreographers, agree to produce its premiere at St. Marks Church in New York City in February 2004. That premiere prompted some radiant praise for the dance (in The Village Voice and The New York Times, among other publications) and for Hay, who is, argued Lisa Kraus in her DanceInsider.com review, "a National Living Treasure." Seven months later, Hay and company were honored with a BESSIE, aka the New York Dance and Performance Award, for "a wondrously strange and impermanent meditation on disintegration, exploring realms from the ordinary to the preposterous by an interchanging cast of four characters."

<i>The Match</i>, original cast
The Match, original cast

About a year ago, Wally Cardona was ready to quit.

The Juilliard-trained dancer and choreographer was ready to give up his place in The Match, ready to abandon his work with this illustrious, revolutionary choreographer – and the only person to have ever written him a fan letter (a decade earlier, when he had been dancing with Ralph Lemon) – not because he didn't like her, certainly not because he had nothing left to learn about dance from her. He just wasn't getting it, wasn't able to deliver what the choreographer wanted. And what he was doing, Hay recalls, made him sick.

In a way, what Hay was asking of Cardona and the rest of her select band of high-octane dancers – Ros Warby, Chrysa Parkinson, and Mark Lorimer – wasn't so difficult. In fact, the fundamental choreography took Hay a mere three days to teach to her cast. It was built around activities almost ridiculously simple and direct: trotting around the space, looking in a specific direction, speaking gibberish, being still. Sounds easy enough. But the level of difficulty wasn't the point, and it wasn't what was tripping up Wally Cardona. These simple activities, which Hay spent some eight months composing into a dance, were exercises that she envisioned as "invisibly bind[ing] the dancers to the material by establishing a mental, emotional, and bodily rigor that is visible in performance."

This wasn't a dance that could be conquered through technique, no matter how masterful. Rather, it required the dancer to surrender technique, to give up that practiced, conditioned, in-your-head approach to dance. "Get out of your head," Hay would repeatedly remind her performers, redirecting them toward expression of the choreography that was born in the whole body, by which Hay means every cell. All 50 trillion or so of them.

For years, Hay has applied this cellular philosophy to her dance work. She readily acknowledges the impossibility of experiencing the world through all the cells in the body and even the absurdity of the notion. But she finds it a supremely useful means of expanding one's perceptive capabilities and of seeing possibilities in dance as well as life. "What is choreography?" is the ongoing question in Hay's work, and she seeks not a single, defining answer but as many different answers – 50 trillion! More! – as she can fit into a lifetime.

In The Match, Hay pushed her dancers toward their own perceptive impossibilities, such as: What if it were possible to experience the uniqueness and originality of every moment? To respond to such a question required that they let go of all those preconceived notions of how to construct a dance, to let go of training and habits and let the dance inside the body, inside all those cells, come out in its own original, unique way – not just once, in an artistically satisfying way that would get set in rehearsals and then re-created in performance, but every time The Match was performed.

<i>The Match</i>, original cast
The Match, original cast

That kind of letting go – of training, of his whole artistic identity – and remaining open to the moment, all the time, every time, must have felt like an impossible challenge to Cardona. But he stayed with it and, in time, made breakthroughs that brought him closer and closer to an understanding of Hay's approach.

By the time The Match premiered, Cardona clearly "got" something. In her review, Lisa Kraus describes a solo of his as a "a star turn in that his means are stripped way down and he makes much from little. His face, hands, and small shifts in balance tell the whole story. Cardona acts eyes wide, as if he is being acted upon in extreme ways. It is utterly believable."

In an even more telling observation, Karinne Keithley wrote on OffOffOff.com, that "Cardona danced a beautiful nothing solo at the end – literally, I think the score was about doing nothing, or very little. But even in the simple economy of gestures, gradually standing up a bit more, a bit more, there was a kind of hum of activity in him. Maybe it was all those cells standing about with their cellular fingers on their cellular noses."

The cells have continued to hum – and to divide. Following the New York premiere, each dancer began a solo adaptation of the quartet, in which they drew from their sensations and memories of the dance, as well as fragments and details from the choreography. Hay was explicit in having them work apart for three months, dancing the work every day during that period. Again, the idea was not to duplicate what had been but to allow each solo to evolve into as personal and individual a work as possible.

Hay created her own solo adaptation, "The Ridge," which she performed last fall at the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art's Time-Based Art Festival, along with the adaptations by Cardona ("Ding") and Warby ("The Pitcher"). She had not seen them performed in full and was pleased and excited by what they had done with the work. It also made Hay eager to return to the quartet and see how it would be changed by the performers' solo investigations.

By the time this sees print, Hay will have learned how The Match has evolved over the past year. But Austin audiences will just be getting their first look at the quartet – and with a significant change in personnel. Wally Cardona was unable to make the trip to Texas, so Scott Heron will be joining Warby, Parkinson, and Lorimer. For the Austin performances the company will perform the quartet and two solos each night.

However, the dance won't stop here. It will continue to tour, to Houston next week, London and Nottingham, England, in May, Montpelier, France, in June, and Paris in October. And in September, The Match undergoes another adaptation, this time into a work of theatre. In the months following the New York premiere, Hay scored the dances, as she always does after a premiere, and in the process realized the piece would make a fascinating play. So the Rude Mechs will take The Match's invisibly binding exercises and from them create a theatrical piece that will premiere this fall.

As if all this activity with The Match weren't enough, Hay says that she is booked for the next year and a half. At long last, getting the art out there is not such a struggle. With people coming to her instead of the reverse, it's the first time in her long, illustrious career that Hay has considered herself a "success."

A new work. Rewarding collaborations. Support. Acclaim. Awards. Tours. "Success." And to think, she almost quit.

The Match and Solo Adaptations will be performed Thursday-Sunday, Jan. 13-16, 8pm, at The Off Center, 2211-A Hidalgo. For more information, call 450-0456 or visit www.danceumbrella.com. They will also be performed Friday and Saturday, Jan. 21 and 22, at DiverseWorks in Houston. For more information, call 713/335-3445 or visit www.diverseworks.org.

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