Deborah Hay's New Work for Dancers in Sweden Was a Long-Distance Creation

The pandemic forced the Austin choreographer to adapt her dance and even premiere for an audience of no one

Horse, the solos (Courtesy of CULLBERG)

Dance like nobody's watching – that's exactly what one contemporary ballet company did in Sweden this past spring. Stockholm-based Cullberg was set to premiere Horse, the solos, in collaboration with Austin choreographer Deborah Hay and composer Graham Reynolds, when COVID called the whole thing off. The dancers went ahead with the performance anyway.

It was not their first pandemic rodeo; the group had begun developing the piece prior to the global shutdown early last year. Hay's initial plan was to fly to Sweden in May 2020 and start rehearsals with the dancers while Reynolds finished up the score in Austin. Horse would premiere at the Gothenburg Dance and Theatre Festival that summer.

Plenty of time to flatten the curve.

Back then, Horse, the solos was just plain Horse – the septet. But as lockdown wore on, Hay's original vision trotted in a new direction. "I couldn't work with seven dancers at once and not be with them," she says. "Someone suggested I work with them as soloists instead, which is right up my alley."

As Horse morphed, Hay considered scrapping Reynolds' music altogether. "I loved his score, but separate from the movement," she admits. "I didn't want the music to lead the dancers by the nose."

Reynolds didn't take offense. "Deborah doesn't like what music does to dancers," he explains. "That hierarchical nature of which one is the boss – there's always the danger of music telling the dancers what to do."

A prolific composer and omni-genre musician, Reynolds has created scores of scores over the years, for everything from film to dance to opera. The process for Horse, the solos was more like that for a movie than a ballet, he says; it required similar adjustments between the cuts and cues. But unlike a film, where the music anticipates the storyline, Reynolds steadfastly worked against the beat to strike a balance between "juxtaposition and sync."

Two weeks before the premiere of Horse, the solos this past March in Stockholm, it became clear that Dansens Hus would be unable to open its doors to the public. There would be no one in the theatre: just the dancers, on their own, in costume, onstage.

In other words, he didn't let the music lead the dancers by the nose. So how did Reynolds manage to edit the original hourlong composition into seven out-of-sync solos that juxtaposed just right? "If it had too much intentional feeling, I just moved things around," he shrugs.

Stuck on this side of the Atlantic, Hay conferred with Cullberg over video. (They arranged delivery of a large flat-screen monitor to her Austin address.) The company's rehearsal director, Jeanine Durning, coached the dancers in person while Deborah watched from half a world away. "Jeanine and I had to get the performers to unlearn what they had learned from me," she says, "to really encourage them to make room for their own experience, their own technique, and own value as dancers – and human beings who dance."

When Texas Performing Arts Executive Director Bob Bursey caught wind of Hay choreographing in her home, he promptly offered her use of an otherwise empty McCullough Theatre. Cameraman Eric Graham was hired to film Hay's solos: "I told Eric, 'I'm not going to do anything that looks like anything.' I'd been practicing on my 4-by-6 living room carpet, which turned out to be an amazing coincidence!" (The Cullberg dancers would be required to socially distance onstage.)

Hay refers to these filmed UT segments as her "fake solos," simply the byproduct of her personal practice offered as gestural material for the performers. "At this point in my life, I really have no idea how to choreograph and I don't know why I would choreograph," insists the 79-year-old internationally renowned choreographer.

Hay came up through 1960s New York City's venerable avant-garde dance scene, first with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and then as a founding member of the Judson Dance Theater. She has duetted with Baryshnikov, been knighted in France, and was recently honored with a retrospective in Berlin. Major museum exhibitions have showcased her work, including the Blanton, where you can currently catch her performing in Suzanne Bocanegra's eight-channel video installation, Valley.

Deborah Hay (Courtesy of CULLBERG)

Hay has defined her dance career by marching to a different drum – or no drum at all. Her choreography is a philosophy based on the consciousness of the "cellular body," and her practice is a vehicular vocabulary for which there are no limits. "The intention of my work is to dislodge assumptions about the fixity of the three-dimensional body," she wrote in her 1994 book Lamb at the Altar.

Hay moved to Austin from the Northeast in the early Seventies and lived quietly for a decade before her dance trajectory took off again. Sometime in 1982, while renting a two-bedroom in Clarksville, she decided to convert the larger of the two rooms into a dance studio. "A lot of things happened there, people performed, I taught classes and workshops, it was where my practice was, and it was a beautiful space."

Hay called her studio Marshmallow Heaven, in honor of the white vinyl flooring she had carefully taped over the room's bright crimson carpet. It was a dreamy surface to dance on, she recalls: soft, but not too soft, just really sweet. Deborah decided to do a 22-night solo run in Marshmallow Heaven; the space could comfortably seat up to 12.

One evening, no one showed. Great, she thought, a night off. But before she could kick up her heels, something kicked up inside. Hay knew what she had to do. Right on schedule, she stepped into the empty studio, in costume, and performed for the full hour. "I immediately understood something about myself," she says. "I could call myself an artist. It was one of the most important experiences of my life."

Deborah shared this epiphany with the Cullberg performers this past March, when it became clear, two weeks before the premiere of Horse, the solos, that Dansens Hus in Stockholm would be unable to open its doors to the public. The company knew what it had to do. There would be no record of their performance, no one in the theatre to film or fiddle with the lights: just the dancers, on their own, in costume, onstage.

A few months after Cullberg's sealed Stockholm premiere, Reynolds hosted a screening of Horse, the solos in his Red House Studio in Austin. (The performance had been filmed once restrictions were lifted.) Hay spoke for a few minutes about the many obstacles that uniquely shaped this production and how it changed her notion of what a solo can be.

"It's so much bigger when you have seven soloists onstage at once, seeing each other and supporting one another," she says. "The geometry of the space becomes much more interesting than just the soloist who is in the light."

With its spare feel (thanks to Finnish minimalist lighting designer Minna Tiikkainen) and simple red costumes (by Behnaz Aram), Horse, the solos quietly articulates an intermingled feeling of absence and presence. The dancers graciously take turns stepping into the light, then back into darkness, connected by separateness. Continually calling each other into existence through movement, music, and silence.

"Strongly affected by climate change and the current world situation, especially in America," notes Cullberg on its website, "Deborah Hay's Horse, the solos is a meditation on survival, or even an exercise in survival, inspired by all that is unseen in a single blade of grass."

Horse, the solos will premiere for the public on Sept. 29 at Stora Teatern in Sweden, as part of the Gothenburg Dance and Theatre Festival. Both Hay and Reynolds plan to attend.

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Deborah Hay, Austin dance, Graham Reynolds, Horse, the solos, COVID-19, coronavirus, Cullberg, Texas Performing Arts, Bob Bursey

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