Dancing otherwise

Philipa Rothfield on experiencing the teachings and works of Deborah Hay

Deborah Hay

Deborah Hay

There are those who have seen Deborah Hay perform and wondered why others in the audience seem to be getting something they do not. A recent review of Hay’s solo, O; The Other Side of O, noted that “Australia’s numerous devotees appreciate her ability to be absolutely present in a theatrical moment” (Kim Dunphy, The Age, December 8, 1998). Even though I would count myself as one of these “numerous devotees”, I do understand why her work leaves some people unmoved. I have, at times, been unmoved. It has to do with looking, how one looks, and what one looks for. We watchers of the dance are used to the corporeal delights of kinetic display. Dance is, more or less, a kind of physical action, a nuanced flow of bodies in movement. What, then, are we to make of a performance which offers so few physical tidbits to its audience?

Hay’s performance work is totally stripped of dancerly display because she wants something else to shine through. That something is the bodily manifestation of an intense form of perceptual practice. Although some people might call it a play of consciousness, I think this detracts from the bodily aspect of her work. The meditational quality of her perception and the mantra-like status of her utterances should not lead one to think her work is not in and of the body. The title of Hay’s forthcoming book, My Body the Buddhist, gives an indication of the sense in which the body is seen to be the ground and source of her work. But it is in the context of her teaching that these matters attain clarity.

Whilst Hay is utterly committed to the experiment of her own learning, it is her teaching which has made the greater mark in the world. This is partly because of her own immersion in the practice that she tries to convey. She is not someone who knows so much as someone who tries and is willing to share in that trying. Over the years, she has worked with and on certain epithets—the body as 53 trillion cells at once perceiving; the whole body as the teacher; invite being seen; now is here is harmony. Whatever constitutes her own practice is offered to her students. In turn, they attempt to make sense of these thoughts in action. One of the features of her workshops is the effect of working in a group. Her community dances are often very large, and the experience of working with so many people creates a certain energy. Added to this is Hay’s exhortation to observe others as if they are similarly committed to the work.

This leads me to another issue: the question of truth. Hay does not claim that her utterances are ultimate verities. Rather they are strategic puzzles which may or not be productive. This rather postmodern approach—that practice is strategic rather than representing some essence—nevertheless aims towards particular goals with rigour. It is not a case of anything goes. Rather, that which is aimed at is a quality of perceptual engagement within movement (and utterance). There is an attempt to de-centre subjectivity (imagine your body is 53 trillion cells changing all the time), to multiply the number of perspectives which may attend movement, and to be utterly present, focused and open to inspiration wherever it may come from. Of course, no one manages this all the time. There are frustrations, disappointments, at best an intermittent focus. Hay herself claims there is nothing (no-thing) to “get.” Rather, we are all students of this kinaesthetic form.

That said, Deborah Hay does seem to maintain her own focus more often than not. Her dancing often inspires others, and the workshop sessions can become very charged. It is not particularly easy to keep with one’s movements, not to daydream, fantasize, let alone remain open to change at any point, whether initiated from the multiple sources in the self or inspired from beyond. Nevertheless, this is what she attempts in her solo work. No attempt is made to distract her audience from the perceptual, kinaesthetic, focal nature of the work, resonating Yvonne Rainer’s “No to spectacle no to virtuosity…no to seduction of spectator by the wiles of the performer” (TDR, T30). Having cleared the space of these expectations, Hay hopes to be seen dancing to another tune.

Deborah Hay Returning, A series of workshops held in and around Melbourne, including The Art of the Solo, Zen Imagery Exercises, Conscious Community Dance and Choreographic Theatre, October – November 1998

RealTime issue #29 Feb-March 1999 pg. 29

© Philipa Rothfield; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 1999