In the moment with Deborah Hay

Rennie McDougall: Interview, Deborah Hay (full version)

Deborah Hay

Deborah Hay

Deborah Hay

I’m a performer as well, and I’ve started writing over the last two years. I’ve done a couple of interviews for RealTime and I was thinking a little bit about how strange it is to be in this format where I ask questions and you answer them…and how kind of weirdly inappropriate that seems in terms of the way that you think about questions and the way that you are working with questions as means to potentiality, questions that don’t necessarily beg answers. So it could be more of a conversation, or we could find, meet each other tangentially maybe, talking about things.

Okay Let’s do that. Let’s get away from that, and find some reason to talk to each other, kiddo.

Maybe that’s an interesting place to start, just talking about questions, and the attraction to questions or how you’ve come to questions as a way of leading into working.

Mm-hmm. Is that a question? Sounds like that’s a question.

A proposition?

You know I feel like it’s more like a physical experience. A question feels very different than an answer, you know? Like an answer lands, right, and then it’s over. Whereas a question has a lightness to it. And I feel like it’s really easy for me to get heavy. Like, I think about the world, and I could just spiral downward. So dance is where I’m not allowed to spiral downward. I don’t permit myself to spiral…I don’t get seduced by the…the direction of the planet as I see it…and questions allow me to not have a direction. I think maybe for me it was a form of survival.

At a particular time?

I don’t even know when the questions started. Sometime in the early 80s. ‘Cause at first they weren’t questions, they were just kind of like propositions. But the question made it lighter, it lightens things up. Don’t take myself so seriously.

When you were speaking the other day [at your performance lecture at Dancehouse: a continuity of discontinuity], you were very clear about the emphasis on the “what if..?” being…kind of lightly curious.

Not so much lightly curious, but just light. I love that quote of Calvino, that there’s just so much weight in the world…for Calvino there’s so much weight in a novel by Norman Mailer, or John Steinbeck, that he does everything he can to subvert that weight. We don’t need more weight. We don’t need more weight in art, you know? And I see the kind of role-playing that so much dance has, the male/female bullshit. I mean Pina Bausch was a great choreographer, but I don’t need to see enacted women in slips and men in suits dancing out their role of angst. It’s just not interesting to me anymore. What do you think of Pina Bausch’s work?

I’ve never been a fan of it, probably for the same reasons. I find the repetition of those roles…

Roles. It’s just dead. I mean who needs it right? So the question lightens up the…

Something that I really appreciate is the idea of lightness, or even humour; there’s as much richness in that as seriousness. And it can be taken seriously.

A lot of people say they want to laugh in my performances, and that they can’t. Because you know they feel embarrassed or withheld. But it’s hysterical this whole thing. Isn’t it? It’s just weird. The body has so many potentialities, so many different aspects of our being. And dance is where I don’t take it all that seriously. I am so serious, you know, I have very little sense of humour outside of dance. The world brings me down. I live in Texas, and it just brings me down. But dance helps me survive. It’s my form of survival. It’s my form of, I say, putting myself here, it’s my form of political activism. Not what I do and not how I do it, it’s that I dance. That is my form of political activism. I dance.

It’s funny thinking about audiences and feeling like they can’t respond in a way that’s normal to them. There’s so much work that you’ve done in terms of articulating your processes and your… contexts for how you’re seeing your own work as well. It seems there’s a lot of work in terms of offering those alternate contexts as an observer, to watching dance. Have you seen that shift in people over time, that have maybe resisted that change?

Yeah, I have. I think audiences are slowly coming around. Certainly dancers are. I mean there was a time when I came to Melbourne where the dancers were so…seduced by their technique. They couldn’t get beyond it. Dance training, dance pedagogy really has changed. This group upstairs [Learning Curve workshop, Dancehouse and VCA], they’re fantastic. Wow, they blow my mind. They’re really clear. And that has to do with their training, their pedagogy. So dancers are changing for sure. And dance audiences. I feel like dance audiences are…I feel like they are not passive. They’re not sitting back. They really feel like they are reading this material. I feel like they’re looking. When I’m performing or my works are performing and I’m in the audience with a piece of mine, I feel like audiences are looking at my dance like they would look at art. They’re not goal-oriented. And that’s new. Maybe only people who know something about my work come to see it, but I don’t believe that’s true. I think there’s enough re-education going on in so many realms…

Goal-oriented is an interesting way of putting it, isn’t it? In fact there’s something else you said the other day which really landed with me quite hard, about “catastrophic loss”, about letting go of that mode of thinking about goal-orientation. And the word seemed so right, “catastrophic.”

We’re practicing it there [in the workshop]. “What if every cell in my body at once has the potential to be served by how I see?” Not what I’m looking at, so that the experience of seeing is happening here [in the body]. Imagine the catastrophic loss of former behaviour not having to be looking at, but to be served by how I’m seeing. What if I’m making that choice to be served by how I’m seeing, and not looking at. So that the experience of seeing is happening here and not out there. Oh my god!

Were you observing [in the workshop], or were you in the practice?

I’m practicing with them, mostly. I step out from time to time. And it’s a juggling act; it’s a huge amount of reprogramming. And who knows if it’s true or anything; it’s just noticing what happens when you choose to see differently. And it’s catastrophic loss of former behaviour, not to call looking at you ‘seeing’, but rather looking at you seeing. It’s fantastic.

If you observe a shift in people, is there a unanimousness about the shift, or does everybody kind of interpret…

You see everybody coming in and out, including myself. None of us can do it. You know we’re too programmed otherwise. I can see the shift. I’m sure they can too. The shift in and out. And I think it’s beautiful to be able to see that. I mean if everybody was always in, it would not be as interesting as seeing the work. The vulnerability. Even with Jeanine [Durning] in that film [No Time to Fly, Deborah Hay and Motion Bank]. You could see her shifting. She was very early in her practice in that film. I could read it. And that’s so beautiful to see the work. Staying in the question, learning from the body.

And that goes hand in hand with letting go of the achieving.

Oh yeah, yeah. So sweet.

I’m curious about the practice as a practice while you’re being an observer, or a practice as being an audience. Do you think of it that way, when you’re watching?

Well I set that up with everyone when we are audience for each other. We are choosing to see one another working with this question. It’s pointless to judge what anybody is doing because the material is so uninteresting in terms of movement; it’s really uninteresting. My practice as an audience is to choose to see you in the question, and knowing that everybody goes in and out of it. So that there’s no achieving anything. So that the dancers who’re practicing the performance, can be at peace with seeing the audience and not being judged.

These are your word: “the choice to surrender anything that wants definition.” I’m really attracted to that as an observer, and can see it, but I also really like the duality maybe of the language process, in terms of articulating your work and what you’re doing. How you’re amazingly clear about articulating these potentially indefinable things. Is there some importance in that counterpointed practice of not letting it be completely…swimming?

Deborah Hay, No Time To Fly

Deborah Hay, No Time To Fly

Deborah Hay, No Time To Fly

Yeah. I had very good editors early on in my writing process, who would return my writing to me and go, “What do you mean?” “What do you mean?” “What do you mean?” “What do you mean?” I would get pieces of writing that were black with cross-outs and questions. They were like wolves. But it taught me how to write. What I am writing is the experience of noticing the feedback from every cell in my body, so that’s “bblbdldlblkdlkdleleb,” and how do you then take that in to a linear thought? And it is so exciting. It’s so exciting to me to reduce it to just what it is, without the other stuff. Do you find that in writing? I love editing my writing, now. I just love cutting it out, cutting it in. Writing has become thrilling.

Were you always writing?

Oh no, I was not always writing. Writing started happening when I realised my survival depended on it. Because the way in which I’m working was not synchronous with the way people were writing about dance. Like to talk about my work as—if I think about Jeanine the other day—as attaching her right arm to her knee and crossing the stage on a diagonal…that writing does not help me. But that’s the way a lot of dance writers describe the movement. And so I realised I better start writing, because I don’t want to be remembered the way they’re writing my work. So I’m grateful for that, feeling so strongly about it and taking the steps necessary to pick up the pen. The power in that. And what I noticed, after my second book Lamb at the Altar: The Story of a dance, people who are critics and writers were writing differently, picked up that I was feeding them some other perspective to have a look at movement, and it began…it really was smart. I think dancers at a certain point recognise they better get smart, about writing our work. You know artists used to—I’ve talked about this quite a bit—in the 60s when I was in New York. The people who were writing about art were Don Judd, Dan Flavin, Robert Morris. The artists who were making conceptual art were the ones who were writing, were reviewing one another’s work and writing about their own work. So they provided art audiences with a frame for looking at their work that they wouldn’t have had otherwise. And dancers really didn’t start picking up the pen…Yvonne [Rainer] did. But most of us didn’t, not recognising the power of language until fairly recently. And that it helps audiences frame what it ism even if it’s one person who might read a dance journal. Or it helps reframe for audiences how else to look at dance. And there’s some great writing being done by dancers right now.

Has language for you always been integral to then the making of the work as well?

I’m in the studio and I’m dancing. Aftera while I start writing what it is that I’m experiencing when I’m dancing. So that the dancing informs the writing and then the writing informs the dancing, and then the dancing informs the writing. So is that what you said? Or is that what I said? I mean in other words the writing doesn’t come first. But it’s articulated because if I’m going to teach my work to anybody else I better figure out what the language is to transmit it to others. When I go into a studio with a group of people I am very clear about what I’m asking of them, and I’m not just saying, “Can we just try this?” By the time I’m transmitting the material to someone else my language is really clear, so that I’m not wasting their time. And I’m not wasting my time.

Do you mean both the language as in the questions and also the language as in the score [the blueprint of the choreography]?

Yes. And the language in the coaching. And the language in the directing…I feel such a responsibility—I don’t know why, maybe it’s from my parents or something—I feel such a responsibility not for dancers to wait around for me to figure something out. I feel such a responsibility to engage people right off the bat, not wasting their time. Waiting for me to come to some conclusion about something. So when I go into a place where I’m transmitting material, I’ve already practiced how to articulate that material. I go into a room and I’ll set up a propostion and go “1 2 3 Go”

In terms of the solo adaptation project as well, this transmitting of information to other bodies?

Which one’s have you seen?

I saw them in Melbourne. I saw Luke [George], Atlanta Eke, and Carlee Mellow.

I want to hear your experience of the solos.

The moments of real difference between them that I saw were in the decisions that were being made. There were fewer than I thought there would be, and they were very loud, like loud in the sense of like… [expansive gesture] from where the dance was. It was like all of a sudden, Whhhaa, over there…which was great. But I remember thinking that there was a shared physicality between them and that they shared a physical articulation, that I was curious about whether that was inherent in the information, or whether it was because they had worked together at the same time or…in what way they developed this way of moving that seemed similar to each other. Did you see when they performed in Melbourne?


In Atlanta’s [performance], she did a Q&A with the audience at one point, stopped and addressed the audience and asked them questions and held a forum. And it was so funny, so kind of like, departed.

I don’t remember the score for that, so I don’t know how that particular part might have come into the actual score. She’s pretty outrageous, she’s just pretty wonderful. I don’t know what the language was that she made that adaptation based on.

Is there something about language that’s attractive maybe because it’s kind of, it’s doing, well it has the potential to do two opposite things. I can land in definition or it can be interpreted in like multiple ways and that then is an instigation for transmitting the work to other people. It allows for both of those things to occur. Allows the clarity of transmitting information while also there being this space for huge interpretation.

I think most of my writing falls into that category, of both. There’s no one way. In other words, “What if I choose to be served by the space that I’m sitting in right now?” ‘Cause I can look at it as absolutely insane. I could look at it as “Why not?” I think it’s those kinds of push and pull—believe it, not believe it—the complexity of that, the absurdity of it, and the rightness of it at the same time, is thrilling to me. And in the form of a question it’s pretty safe right? It’s just a question.

And yet it can be so frightening sometimes, facing the questions. It can be so shattering.

Shattering, right.

Have you ever read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintainence?

I think I’ve started it a number of times but I never was able to get through it. Did you read it?

I read it a couple of years ago and, definitely had moments where I really had to work to get through it, but it’s interesting. He was an English teacher at a university, and somebody had said to him once, just off the cuff, “Oh, I hope you’re teaching quality to your students.” And that then begins questions for him about what quality is, and locating it in the space between things—that it can never be a thing, but it’s in the spaces between things. He goes through a deep spiral of questions that come out of that. And he gets to a point where he looks at some Zen writing and then looks at his own writing, and realises he’s in the exact same place. Without having intended.

Right. That’s where I feel about My body, the Buddhist. I’m not a practicing Buddhist but when I wrote down the major lessons I’d learned from my body while I was dancing, it really paralleled a lot of Buddhist aesthetic.

You didn’t know much about about Buddhism?

I just knew very superficial…But my body’s a Buddhist. Whoa!

I love the fact that this work, the realisation, what I’ve learned, I’ve learned from dance. I want to proclaim it, that my body is a resource for all of this material. That talk that I gave the other night, I’ve only given it once before, and it was a big dance conference in Dusseldorf. And there was a philosopher from Berkeley who was in that audience, who came up to me afterwards and said, “I have spent my…all of my years of research trying to understand what you are doing. You are doing it.” You know, I love that. That it’s dance where that kind of research can be happening. My body is where that research is happening.

Do you think about the work being historicised?

I don’t think about it much. Could you say more about the question, or what you mean?

About the embracing of the ephemera of this…the current ways in which we record history, meaning that they become static.

I think as long as I keep writing, I’ll be okay. I have read a couple of things recently about my work that were very exciting to me, in terms of the language, and they way in which people, philosophers, dance writers, dance scholars see into it. It really made me happy. I’ve had a few of those experiences. Not many. A few of them, it was great. Like I learned something.

What kind of things did they write?

Well I can’t remember. I can’t quote but…Oh I know, one term I just loved was something like a “variable constant.” Just rich, two words together. A group of people in Utrecht recently asked for permission to publish my score No Time to Fly, because they are publishing a book and they missed the deadline and they wanted to publish something as a kind of apology. They’d been talking about this book that’d come out at a certain time, and they published my score because they felt that within the score it left room for them to reassess what their sense of deadline is, what their sense of publishing is. So it was such an honour to be used in that way by these publishers. The language of the score gave them room to expand their notion of their response, what their responsibility was to make that deadline. So I mean that’s another…

Like the variable constant, the paradoxical nature of that. It’s almost a question in itself. It destabilises you in a way. Having to just wrap your brain around that.

And anything that adds to the destabilisation of our behaviour…

Deborah Hay, Dancehouse, Melbourne, 11 March

RealTime issue #120 April-May 2014 pg. web

© Rennie McDougall; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

22 April 2014