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Deborah Hay: Turn Your F’ing Head!

For the last few months and up until the new year, the Walker’s Interdisciplinary Work Group, of which I am a member, is organizing a variety of visiting speakers and events each of which is designed as research into how interdisciplinary matters engage individual practices in a variety of ways. As a member of the […]

For the last few months and up until the new year, the Walker’s Interdisciplinary Work Group, of which I am a member, is organizing a variety of visiting speakers and events each of which is designed as research into how interdisciplinary matters engage individual practices in a variety of ways. As a member of the IWG, I chose Deborah Hay to be our first speaker since she has had a profound influence on my life and has developed endless strategies to rely on the wealth of information our beings have to offer while “dislodging,” as she puts it, “old patterns.” Seemed like the right starting point to shake up our ways of operating and to open up the conversation. Deborah will be returning to the Walker in December as part of a mini-festival of her current work in relation to the 50th anniversary of Judson Dance Theater.

The IWG invited writer Susannah Schouweiler to sit in on our events, and write up her account of the proceedings. Here is her first dispatch, with many more to come:

The IWG is organizing eight meetings between now and December 2012; they invited me to attend in order that I might serve as a chronicler of sorts – I’m being allowed intimate access as a participant and witness to these private sessions, in order to provide an enduring account of whatever stories and the insights may emerge in the course of our conversations.

For our first conversation in early May, Walker performing arts assistant curator Michèle Steinwald selected our presenter: dancer and choreographer Deborah Hay, an artist renowned as much for her innovations in writing on dance and educational practice as she is for the raw inventiveness of her choreography.  A small group of us, just 11 in all, spent the day in informal conversation with her in the large conference room on the top floor of the Walker. It was a bit awkward at first – everyone knows one another, of course, and the vibe is collegial, but none of us know what to expect from these discussions. Deeply embedded though we are in a workplace driven by meetings, we’re, all of us, a bit off kilter by the lack of formal agenda or explicit objectives.

Hay and Steinwald begin informally – some introductions, a little small talk. Then Hay, a natural storyteller, begins. We ask questions, but mostly she talks for a while and we ease into her narrative with a little background; as the conversation sprawls into a second, then third hour, we begin to ask questions. She talks about her uniquely meditative style of practice and performance, and ultimately, her own idiosyncratic iteration and interpretation of “interdisciplinary” work.

Hay’s mother was a dancer; she says she can’t remember a time when she wasn’t dancing as well. She grew up in Brooklyn and recalls seeing every Balanchine premiere from the mid-1940s through the ’50s, and going every year to Radio City Music Hall to watch the Rockettes perform with a live orchestra (“those were the only times we’d make that train trip from Brooklyn to Manhattan,” she laughs).

She tells us about a formative experience in her teenage years, sneaking into Merce Cunningham’s closed rehearsals at the American Dance Festival in New London, Connecticut one summer. She describes hiding just out of sight, so she could watch their rehearsal sessions: “I flattened myself on the floor of the balcony so I could watch them practice – no music, just continuity/discontinuity and moments of synchronicity. I was there every night, completely mesmerized by what was going on onstage.”

By 19, she was attending classes in Cunningham’s top-floor studio on 14th Street and 6th Avenue in New York City. Cunningham, of course, is famed for his interdisciplinary partnerships with artists like John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol. Hay says, “Dance and art was enmeshed for us; we were partying together, eating together, making work with and about each other. There were openings every weekend, all of us seeing each other’s work. It was a very interconnected community, and I loved it – I was so comfortable there.”

But, she says, that very comfort began to chafe and, in the late ’60s, Hay left her New York life for a fresh start as part of a commune in Northern Vermont. She says, “It was the spirit of the time to go off and do that. I was one of its more passionate victims. I burned everything – all the records of my life – to get back to the land, leave all else behind.”

And still, she danced. In a tiny studio in northern Vermont, “where no one really cared about dance,” she practiced alone, daily. She says she aimed to reconfigure her perception of the three-dimensional dumb meat of her form; she wanted to create dance with and from what she calls “the cellular body” – all 385 trillion cells alive and conscious, performing individually and in concert.

She describes her routine:

“I’d lock myself in a room for one hour; I was going to listen, perform, and surrender to the dance that emerged from my body, from every cell simultaneously, each and every moment, for one hour. The rules I gave myself also included not allowing practice with anything accumulated from the day before. Sometimes, I spent the time with my nose in the floor, in tears.

I did that every day for six or seven years. And in the course of that practice I learned to surrender – what it means to ‘dis-attach.’ Over time, I learned to trust that my body had an infinite source of material, a new dance for me every day, as long as I stopped looking for it, attaching to its end. That wasn’t my intention, but that’s what I discovered.”

OF COURSE, I’VE HEARD THE PHRASE “POETRY IN MOTION,” even used it on occasion, but until Deborah Hay, I’d never really witnessed a literal exemplar. And I don’t mean it in the flowery sense you usually hear that cliché – hers is a raw sort of poetry, visceral, instinctive, beautiful in its authenticity but far from pretty. To see Hay dance is to be ensnared by sheer force of will and utterly focused, unstinting attention – on her movement, her every limb and gesture, her evolving situation onstage and, in every moment, on you, as well, the viewer, in relation.

Read Hay’s scoring for a dance, any score, and it’s immediately clear she never offers mere stage direction or choreography in her writing about the work, although there is that. Rather, her dance annotations are animate meditations, musical wordplay peppered throughout with little images, elucidating notes and pregnant fragments of poetry. None of these are static things but suggestive and inviting of elaboration — like conversational prompts.

Her writing about dance grew from a practical need to find a language with which to articulate the inchoate experiences, the nonlinear feedback from her body in the studio, for her own and her dancers’ sakes. “I thought, I’d better put this into some linear form, to give dancers a frame for what they’re experiencing.” She goes on, “Everything I’ve learned, I’ve learned from my body – from the experience of the ‘cellular body,’ and then from the act of squeezing that experience into a linear form. The feeling, the experience comes first; then there’s the naming of it, calling it into being. … Writing about it creates a space for others – dancers and audience – also to talk about it.” She describes this transliteration of experience into words in terms of looting, or of alchemy – the act of turning one thing into another.

She describes her practice rooted in the ‘cellular body’ as “playing awake,” saying: “I have to trick myself into being in this body, into noticing time passing, so that I’m there, in that room, in the experience. I can’t grasp it all, and that’s precisely the point — and I love it — because it means I have all this work I can do, in the name of dance, in the name of research, in the name of caring. I trick myself.”

Her “tricks” take the form of “What if” questions. She explains, “What if questions are playful, they don’t feel too extreme; the stakes aren’t high, they’re not invasive, and there’s room for endless variability of response. But it gets the imagination moving, the questions give permission to experience things in a new way.”

Some examples:

What if where I am is where I need to be?

What if every cell in my body could notice the feeling of time passing — could experience its own mortality, the sense of hanging on, then loss?

What if I were to dance as if every cell in my body invites being seen?

“I’m not attached to an answer,” she says. “It’s only about the question, about staying in that question and therefore staying in the body, noticing feedback. I’m in the practice of posing impossible questions – I can’t get it. I’ll never get it. Simply asking the question dislodges old patterns, gives me room to enlarge myself into a new kind of experience.”

Hay recalls a moment of epiphany, seeing herself on video some years ago performing with her head rigidly facing one direction; seeing that, she had a flash of insight: “Turn your fucking head!” And in subsequent practice, she did: “It totally changes your experience of what you’re doing, what you’re noticing as you do it — simply in the act of turning your head. How differently my body feels when I turn my head, when I also get information from over here! Once you decide on a direction, it edits what you see, what you perceive.”

As our conversation draws to a close — after hours of listening and asking questions, of her and of each other, the implications of Hay’s insights for worlds well beyond dance begin to resolve into view: what’s the tension between instinctive creativity and run-of-the-mill institutional hierarchies? How might we free ourselves in the moment, to see our tasks and operate differently? What might be accomplished in the act of deconstructing fruitless mores and habits? How could we changes our modes of working to affect more agility, more harmony?

Steinwald observes: “The idea of the importance of one’s direction, of ‘turning your fucking head,’ it’s also relevant to this notion of ‘interdisciplinary’ as being the spaces between – between front and back … maybe on the diagonal?” Steinwald wonders aloud: “What are we editing out when we work according to habit,” inside the comfortable boundaries of our usual workplace interests and obligations? What might we see in the spaces between if we only turned to look?

Isn’t this precisely the promise of true interdisciplinary practice? That invention springs from working in the unfamiliar zones between the silos of specialty, and doing so in such a way that one is, quite deliberately, always off-kilter. Zen practitioners call that fertile discomfort the “beginner’s mind.” Travelers know it for the anxious exhilaration that comes from exploring utterly foreign territory without a map or knowledge of the language.  Actually, it seems fitting that genuine discomfort, what Hay calls a sensation of “catastrophic loss of former behavior,” is the necessary companion of such preternatural awareness and sensitivity.  Seeking out real experience in the moment and genuine insight, outside the twin constructs of habit and preconception – that’s inherently risky business.

Susannah Schouweiler serves as editor for the weekly updated arts writing and criticism published on, as well as the site’s twice-monthly e-mag access+ENGAGE. She has also written for a number of outlets, including Ruminator magazine,, City Pages, The Rake, Minneapolis Observer, and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation’s Knight Arts blog.

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