Deborah Hay

Deborah Hay on her work with the Judson Dance Theater

Robert Rauschenberg and Deborah Hay at a loft party in New York, 1966. © Bob Adelman/Corbis © Corbis.

Deborah Hay is a pioneering choreographer in the field of experimental dance and one of the founding members of the Judson Dance Theater. Below, Hay describes her work in the 1960s with the Cunningham Dance Company as well as with Judson—a moment that signaled for her both a departure from her formal training and a movement toward what would later become her signature practice. These words are reprinted from’s 2012 package of interviews celebrating Judson’s fiftieth anniversary. For more from Hay and other participants in the revolutionary dance movement, visit the Judson feature in Artforum’s September 2018 issue, which coincides with the Museum of Modern Art’s exhibition “Judson Dance Theater: The Work is Never Done,” opening September 16 in New York.

WHEN I WAS EIGHTEEN, I went to the American Dance Festival in New London, Connecticut. Merce Cunningham was there that year and I used to sneak into his rehearsals at night. I would lie on the balcony of the theater where he worked with his company, watching them in silence. I was reconfigured on the floor of that balcony. I didn’t know exactly what was happening but it felt cataclysmic. After that summer I devoted myself to studying with Merce.

I studied with him from the age of eighteen to twenty-two. In 1964, I danced with the Cunningham Dance Company during a six-month tour through Europe and Asia. My husband at the time, Alex Hay, was the artistic assistant to Bob Rauschenberg, helping him with the company’s set production and design. Bob, Steve Paxton, myself, and Alex were very close then—we hung out a lot together. Before that tour it was proposed that I join the company as an understudy so I could travel with them. Fortunately or unfortunately, one of the company members left very early on, so I got to perform with the company during those six months, specifically in two pieces. After that tour ended in Japan, I never stepped into a dance studio again. I knew very clearly that I did not want to live that way—under the pressures that being in the company demanded. Merce was not an easy choreographer to work with and I think I agonized the whole time working with them—mainly because I couldn’t even get close to being as great as Carolyn Brown or Viola Farber, and I think wanting to be like them almost undid me. I was also working with Judson then. I knew that I wanted to do my own work—not necessarily that I had a strong aesthetic developed at that time, but I knew that my preference was to make my own pieces outside of the company structure.

Seeing the work of the artists who were involved with Judson really made me see dance in another way, especially in terms of working with untrained dancers. I think the artists were the ones who were bringing them in—Alex Hay and Bob Rauschenberg—and that was very attractive to me. It really shaped the beginning of my aesthetic in the second half of the ’60s. When I was at Judson, I feel like I was in the right place at the right time in a very democratic situation. I got to be in a lot of people’s work and present my own work and it was always accepted. I was very fortunate to be there.

I hadn’t really developed an artistic point of view yet. At Judson, I just did what I was told. I followed Robert Dunn’s weekly assignments like a dog. I mean I followed them, I did them, but I never really understood their aesthetic implications. My own aesthetic didn’t come to light until I left New York in 1970. It began to develop actually in the second half of the ’60s. I was making large group pieces, and I loved that if you put twenty people in front of an audience there’s so much to look at—you don’t have to even think about choreography much—you’ve got humanity before your eyes. It was so fascinating to me to see large groups of untrained dancers performing fairly complex arrangements of simple movement. There was nothing to hide behind—it was humanity unfolding before your eyes. I continued working primarily with large groups until 1996, figuring out what language I needed to develop and cultivate in order to “teach” dance without telling anybody what to do. That was sort of my goal during those years: How do you get a group of people dancing without telling them what to do?