Laugh Lines

Deborah Hay, Figure a Sea, 2015. Photo: Urban Jörén.

“IT’S A TERRIBLE WORD FOR A YOUNG ARTIST—creative dance; it’s oppressive.”

“I hope you can understand how absurd my practice is.”

These are two of the many very good lines Deborah Hay tossed off Saturday night on the stage of Zellerbach Hall, during a pre-performance lecture (a first for her and, no surprise, she nailed it) at Cal Performances in Berkeley. The occasion was her Figure a Sea, a 2015 collaboration with Sweden’s Cullberg Ballet.

Here’s a third: “They both happened to laugh a lot, and that helped me.” This in reference to John Cage and Robert Rauschenberg, whose art and thinking were an important part of her formative years in midcentury New York—which are, by now, synonymous with the formative years of postmodern dance. Talk about an oppressive weight for an artist—no one describes what Hay is doing now without foregrounding what she was doing in the 1960s (sorry). It makes sense that Hay also laughs a lot; how else to stave off being locked into your larger-than-life past?

Maybe making a ballet isn’t a bad idea, either. And Figure a Sea is most definitely a ballet, despite Hay’s ideas of multiplicity and uncertainty that are at odds with much of what the ballet industry churns out these days (insert predictable parenthetical about how dumb it is that the big American ballet companies have pretty much chosen to ignore the entire Judson Dance Theater crowd), and with apologies to the disgruntled audience members who trundled up the aisle once they, presumably, figured out their expectations were not to be met.

Fair enough. But the material of Figure a Sea is its dancers, and what they in turn make of their material, as much as anything else. And the majority of the work’s twenty performers (despite much more contemporary exposure than American ballet company dancers typically have) are shot through with ballet technique.

Deborah Hay, Figure a Sea, 2015. Photo: Urban Jörén.

This, and the size of the ensemble as it intermittently flocks, clusters, scatters, and grows still, lends Figure a Sea a different sort of plush and scope than other Hay dances I’ve seen. As Hay noted in her lecture, she one day had an epiphany that she was being “idiotic” in assigning a stage front to her dancing, and consequently ignoring as material “the space between these cardinal lines.” You see this space continually exploited and explored in Hay’s own dancing (not to mention her lecturing), or in master practitioners in her lineage, such as Juliette Mapp and Jeanine Durning, both of whom appeared in video clips while Hay spoke. The Cullberg dancers aren’t attuned in this same way; front still holds too much sway for them to consistently inhabit the strangest (most absurd?) depths of her choreographic practice.

Or perhaps it was just not so easy for me to see those depths in a large concert hall: While allowing for a grandness of shifting landscapes, this setting doesn’t love a close up. (Too bad: Strangeness loves details.)

Still, it was a pleasure to observe, from a remove, how these dancers constantly spilled over the proscenium margins of Zellerbach, noodling around in the exposed but dark wing space beyond the central stage design: white Marley and a bisected backdrop flooded by Minna Tiikkainen’s light grid. The backdrop’s central horizontal line was, of course, a horizon line; depending on how the light shifted, this looked like any number of northern land or seascapes, ever rich with impending snow. The simple stagecraft trick of that was an ongoing pleasure, altering how I perceived the dancers but oh so lightly. (Not so, disappointingly, the heavy shifts in Laurie Anderson’s score, which was best when silent and never as interesting as the initial murmur of the crowd before the house lights went down; I kept wondering how a real-time electronic wizard such as John Bischoff would have responded to Hay’s delicately shifting tides.)

When the stage grew very busy I thought of being on the far end of that horizon. Would I see any of this frenetic activity from there? What if, as Hay asked, “my past and future were now?”

Or there’s this: “The simultaneous experience of seeing and dis-attaching from what I see becomes how I see.”

The critics behind me at one point were kvetching about how the first part of the evening “should’ve been an optional” talk. But I found the pre-framing delicious, especially in its refusal to straightforwardly do the assigned task of explaining. I kept thinking of seeing the choreographer Sara Shelton Mann earlier in the week at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, as she engaged in her own preshow ritual of sorts, addressing the assembled audience members without a microphone, until someone complained that he couldn’t hear:

“You don’t hear? I don’t hear either. Well this is supposed to be subliminal. Never mind.”

Exactly. Or, at least I think that’s what she said. But back to that horizon line. And to a lone dancer bounding around in a field of white, pausing periodically to rise up on wide-legged half toe. And to Hay’s ongoing experiments in how she chooses to relate to time, and space, and perception. There is a figure. There is a sea. Other things are up for grabs.

Deborah Hay’s Figure a Sea ran October 22 and 23 at Cal Performances in Berkeley, California.

Claudia La Rocco is a writer and the editor of Open Space.