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Deborah Hay in Philadelphia
Nicole Bindler, Programs Coordinator at Mascher Space Cooperative in Philadelphia, worked with thefidget space and University of the Arts to create a week of activities around the choreography and teaching of Deborah Hay: a festival of solo performances spanning 15 years of solo commissions, a week-long workshop for Mascher Artists-in-Residence and UArts students, and Hay’s “Lecture on the Performance of Beauty” at UArts. Gregory Holt, workshop participant, and Nicole Bindler respond to the week of events.
IN THE STUDIO, OUTSIDE THE STUDIO
As we hear echoes of controversy over Hay’s work Blues (2012) at MoMA, witness the disruptions and hardship caused by Hurricane Sandy falling along entrenched social divisions and prepare for the national election on the first day of our workshop, the political significance of our practices–often private, often on view for ‘insider’ audiences–is insistently present.
We talk about the dance studio as a ‘bubble’/’laboratory’ but we are also critical of the idea of a ‘safe space’ with an illusion of autonomy from social conditions, from pre-choreographed behaviors and frames of seeing. As Deborah continually reminds us, “I have to be here to choose to ask the question: ‘What if I dis-attach?'” and also “No one can get it. No one can do it.”
We re-purpose a quote from Judith Butler that comes up, considering “choreography (formerly morality) [as] neither a symptom of its social conditions nor a site of transcendence of them, rather [as] essential for the determination of agency and the possibility of hope.” Hay’s never-meant-to-be-achieved practice is not a surrender or utopia–the question is how does asking the question change the concrete experience of performing?
The students continually ask how this perceptual work in the studio could have relevance in the “real world.” Deborah insists that she doesn’t do this practice at the grocery store, rather that dance is where she practices relationship.
What would happen if I allowed my senses and perception to be this open out in the world? I think I would go mad. I practice for an afternoon imagining that every person and object in my visual field is inviting being seen. It’s a Pee Wee’s playhouse, where glasses, books, cars, windows spring out of the landscape and scream “HI!” But there’s no on/off switch. For me it’s a modulation of the senses, the widening and narrowing of the aperture. Sometimes it’s a conscious shift, sometimes the body takes care of it for me. The body takes care of me.
CATASTROPHIC LOSS OF FORMER BEHAVIOR
Deborah says: “How do I recognize my choreography? 1) impossible to realize, 2) embarrassing to “do”, or, idiotic to contemplate, 3) maddeningly simple.” She also says she can recognize her work when she sees a: “self regulated transcendence of [the] choreographed body.”
The risk of idiocy arises from the juggling required to perform her work. There are simultaneous, parallel universes of perceiving one’s “whole body the teacher” and a relationship to space, time, others. It’s an impossible multiplicity. But there is a delight in the attempt to juggle these tasks, a delight in the embarrassment that results.
This work is radical in that it embraces nonlinear thought and experience. So much of dance is reductionist; it is about xyz… Hay’s work does not dismiss aboutness, but rather, enlarges experience to include what is known and what is not known.
For me, the most valuable aspect of studying with Deborah is her refined techniques for unsettling habitual frames, such as including ‘perception’ as a fully active verb in my movement vocabulary. In fact, my perception can be a field of action that is as far-ranging or even broader than the field of actions more commonly associated with movement. The inclusion of this choreography really is a catastrophe of behavior.
IT’S NOT WHAT YOU DO, BUT HOW YOU DO IT
…Unsettled and settled… It takes a lot of work to loosen the grip a frame has on our seeing.
When Deborah says it’s not about what we see, but how we see, I begin to think about Oliver Sacks and his writing on perception: Stereoscopic vision (depth perception) is created by the reconciliation of what the two eyes see from slightly different angles. Those without depth perception, due to blindness in one eye or one “lazy eye” can imagine depth implied through shadows, size of objects, obscurity and motion. It’s possible to exercise one’s stereoscopic vision and increase the depth perception though specific eye training. Occasionally people have regained stereoscopic vision after surgical correction of a lazy eye plus rehabilitation. This experience has been described to Sacks by his patients as a sudden “popping out” of objects from within a flat plane.
I find after a week of intensive daily practice, sensing near, mid-range and far in my visual field, that my sense of space deepens. Although my world is far from flat, I experience a sudden differentiation of objects that I imagine Sack’s patients to be experiencing. The facades of the buildings outside the UArts studio on Walnut Street begin to grow new contours and shape. It makes me wonder how much material is out in the world that I can’t see because I don’t have the sensory capacity or the neural pathways to perceive it.
I’m back to considering our repurposed Butler quote- (choreography) is neither a symptom of its social conditions nor a site of transcendence of them, but rather is essential for the determination of agency and the possibility of hope.
At its best, as in Bindler’s adaptation of I Think Not (2011), Hay’s choreography is not ‘about’ this, but provides a structured realm where the practice of performance plays it out.
However, there are also times when Hay’s choreography can instead ensnare, as in the adaptations we see of Boom Boom Boom (2000), where white women don kitschy Native American accessories, dance “real and imagined earth dances,” and read poems authored by whites about Indians. Although the performers adapting this solo attempt to maintain their performance practice, they are not able to effectively challenge their complicit role in the stereotypes and the harm these images and actions continue to perpetuate.
On Saturday night Karen Schaffman performs her adaptation of FIRE (1999) simultaneous to Eric Geiger’s adaptation of Art and Life (2010). I imagine that they have found the fourth dimension, time traveling, meeting each other in the same space from different eras. They both wear black undies and then jumpsuits. They see each other and even partner in brief moments of contact, but their dances are of different times and there is an electricity surrounding them, as if lightning has struck.
On Sunday Deborah Black performs her adaptation of The Runner (2007). It’s the final solo in a matinee performance. She raises the black-out curtains to reveal a panoramic view of the Philadelphia skyline at sunset. The orange light reflects off the white walls, her white dress, her golden shoes, belt and bracelets. Her dancing is pure and crystalline. I feel like I’m drinking a cold glass of mountain water. She is transparent. I can’t see her, only the dance.
LECTURE ON THE PERFORMANCE OF BEAUTY (2004)
In this lecture that Hay performs on Wednesday, she asks the question “what if every cell in my body has the potential to perceive beauty and surrender beauty simultaneously?” When I ask myself if beauty has any existence apart from our perception of it, immediately this question extends itself through other social constructions that shape one’s choreography–experiences of race, gender. What if every cell in my body has the potential to embody my racial heritage and dis-attach from that identity simultaneously? What if my gender is performed by 380 trillion cells simultaneously, who also display no loyalty to that gender? The questions I choose to ask are as political as everything else.
Deborah proposes the role of the dancer as a researcher of consciousness, but lists some differences between the computational neuroscientist and the dancer. One difference is the following: “As a dancer, your methodologies do not require exactitude because your experimentation is deliberately unquantifiable.” The unquantifiable nature of dance research is demonstrated with veracity by the simultaneous juxtaposition of two videos of her performance of Beauty (2002), one from Finland and one from England. The two performances are of the same choreography, but two different outcomes. Deborah often says: “Same experiment, different experience.” In a scientific experiment, the same outcome occurring multiple times would be considered notable, but in experimental dance the potential for a multiplicity of experiences arising from the same conditions is celebrated. This multiplicity more accurately mirrors what it actually feels like to be out in the world.
The unquantifiable nature of our work is what gives it meaning and consequence, but also prevents us from being valued in a society that regards definitive answers over questions. I leave the lecture feeling a deep saudade (simultaneous joy and sorrow) for the state of dance.
Gregory Holt is a choreographer and dancer working in Philadelphia. With an interest in collaboration and process-driven work, he has developed experimental dances through the Research into the Unknown residency in Budapest, the Swarthmore Project residency, and at the Offenes Kulturhaus Center for Contemporary Art. He has danced for Ishmael Houston-Jones, An Kaler, Meg Foley, and Jumatatu Poe. He was a 2011 Live Arts Brewery Fellow through the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival.
Nicole Bindler is a body-based performing artist, inspired by her studies of new dance, dance-theater, contact improvisation, and butoh. She is also a bodyworker and uses somatic practices, such as Body-Mind Centering, yoga and Feldenkrais as a source of creativity, inspiration and physical training. She has been presented throughout the U.S., Canada, Argentina, Mexico, Berlin, Tokyo, Beirut and Quito, Ecuador. Her work has been supported by Foundation for Contemporary Arts, Philadelphia Cultural Alliance and Dance Advance. Her piece “I made this for you” created in collaboration with Gabrielle Revlock was a 2011 finalist for the A.W.A.R.D. Show! Recent activities include co-organizing FALLS BRIDGE: new movement, improvisation and performance festival with Curt Haworth and participating in Deborah Hay’s Solo Performance Commissioning Project in Findhorn Scotland.
Mascher Space Co-op is a home for new dance in Philadelphia. Artist imagined, artist founded, artist shared and run, Mascher provides space that is affordable and versatile. Mascher is a community of support that cultivates a flow of ideas and modes of deep problem solving and inquiry. Bound not by aesthetics, but a common commitment to working cooperatively and sharing administrative tasks and resources, Mascher wildly nurtures the development of its Artists-In-Residence at various stages in their careers, lines of research, and explorations.
<fidget> is a platform for the collaborative work of Megan Bridge (dance/choreography) and Peter Price (music/video). As artists, curators, researchers, and writers, Bridge and Price opened thefidget space in June 2009. A warehouse, research laboratory, and performance space in Kensington, Philadelphia, thefidget space fosters a pocket of rich artistic experimentation. Artists and scholars with big ideas are regularly invited to inhabit the space, participating in a lively and engaged community of interdisciplinary art making and discourse.