Deborah Hay might be Austin's most famous artistic resident, but many Austinites would not recognize her name. A prolific choreographer and thinker, Hay has made dance in Austin since 1976. Despite her vast artistic achievements, stretching back to her work with the Judson Dance Theater in the early 1960s, today Hay is better known in Europe and New York than in her adopted hometown.
This week, the University of Texas Center for Women and Gender Studies hosts a performance and symposium with the goal of raising Hay's local visibility. On Wednesday night, Hay will perform her newest solo, "No Time to Fly," at the Long Center for the Performing Arts' Rollins Studio Theatre. (The event, which is technically sold out, is Hay's only public performance in Austin in more than five years, although the Fusebox Festival presented Hay's duet "Room" in 2007.)
On Thursday, a huge cross section of the international dance community — including performers and choreographers who have worked with Hay, producers who have presented Hay's work and dance critics who have written about Hay's work — will gather at the Blanton Museum of Art to discuss Hay's contributions. The performance has been sold out for weeks but the symposium remains open to the public.
Sue Heinzelman, director of the Center for Women and Gender Studies, says Hay's exclusion from Austin's radar stems from the university's propensity to ignore important local figures.
"If Deborah was in New York, she'd be invited down all the time, but she's too local and that somehow lessens her value," says Heinzelman.
Yet Europe's and New York's dance communities — particularly since Mikhail Baryshnikov included Hay's work in his White Oak Dance Project's Judson celebration in 2000 — have shown Hay great love. In March she premiered "No Time to Fly" at New York's Danspace Project as part of a series, curated by dancer/choreographer Juliette Mapp, dedicated to artists important to New York.
Hay grew up in Brooklyn, where her mother was her first dance teacher. She was a founding member of Judson, the group of dancers and choreographers who famously questioned the very definition of dance. The group, which included Yvonne Rainier and Trisha Brown, broadened the category of dance, arguing that walking or running might be just as much a dance as whipping off a triple pirouette.
Hay continued to hone her expansive approach to making and thinking about dance after leaving New York, first for Vermont in 1970, then Austin in 1976. Dance historian Susan Foster, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the keynote speaker at Thursday's symposium, describes Hay's work as "visionary" for its view of dance.
"It's the whole idea that dance is a process, not a product," says Foster. "Dance requires an ongoing and sustained commitment — a quality of attentiveness to one's everyday living."
For Hay, dance is not just a series of choreographed moves presented in performance. When working on "No Time to Fly," Hay says, she spent two hours a day, five days a week practicing the 50-minute piece over and over, working to increase her ability to be physically perceptive. Such intense repetition coupled with Hay's concept of dancing with every cell in the body at every moment results in captivating, dense performances.
"To me, performance is a place of alertness to everything I could possibly be alert to," says Hay. "To do this uninterrupted for a length of time is a great chore."
For dancers trained in ballet or even modern dance, the skills of perception Hay insists upon can be overwhelming or even cryptic.
Mapp, who danced in Hay's critically acclaimed recent pieces "O,O" and "If I Sing to You," says working with Hay is a process of "letting go and embracing a whole new set of ideas. She just keeps insisting on going back to the body. There's a great play between the body and the mind, and you have to keep going back to find out what the body can do."
Hay's talk about "the body" sometimes gets dismissed as too abstract. Reflecting on "Single Duet," which Baryshnikov performed with Hay in 2000, Baryshnikov told New York Times dance critic Claudia LaRocco, "Of course when (Hay) talks about her work, I never know what the hell she's talking about."
Longtime Hay viewer and former dance critic Ann Daly (also an Austin resident and a speaker at Thursday's symposium) described Hay's way of talking more sympathetically in a 1999 interview with Hay published in PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art. Daly compares Hay's language to that of a physicist, "at once mathematical and allusive, precise and mystical."
Hay says she intends to ask questions of herself and dancers that are too big too answer, too complicated to easily digest.
"One tool I might use in the studio might be noticing the feedback of the whole body at once as my teacher," says Hay. "The tools I use are questions that are so unachievable, so huge. Even when I say 'attentiveness,' it just seems like jargon unless it's picked apart."
Hay credits much of the development in her thoughts about art to the 15 years she spent leading large group dance workshops in Austin. Starting in 1980, Hay spent four months each year leading up to 80 trained and untrained dancers through workshops that included two hours of open movement, showings of works-in-progress and culminating in large-scale performances.
"My whole language for dance evolved in that period of time," says Hay. "There were no limits on what I could work with. I had nobody telling me what to do. Presenters weren't going to fly to Austin to see my work. There was always space available. The economy of the city was such that people could stop their lives, come here, work with me and find a way to survive."
And people from all over the world literally did stop their lives to come to Austin. Beverly Bajema did all but two of the workshops, including the first workshop in 1980. She remembers working with dancers from the ages of 20 to 80, who hailed from Australia, Canada, Korea and all over the States. Some people had been studying dance their entire lives, and others had never had a dance class before meeting Hay.
Bajema remembers the energy of those workshops, saying, "There's something about being connected with a group of people through a creative project through movement that is not about the appearance of a person or the status of a person in society."
Despite the great disparities in dance training — or maybe because of those disparities — Hay was able to experiment with her ideas about performance through the workshops' rehearsals and performances.
Bajema says, "It wasn't about wowing people with some athletic or acrobatic skill. It's about the audience being attracted to the performers' attention. Seeing people onstage fully doing something is so attractive, and that is the attention that attracts attention."
In Hay's lingo, the performance practice Bajema describes would be called "inviting being seen."
It's ironic that the choreographer known for such a phrase has gone so long with minimal local recognition. Hay says the week's events excite her because they are "a form of acknowledgement from the big university in my community that I have not received before. I'm touched by it."
'An Uncanny Beauty: A Celebration of Deborah Hay' symposium
When: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday, April 8
Where: Blanton Museum of Art, Edgar A. Smith Building, Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Congress Avenue