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.

Morgan Thorson, Still Life, 2016. Performance view, September 10, 2016, Portland Museum of Art, Portland, Oregon. Photo: Kat Jarvinen.

THE ARTISTS, MUSICIANS, CURATORS, AND WRITERS that work in and support time-based art are a small, necessarily close-knit tribe. Performance is, after all, easily the least lucrative of genres, a fact that has consistently made it the repository for work that is less monetarily driven and less safe, but which has also sometimes made it feel insular and uninterested in courting an audience outside its fold. This is why the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s Time-Based Art Festival, one of only a handful of such festivals in the US, feels so consistently fresh, both in its programming and in its outreach. The festival, now in its fourteenth edition, encompasses exhibitions, lectures, films, and workshops alongside performances by internationally acclaimed artists. I saw a number of exceptional pieces at this year’s TBA, most accompanied by my mom, whose presence lent the trip additional resonance. When you strip away the jargony shorthand and inside jokes that usually pass for discussion of art among the same-generation peers that see each other at every opening, the conversation can take unexpected, often illuminating, turns. On this journey two works, both dance, lingered with us.

Besides its uniquely pecuniary status, another condition of time-based art is its insistence that the viewer submit to the maker’s conception of the work’s duration. One is implicitly obligated to remain present for the piece’s entirety or until the video loop catches up to the point where you walked in. In this regard Minneapolis-based choreographer Morgan Thorson’s Still Life, 2016, performed in a small side gallery of the Portland Museum of Art, was unusually generous, even to the point of masochism, allowing the viewer to come and go as she pleased while the dancers themselves remained “on” for the work’s five-hour run. During this time both its cyclical choreography and its performers gradually broke down—a gambit that recalled Ragnar Kjartansson’s six-hour A Lot of Sorrow, 2013–14, in which the slowly unraveling band The National performed a single song on repeat.

Still Life is a danced meditation on temporality and geological time. Thorson developed the work over the course of a residency at the Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography at Florida State University, during which she spoke to scholars and professionals from various fields including religious studies, forensic anthropology, and contemporary hospice care. Twelve dancers from Thorson’s company, suited up with track shoes and kneepads for the long slog, filled the gallery with spurts of frenetic activity countered by moments of undulating calm, often with a single clique embodying a spastic mode while another group swayed slowly around them. Their movements were partly inspired by the choreographer’s research into physical decay and the subtle, time-lapse-visible movement of decomposition.

As dancers hugged the gallery floor, the viewer could readily imagine the gradual swelling of bloated bodies and their subsequent flattening as seeping and atrophying flesh merges with ground. At other times they seemed to follow unspoken improvisatory commands, with a single dancer setting off a chain reaction as if demonstrating evolution in fast-forward. The marathon, with its ambient sound-track, was divided into cycles signaled by oval pools of light that periodically raked over the audience members seated against the walls. Each projection marked the start of a new and diminished stage, and after each spot had run its course, an element (a dancer, an aural tone) was removed. As the performance wore on and its components dwindled, the remaining dancers began to visibly exhaust their reserves, until, by work’s end, they were spent.

Meg Wolfe, New Faithful Disco, 2016. Performance view, September 10, 2016, PICA, Portland, Oregon. Marbles Jumble Radio, taisha paggett, and Meg Wolfe. Photo: Meghann Gilligan.

While Thorson took the long view, examining biological systems over single lifespans and geological epochs, Los Angeles–based choreographer Meg Wolfe staked her claim in the recent past, positioning the discothèque as a site of liberation. Wolfe’s New Faithful Disco, 2016, was a joyful counterpoint to Thorson’s piece, revisiting a seminal space of celebration for gay men and other minorities, extending its berth to be even more inclusive of the wide spectrum of queer identities. Wolfe’s forty-minute fantasy disco routine came replete with high-drama props including massive lamé blankets and, at one point, and inexplicably, antler-like headgear.

New Faithful Disco’s trio (which included Wolfe herself alongside 2014 Whitney Biennial artist taisha paggett and the phenomenal Marbles Jumble Radio) rose from spotlit denim patchwork quilts, pulsing to abstracted beats that had been mixed by composer Maria de Los Angeles “Cuca” Esteves using samples and distortions of disco standards like Anita Ward’s “Ring My Bell” and Shalamar’s “Make That Move.” By the work’s end, the homespun quilts had been flipped to reveal gold brocade undersides on which the dancers writhed in a dogpile of undifferentiated bliss. Yet Wolfe also hinted at the limits of revisionary politics. “The hardest part is knowing I’ll survive,” warbles Emmylou Harris in another sample (“Boulder to Birmingham,” 1975), in a melancholic precursor to Gloria Gaynor’s 1978 disco anthem. “I have come to listen for the sound / of the trucks as they move down / out on ninety-five / and pretend that it’s the ocean / coming down to wash me clean.” Taken another way, New Faithful Disco is less an attempt to rewrite history than a celebration of survival and possibility, in which the highway may just reveal itself to be the ocean after all.

Cat Kron

The fourteenth Time-Based Art Festival ran September 8 through 18 in Portland, Oregon.