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Hear me now: Deborah Hay.

Dancing With Myself
By Mae G. Banner

Deborah Hay
Skidmore College Dance Theater, March 29

Deborah Hay invites you into her world of mad formality like a Tai Chi master leading a class of disciples. Her dance phrases pass from reverence to child-like goofiness, from bodily bleeps and blats to utter stillness. Whatever she does, she is always mindful.

An audience faced with such profound focus will either turn away in discomfort—this is not like MTV—or step inside Hay’s charmed circle.

Audience members entered willingly into the final passage of Music (2001), the first of two solo works Hay performed Saturday at the Skidmore College Dance Theater in Saratoga Springs. This happened when, in quiet darkness, she stepped off the stage, walked toward us and began to sing a low, lulling tune.

Then she spoke soothingly, inviting us to hum with her, and we did, in harmony. I have experienced such moments only during certain concerts at Caffe Lena, when the audience naturally becomes a choir. I’ve never heard people sing at a dance concert, but, then, I’ve never heard the dancer invite them. I swear I heard Hay murmur, “I love you, too,” as the singing began.

So, the dance was called Music and we all made it together.

Hay, 62, has lived in Austin, Texas for about 20 years. In the early 1960s, along with Trisha Brown, David Gordon and others, she was a founding member of New York City’s iconoclastic Judson Dance Theater, a group of path-breaking choreographers who rebelled against “show-off” virtuosic style and fancy costumes. Their aim was to democratize dance, to open it to trained and untrained people. Their gestures were often the stuff of everyday life.

Yet, for all her simplicity, Hay has a strong sense of theatricality. Her costume for Music was a black knit shirt and ankle-length pants, the better to show her square-heeled, clunky shoes. Body-miked, she danced in a silence punctuated by the stamp of those heels. She began with a set of awkward cross-steps with wide-bent, jiggly knees, so she seemed ready to topple at every moment.

Hay used her fluid arms in Tai Chi-like gestures of swimming, fencing, or carrying a large, heavy bowl to an invisible table. Her moves—squats and grinds—were like steps in a child’s game of Mother, May I? She would do “two of these and three of those” as she made her way across the stage, which was bisected into lit and darkened halves by Lori Dawson’s lighting design.

As she danced, contralto sounds came out of Hay’s throat in an invented language whose odd syllables made people chuckle. Then, she began singing a tune that sounded sort of French, sort of martial, and that she cut off in the middle of a phrase. Later, she vocalized a smart-aleck kid’s “eh, eh, eh, eh” sound, which drew laughter.

Still later, she took an academic tack and explained in serious gibberish the uses of a tambourine that an audience member had delivered to her onstage and that she had immediately thrown to the floor. The speech was cryptic, but somehow logical because its form was so clean.

Hay takes all the time she wants as she moves back and forth between passages of stillness and silliness. It’s as if the mime in the street had a powerful secret. Unlike the mime, she is not trapped by invisible walls; she designs her own walls and doors as she goes, changing and trimming them according to a coherent language of her own invention.

Hay’s concluding dance, Oh, Beautiful (2003) was more pointed. For starters, she was got up in biker’s garb—black jacket, backpack, big shoes, dark glasses pushed up on her head—but also with an incongruous pair of bright-red, puckered hot pants over cutout knee pants. She wielded a pair of Coke cans that she banged as percussion or hefted like jogger’s weights.

In this American vein, Hay stopped and posed repeatedly, tilting her head back and raising one Coke-bearing arm in a gesture of victory. She was the Statue of Liberty with the can her torch and her sunglasses a glinting corona.

As she clapped the two cans together, she sang snatches of patriotic songs: “the home of the free and the brave” . . . “of thee I sing” . . . “stand beside her.” Then, she sank to the ground, rolling and crawling with effort, banging the cans and her boots on the floor like an advancing army of one.

The final passage brought the nasty sound of the cans being squeezed until they surrendered. Hay stood in profile and shaking her shoulders, which now seemed to sport epaulets, she strode off.

Hay is no ordinary dancer. You need an open, even a deliberately blank mind to take her in. If you watch with calm attention and don’t try to decode what she’s doing, she will repay you with the vibrations of a good yoga session. Her concerts offer a kinetic “out with the bad air, in with the good” workout that leaves you invigorated.

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