‘In 40 years of doing this, I’ve never done it,’ says Deborah Hay in Becky Edmund’s 2014 film Turn Your Fucking Head. I watched it earlier this year at JW3 in London and the absurdity of this quote made me laugh out loud.  For the (relatively little) I know of her work and (comparatively large) respect I have for it, this quote sums up the indefinable nature of experimental contemporary dance.  In Hay’s case, a specific dance practice which has evolved over four decades, and has led her to consider the body and choreography very differently.

After seeing the film, I was both fascinated and perplexed by her work, especially by this idea of her confident not-knowing. This book, Using The Sky, develops her research – a quest which shows both an unfaltering belief in her pursuit, and an honesty and openness to uncertainty. It is also wickedly funny.

Using the Sky is Hay’s fourth book, the previous publications being: Moving Through the Universe in Bare Feet: Ten Circle Dances for Everybody (1975), Lamb at The Altar: The Story of Dance (1994) and My Body, The Buddhist (2000).  Now in her seventies, Hay is an American choreographer known for her work on post-modern and experimental dance, and as one of the founding members of the Judson Dance Theater.  She has arguably become one of the most influential contemporary choreographers of our time.  The book is a reflection of the experiments she set up for herself and her collaborators from the mid-1990s, using her body and theirs as a “site of enquiry’.

The book is a score in itself, weaving journal entries, dancer’s notes, anecdotes and photos into its pages. I soon realised it would have been far richer read if one knew the works, the dancers, the places, since they are referred to a lot.  Nevertheless, I read it, searching for her nuggets of wisdom, of which there are many:

‘What if every cell in my body at once has the potential to perceive beauty and to surrender beauty simultaneously, each and every moment?’

Hay reassures her readers that this question is ‘unknowable’ but that at the same time ‘the process of entering into the question was transformative’ although she ‘could not say how’ (2015:17).  I think about parallels with faith, another practice which (although I don’t have one) is both, it seems, unknowable and transformative.

It’s this conundrum which is the lightning bolt from Using the Sky. ‘What if’ – a real Hay-ism – one can be so dedicated to one’s movement practice, so inexhaustibly curious about it all, and yet at the same time be seemingly ready to challenge, acknowledge its banality, to let it go?

What if evidence does not equate to knowledge?

What if felt senses are paramount?

What if I took more notice of the ‘feedback’ from my body?

What if I can’t feel the ‘feedback’?

What if I began a daily practice with the promise of not necessarily gaining anything new?

What if I can’t be bothered?

What if we trust the process and then let it go?

What if language cannot communicate this?

My own questions pile up. They are unknowable. They are transformative. They frustrate and they intrigue me.

This self portrait of a master choreographer is brilliant. I wish the pages moved to show her work in action which surely presents a powerful thinking through the body. Perhaps I would have more answers if I could have watched them – live even. But then, answers have a tendency to bring things to stillness, to inhibit movement.

In the words of Hay: ‘The question is not there to be answered.  And, not to look for an answer requires a lot of work for everyone.” (2015:11).

Don’t worry, we have to work harder than that.

Rachel Gildea

15th September 2016

Deborah Hay (2015)  Using the Sky  Abingdon UK, Routledge

You can purchase this book here

See choreographer Jonathan Burrows’ composer Matteo Fargion’s and film-maker Hugo Glendinning’s portrait of Deborah Hay for the digital project 52 Portraits here