Illustrious choreographers, heroes of the avant-garde, Deborah Hay and Yvonne Rainer will present new work in a double-bill at Baryshnikov Arts Center November 17-19 as part of PERFORMA 2009. It’s a paring where their shared origins with Judson Dance Theater in the 1960s meet the disparate practices and effects of their work today. “Both came out of a period that refused dance vocabulary,” says PERFORMA director RoseLee Goldberg. “And yet both play with dance vocabulary in very distinctive ways. Both have this incredibly distinctive style, intellectual approach, new and ongoing source material, and each quote themselves in important ways. I think it’s going to be a revelation to see them back-to-back.” MJ Thompson spoke with Hay and Rainer, via telephone in Austin and Los Angeles, respectively, in anticipation:
IF I SING TO YOU: SINGING DANCE
MJ Thompson (RAIL): With If I Sing to You, you’re working with voice and dance; does that have the effect of expanding or distorting what is generally seen as a central way of responding to dance, through vision?
DEBORAH Hay: I think it comes more from feeling like music has too much influence over my body when I am dancing and when I’m watching other people dance. In other words, the influence can be absolutely great and fabulous but my aesthetic seems to run to “less is more.” So that music gets in the way of my being able to notice everything else I can possibly notice.
Voice to me is part of movement. I mean, it is an extension of movement out into space. It’s a way I can’t be physically, but I can be there with my voice. Because it’s happening in my body, I don’t think of it as separate. Really, it’s just more material, more bodily material to notice.
I never use the word “breath.” I don’t like it when the sound reflects the movement. I’m interested in sound made by the body as movement material, not as something to help the movement. It’s more the counter-intuitive use of the voice. Notice how the voice is produced, how it moves out into space, rather than…as a reflection of the movement, as a consequence of the movement.
RAIL: How did you make the work?
Hay: There’s an extensive score. There are 34 pages of dancers’ notes. Two of the dancers who will be appearing in If I Sing to You in New York, exquisite dancers—one is Ros Warby from Australia; the other is a dancer from the Toronto Dance Theatre, Alana Elmer—have learned the dance totally from reading the score, reading the dancers’ notes and looking at two different videos of the performance. So we’ll be in the studio for about three days before it’s performed. It brings up the question of language; the language in the score is a very important element to me. But the score happens after the piece is performed….
How I make the piece is I kind of write it out. I teach it, I rewrite it and I rewrite it, and then I choreograph it. I feel like I choreograph it after a piece is performed over and over again; I learn what the choreography is.
I teach the material to these dancers, and I watch them perform, and then I rearticulate, and I rearticulate in writing, in linear form, and that becomes the score, and the choreography gets finer and finer through their performance of the material.
RAIL: Can you tell me about the dance itself?
Hay: Let me see…It changes in each performance because the women have both a male and a female costume and they decide before each performance which gender they’re going to dress up as and then it’s [not] just dressing up; there’s very fine make-up, I mean, they really look like men. So the staging changes every night depending on how many women there are, how many men there are, which ones are doing what. And that’s exciting because the staging is different. So the audience can really see the choreography…it’s great to come back a second time.
There are a number of solos that happen within the structure of the whole piece and everybody knows the solos, but only one person will do them. So it forces the performer to really step up to the moment; you have to step up to that solo when it arrives and nobody knows who’s going to do it. So there’s an excitement among the dancers on stage. And I think that very much moves out into the audience.
RAIL: How is it determined who gets the solo?
Hay: It’s whoever just grabs it, whoever’s right there to grab it.
The best thing I can say about the dance is, If I Sing to You is a song. I think it’s a song…. It’s a song, in some bizarre way, without having a melody.
RAIL: Can I ask how old you are?
RAIL: I read in an essay, by Danielle Goldman in The Drama Review, that you were questioning whether you would do more solo work…whether presenters wanted it, whether you wanted to do it. Where are you at with that now?
Hay: Well, I’m going to be performing a new solo piece in March at Danspace. And Jennifer Tipton is going to do the lighting. It’s a new solo called No Time to Fly. I’m practicing it everyday.
Yvonne Rainer’s Spiraling Down: Considering Mortality
MJ Thompson (RAIL): Can you tell me about Spiraling Down: what it looks like, what you were trying to figure out in making it?
YVONNE Rainer: First, I should tell you about its origins. I was at Documenta a couple of years ago performing AG Indexical and RoS Indexical and I saw an installation by Harun Farocki, the video artist, and it was about the 2008 championship soccer match between, I think, Spain and Germany. He had 10 monitors and two of the cameras zeroed in on individual players who were not immediately engaged; the ball was somewhere else and they were just watching it. They were making these very small moves, little spurts…of running, standing still, scratching their asses. I was quite intrigued with these movements. So I asked the artist to send me the tapes, which he did. I started studying them and I got this idea for movement.
I don’t make much movement out of my own body these days, so I’m always looking for templates of one kind or another. And I wanted to work with the same four women I was working with in the past. So it developed from there.
We all studied various kinds of soccer practice: plays, teams, configurations, and I began to feel some combinations and unison movements. And then I had read in The New Yorker an account by the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami about how he started to write and how he went running at the same time, and it was all about running and his experience, and I decided that would be part of the soundtrack.
RAIL: Murakami reading?
Rainer: My reading his work. And then we studied Steve Martin’s moves in All of Me, that movie with Lily Tomlin, in which his body is inhabited by her: one side, he’s female; one side, he’s male. It’s quite hilarious, and that was another template.
And what else? Pat Catterson visited her 92-year-old mother in a nursing home, and her mother had been a professional ballroom dancer and she took a video camera in and put on a Dean Martin song, and her mother did these little movements…quite coquettish, little steps, hip undulations, quite touching, really. So Pat channeled her mother’s movement and taught us that material. And so it built….There’s a lot of spontaneous improvisation with the different materials which dancers can initiate or join someone else in doing at any time.
RAIL: What links these different materials for you?
Rainer: Well…it develops a kind of tone, especially when the Bolero comes in. I should mention that—halfway through, Ravel’s Bolero makes an appearance. The dance has a kind of melancholy tone. It’s about aging and I think that comes through but also about sports. I don’t know. I like putting disparate materials together and every performance is different because, especially in the second half, the sequences are not set and the dancers have all these options. That goes back to devices and strategies that I used in my very early dances: sections were indeterminate.
RAIL: It sounds like you’re really mixing it up in terms of sources and the level of quotation: is this in some way similar to the assemblage of found movements that go back to a work like Trio A?
Rainer: But those things came out of my body…
RAIL: Sourcing kinesthetic memory?
Rainer: Or invention. But in some earlier group things, there was quotation.
RAIL: Can you say more about the title Spiraling Down? It’s a reference to aging?
Rainer: Yeah. And the dance was made the summer before last, 2008, just before the real recession hit. But afterwards I began to read that term in the papers almost everyday.
RAIL: I read an article that quoted you saying “dance is mortality.”
Rainer: You see the dancers aging before your eyes and you know that what they can do is [limited to] a relatively short span of time. There’s a kind of melancholy in the very act of dancing itself. The way it depends on youth, the ephemerality of it.
RAIL: Are there going to be more dance works, do you think?
Rainer: I have one more piece in the works. Dia Art Foundation is commissioning it for next year. I’ve been collecting material and I’ll start work with them [Pat Catterson, Sally Silvers, Patricia Hoffbauer, and Emily Coates] next summer. I mean, because I’m out here and they are all teaching and… you know.
RAIL: How are you liking L.A.?
Rainer: Ah…I’m a New Yorker.
RAIL: Do you have a car?
Rainer: [Laughing.] We do. We couldn’t exist without it.