Deborah Hay: Horse, the solos
February 1–5, 2023
There’s no tossing of a mane or anything as obvious as a gallop, yet when Johanna Tengan enters on relevé in the stiff-legged gait of a prancing horse, I almost expect to hear her snuffle. Tengan is soon joined by six additional performers who share the stage the way horses might inhabit a pasture—aware of the others, they keep to themselves. In Deborah Hay’s Horse, the solos, the equine quality is both subtle and unique—offering an almost subliminal metaphor for our time.
Hay is best known as a co-founder of the Judson Dance Theater, the group of experimenters who in the 1960s challenged the status quo by making dances from everyday activities, often performed by untrained movers. There are aspects of Horse, the solos that echo those early roots, yet in its composition and the state of isolation it depicts, the work speaks of our pandemic inflected time. When COVID hit in 2020, Hay was scheduled to travel to Stockholm as resident artistic associate for the Swedish contemporary dance company, Cullberg. Grounded in Austin, Texas, she instead began to work with individual dancers long distance via Zoom. The seven resulting solos take place simultaneously in the hour-long work, the staging of which was coordinated on-site by rehearsal director and longtime Hay collaborator, Jeanine Durning. Horse, the solos had its premiere in 2021 to a completely empty house in Stockholm. The live audience in 2023 at The Joyce seemed not to know what to make of the work. A few walked out the night I attended.
Similar to Judson experiments of sixty years ago, Hay composed Horse as a task driven process (as opposed to being guided by a dramatic narrative). Her program note says she was working with “two common attributes of survival: risk and efficiency.” The latter is visible as movement phrases that take the most direct path from one posture to the next, regardless of whether they are pleasing to watch. When Freddy Houndekindo lifts a knee perpendicular to his elbow and balances there, I can imagine a horse’s hoof at the end of his flexed leg. There is a quiet power when Adam Schütt reaches his arms overhead in a way that emphasizes his height, and a great subtlety in the way Anand Bolder contracts his sternum, allowing his neck to jut forward. The risk element of the task might be best demonstrated in the uneasiness of the production itself.
The movement doesn’t read as beautiful in conventional terms. The solos seem to have no beginning or end, no identifiable repetitions, refrain, or consistent variation. The seven soloists move as if inhabiting their own bubble, each listening to some private music—same album, different song. The dancers stand out as individuals, different in body shape and height. Yet they are dressed to blend together: all in variations of red costuming designed by Behnaz Aram. It’s all going on at once, and as viewers, we must choose where to look. While we’re noticing the echo of a simple dropped arm, for instance, we might easily miss the moment when Bolder takes on the upright posture of a person riding a horse, reins held in one hand at his left hip. Graham Reynolds’s sound score doesn’t help us. We hear metal banging like a New York City radiator, a gong, the reverberation of thunder and swishing rain, two piano notes repeated. The dancers simply continue—sound and motion are completely independent.
The seven soloists move in and out of the center spotlight, sometimes performing at the edges, sometimes as a mere shadow in the rear. They lunge with a hip jutted, one arm dangling limply at the side; shrug a shoulder; twist around on their heels, extending arms into a rigid tee, hands drooping at the wrist. Pairs and small groupings emerge accidentally, emphasizing the fleeting connection in our lives during quarantine.
One way to consider Horse is by what is absent: no sweeping velocity or satisfying recurring patterns, no thrilling lifts or jumps that impress. Within the absence of virtuosity, there is much to be discovered. One notes the ratio of movement to stillness, the way a soloist rocks from one foot to the other. Certain traffic patterns result in striking moments, such as when Tengan scoots sideways across the stage and stands opposite of the others, suggesting alienation, one result of a contentious culture. Or when all the soloists return to motion at the same time after having balanced in stillness. Once, Tengan approaches the very edge of the stage with her right arm up. She pauses, looking directly at us. When I notice Louise Dahl, suddenly in the spotlight, moving her shoulders and hips with an undulating fluidity, it is as if a flower has bloomed. How did I not notice her earlier? Was the composition structured to intentionally defer her presence? Or had my attention simply been elsewhere?