Deborah Hay at Tanz im August

Various venues, Berlin
August 9-31, 2019

Veronica Posth

This year’s Tanz im August festival in Berlin paid tribute to the influential post-modern choreographer Deborah Hay. The programme included a selection of her works from the 1960 until the present day, a symposium and the video installation Perception Unfolds.

At Hau Hebbel am Ufer, a double-bill included Hay’s liminal yet precise and congruous my choreographed body… revisited. It was mesmerising. Movements are immersed on a white stage and radiate wisdom. Hay’s body speaks for itself. “My body, my teacher” as she says. It moves as if it is talking. There is something tribal as the dance connects to the earth. Sung melodic phrases recall American-Indian lullabies but the language is undecipherable. my choreographed body… revisited’ (2019) is a pearl of her practice research that, as she says, never ends.

Deborah Hay in My Choreographed Body...revisitedPhoto Camilla Greenwell
Deborah Hay in My Choreographed Body…revisited
Photo Camilla Greenwell

They look like animals on a beach, thought Hay as she observed the participants in one of her workshops. She says the description was precise, but also poetic and enigmatic. From that idea came the new piece, Animals on the Beach in which she has collaborated with five impressive dancers, all familiar with her performance practice, and who have also contributed their own knowledge. Hay’s approach to her art is clear in both the individual work of single dancers and the group interaction that is created. The composition is impeccably balanced, the timing of the movements of one always calibrated to the movements of the others.

Deborah Hay's Animals on the BeachPhoto Camille Blake
Deborah Hay’s Animals on the Beach
Photo Camille Blake

Presented at Sophiensæle, Hay’s 1989 piece, The Man Who Grew Common in Wisdom, is a three-part solo in which wisdom becomes the tangible experience of well-being within the ordinary world. ‘The Navigator’, ‘The Gardener’ and ‘The Aviator’ set up three different scenarios with different identities, Eva Mohn of Cullberg Ballet transforming herself into three versatile characters, diverse in intensity and resolution. Embracing the recognisable lexicon of Hay’s vocabulary, she led the spectators into unknown but fascinating territories. Captivating and innovative, enigmatic and full of surprises, entertaining, unpredictable and elegant, the three compositions were beautifully danced by Mohn, coached by Hay herself. Outstanding.

Deborah Hay's The Man Who Grew Common in WisdomPhoto Dajana Lothert
Eva Mohn in Deborah Hay’s The Man Who Grew Common in Wisdom
Photo Dajana Lothert

Also on that programme, Fire, performed by Ros Warby, is explosive, playful, wit and intriguingly entertaining. The work came out of Hay’s Solo Performance Commissioning Project, in which each year from 1998 to 2012 she taught 20 dancers the same solo, a different solo each year. The dancers would then find their own adaptation. That Warby has worked with Hay for a long time is clear from her confidence and approach. The sounds she produces recall children playing alone immersed in their personal, immense world of fantasy. As Warby moves, her body and face ask, ‘Who are you?’ ‘Where are you from?’, her expressions ever-changing. Fully in the present on stage and aware of what happens around her, Warby responds to outside influences while performing. Her irony and self-irony were entrancing as she voiced and gave life to the language received and incorporated. Intelligent and subtle, it was brilliant and impressive.

Ros Warby in Fire by Deborah HayPhoto Dajana Lothert
Ros Warby in Fire by Deborah Hay
Photo Dajana Lothert

Created in 2004, The Match, presented at radialsystem, marked a change in Hay’s career as she shifted from working mostly with untrained dancers to choreographing with experienced performers. Described as “wondrously strange and impermanent meditation on disintegration, exploring realms from the ordinary to the preposterous by an interchanging cast of four characters,” the work was to win her a Bessie (New York Dance and Performance Award).

Performed here by four dancers from Cullberg Ballet, Hay’s practice allowed them to create a space for individual exploration while dancing together. Solos are performed with playfulness and honesty. Hay’s creative process and what she transmits to the dancers working with her is the intersection of formula and freedom. In The Match, each dancer has a freedom with the given structure, deciding on movement spontaneously, which makes each performance unique. This can lead to frustrations in the performers but equally allows them to enter a realm of liberation and pleasure. The result is a colourful puzzle that changes within its structure and that depends on multiple factors.

The video installation Perception Unfolds: Looking at Deborah Hay's DancePhoto Dajana Lothert
Perception Unfolds: Looking at Deborah Hay’s Dance
Photo Dajana Lothert

Ten, Hay’s dance that uses two poles and a simple score to create strict geometrical configurations was also revived at radialsystem.

Running throughout Tanz im August at the Akademie der Künste, the 13-minute video installation Perception Unfolds: Looking at Deborah Hay’s Dance combines her choreography with new software technologies. The immersive environment featured multiple versions of a the same dance on four suspended translucent screens, allowing visitors to choose and change their personal viewing perspectives.

In the delightful Deborah Hay Symposium symposium that concluded this year’s retrospective, Hay gave ‘A Lecture on the Performance of Beauty’, talked about her work and showed her community piece Exit, revived after a very long time by 20 Berlin performers. In addition, David Young and Peter Humble presented the world premiere of Deborah Hay Alignment is everywhere, a beautiful film documentary about Hay that provides a delicate look at her intimate thoughts and personal memories.