Through a series of imaginative approaches to movement and performance, choreographer Deborah Hay presents a profound reflection on the ephemeral nature of the self and the body as the locus of artistic consciousness. Using the same uniquely playful poetics of her revolutionary choreography, she delivers one of the most revealing accounts of what art creation entails and the ways in which the body, the center of our aesthetic knowledge of the world, can be regarded as our most informed teacher.
My Body, The Buddhist becomes a way into Hay's choreographic techniques, a gloss on her philosophy of the body (which shares much with Buddhism), and an extraordinary artist's primer. The book is composed of nineteen short chapters ("my body likes to rest," "my body finds energy in surrender," "my body is bored by answers"), each an example of what Susan Foster calls Hay's "daily attentiveness to the body's articulateness."
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|Publisher:||Wesleyan University Press|
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my body benefits in solitude
I went to sit in a cabin on an ocean. There was a small boy there who was without a father. And we became friends. My desire to be without caved into his cunning child earth. My isolation forfeited, I meditated on his knowledge of knots and tides.
— Ralph Lemon, choreographer
We are dying. We think we are not. This is a good argument for giving up thinking. Spend one night a week in candlelight.
I lie on the floor in the corpse pose, called Shavasana in yoga. Wherever I am the dance is. Instead of dancing wherever I am, I choose the time and space to play dance. This is equilibrium, and motion. Several minutes pass before I remember even to notice that my thoughts are going yacketta, yacketta, yack — even after three thousand corpse poses. How many dance students dance alone uninterruptedly for at least forty minutes daily, outside of rehearsing, choreographing, or physically stretching? Why is this not a four-year requirement for every college dance student? How else can a person develop an intimate dialogue with the body?
Finally, I purposefully inhale and quiet my thoughts. I hear a sprinkler outside the window. Its pressure is low. Drops of water can be differentiated as they contact the garden's surface plant life, its pillowy mounds and gravel paths. I can almost feel the sprinkling of drops falling on me. Thoughts begin to reduce in volume and appear at wider intervals. I make believe I am dead because I am practicing the corpse pose. There are three "what if" components to the "I" who dances. What if
"I" is the reconfiguration of my body into fifty-three trillion cells at once?
"I" practice non-attachment to each moment?
"I" know nothing?
The weight of my bones, organs, muscles, and joints endlessly spreads out into the floor. There are 206 bones in the human body, 26 in each foot. Joints break open. Tongue dissolves. Throat disappears. I abandon holding onto the shape of me. I am movement without looking for it. Only a sketch remains on the floor.
I let go of the way my vision configures objects and perspective, trying to make things what I want or need them to be. I see through a filter of what I know, instead of what I do not know, and so the awe is gone.
I accept the fact that I cannot attain a perfect practice and instead use my energy to remember to engage the practice. In this way, I create futures I cannot achieve and then practice being here as the means for completing a day's work. At this moment there is always a forgetting of breathing, as if it were no longer necessary. The next inhalation is taken consciously. Today while I was walking, the joint at the base of my big toe began to hurt. I did not walk last week and was trying to make up for lost time. I slowed down and steered my attention to the joint itself. It was tight and held. I spread my focus to include the bones, tendons, and other toes on the same foot, balancing the parts so the whole foot received the same awareness as the sore joint. I could feel the placement of my foot on the path relax and open. The joint was in pain as long as it was separate from the rest of my foot and the rest of my body. The pain lessened if I presumed I was in active rapport with an imagined cosmos.
The more I unhinge the breadth of physical continuity, the clearer the sense of parallel lives, one of them just a silhouette lying on the floor. What if there is no space between where I am and what I need? "Where I am is where I am" is reasonable, but less enjoyable than "where I am is what I need."
Lying on my back, arms and legs slightly spread, in the corpse pose, I disengage all pretense, as much as possible. My synapses are no longer attracted, gone fishing, inactive, freed from bonding. A tinge of nausea compels me to persist. Dancing is like going on a field trip. My body is the guide and tools, including the tape recorder. Last night dancing in my apartment I hardly moved and hardly needed to. I am not home unless I am in my art. I remember sitting on the side of my father's bed as he was dying. His hands were pressed together and tucked under his cheek, forming a small pillow for his head. There was a moment when I thought I saw him choose not to hold up the flesh of his face anymore.
I am most of the time wanting to get something. That is why meditation is good, because I cannot meditate and get something at the same time. Meditation, as I use it to describe my practice, is not the correct word. You can't meditate and do anything else. I am not practiced at not wanting to get something. Now comes the thrill that awaits me in the corpse pose. It happens suddenly and, although I anticipate it, it requires full relaxation. It is very close to the ocean roar that occurs in the inner ear when a yawn is stifled. That roar feels like thousands of fluttering wings radiating from the center of my body. The sensation is brief but I am slowly learning to stretch it.
In a dream I tell composer Ellen Fullman that I just heard a concert of works composed by her good friend. She spins around and says "I missed it? It was tonight? How was it?" She responds with excitement, disbelief, and pleasure at hearing about it first hand. With equal enthusiasm, including tears that spread from me to her, I tell her the concert was great and that the crowds of people attending were so beautiful and they included all ages and races; that it was life and not racial diversity I was seeing. She knows and nods and together we appreciate what we do not have. When I am in the corpse pose I realize how much I hold onto life.CHAPTER 2
my body finds energy in surrender
I need a minimum of six months to choreograph a solo, and I have absolutely no interest in choreographing to music.
Playing Awake 1995 was a four-month movement/performance workshop for sixteen untrained and trained dancers, held in Austin, Texas. It concluded with the premiere of my heart in April 1995. In May I began the most integrative phase of the choreography — extracting a solo from the group dance material. Seven months later, Voilà, born from my heart, premiered at the Public Domain, a theater in Austin.
Three weeks into the development of Voilà I knew it was a thirty-five minute dance — not long enough for a solo program. I decided to choreograph another dance, a short one, in order to have an evening's presentation, although the idea did not sit well with me. My group dances provided the foundation for all of my solo work. I was to be on tour with no time to make another group piece before the November performance dates. I'm attached to a self-imposed six-month minimum requirement for creating a new work. I am comforted by the multiplicity of assumptions held within any one of my beliefs.
Sur/Render was gathering force outside my walls. I can't quite believe its lordly presence in my creative process — thirty-odd years of bounty I could not have foreseen. Sur/Render, a warrior prince who, when summoned, rides a white horse into a mythic kingdom of possibilities. Sur/Render does not have to do anything. Its very presence attracts certain discrete elements that, when they arrive, gather substance as I explore and probe them. The new material integrates with previous elements in my dance-making process. Conjunctions are made. The body of experience deepens. After many years, my trust in Sur/Render has become viable and strong.
My decision to choreograph a new dance was coupled with a promise to myself not to think about the dance until it was absolutely clear what it would be, not to interfere with the compelling signals from the big void. For this reason I made no compromise in directing all my energy through that summer and fall to the choreography and practice of Voilà.
Voilà was demanding to perform because of an unusual combination of activity that included Italian speech, religious incantation, brazenly dramatic and contradictory behavior, and a lot of comic posturing. I knew it would, in turn, challenge the attention of its audiences. So, beginning the program with a simple, perhaps even an elegant, dance seemed smart. And getting smart was finally beginning to make sense. Give the audience time to arrive psychically. Do not destabilize them right off the bat. Surrender, please, some of the stubborn need not to entertain. Create a linear dance that might be attended to without effort. A beautiful woman in a beautiful dress. A flow of line and movement. A dance that does not threaten the ground that audience and performer have cultivated together for hundreds of years. Then, voilà, upset the apple cart after the fruit is served. The art of programming was dawning.
It was now late June. I packed my car with dance and outdoor gear and headed to the northeast to perform, teach, and visit my family and friends. The first stop was a choreography workshop in the Graduate Liberal Studies Program at Wesleyan University. My class met two and a half hours daily for three weeks.
Upon entering the studio, we placed our names beside a number that determined the order in which we would perform that day. For the first half hour, we collectively practiced the performance meditation where I am is what I need, cellularly, each student interpreting this phrase as it made sense to him or her. Then, following the list, each person had a maximum of five minutes to perform all or a selection of the particular work he/she was choreographing in the workshop. A bell signaled the end of five minutes. There was no pressure to complete the dance. The emphasis for the choreographer/dancer was to gain more insight into the material by performing it each day.
I proposed that, as audience for each other's work, we see each dance through the filter where we are is what we need.
At the sound of the next bell we had two minutes to write feedback. Two minutes later the bell rang again and the next person on the list performed.
After everyone's work was presented, the written feedback was distributed. The final bell signaled the last half hour, reserved for writing a personal account of one's own performance, including, or not, the feedback received. I was using the Wesleyan workshop to further unsettle the movement and my performance of Voilà. Any time more than one person described seeing the same image danced, I changed that movement or altered how it was performed until there was no trace of identical images left in the feedback I received.
The key to the success of the workshop was the bell. It kept us moving along with very little time to talk, forcing us to collaborate on meeting our own and each other's needs within the framework of class time.
During the same workshop, Christine O'Neal was choreographing a dance to the Molto Adagio from Samuel Barber's String Quartet op. 11. The music so moved me that each time she performed I became more convinced that my greatest challenge as a choreographer would be to use the seven-minute adagio for my new dance. I was about to surrender my second sacred belief, and the thought was so horrendous it made me sick. I knew I was on to something.
I had not choreographed a dance to music since Bob Dunn gave his 1962 composition class the assignment to choreograph a dance to Erik Satie's Three Gymnopedies. In my mind, the idea of choreographing to music bordered on coercion. I don't like being controlled by rhythm. I don't want any one outside influence to determine the course of the development or performance of my dances.
Toward the conclusion of the Wesleyan workshop another student danced one five-minute-long exit. That was how I saw it, and it briefly crossed my mind that it was a brilliant idea.
For the remainder of the summer I listened to Barber's Adagio on cassette, especially when I was driving. It evoked copious tears and loud cries. I called to my dead mother and father. I wanted to purge myself of my tremendous emotional response to the music so I could hear it better. What I could not abandon, and what undoubtedly contributed to the tears, was the terror of my commitment to this project.
On an early afternoon at the height of summer, I was running an errand and listening to the Adagio. I was driving, more like maneuvering, a narrow, winding dirt road in Cabot, Vermont. This two-mile stretch, through heavily wooded forest occupied by room-sized boulders takes anywhere from seven to ten minutes to drive, depending on the weather. Just before the dirt road meets the gravel, the forest yields to serene rolling pastures, like a dress sliding from a woman's shoulders. At that moment, on that day, Barber's Molto Adagio came to its attenuated end and a new solo, Exit, was born.CHAPTER 3
my body enjoys jokes, riddles, and games
Standing at the precipice, I jump.
— Ellen Fullman, composer
SETTING: The reader performs.
Both hands are used to signal whether a joke, a riddle, or a game is being described. The reader will find this information in the margins.
A joke is represented by a raised right fist, thumb outstretched and bent at the knuckle. A joke is something said or done to provoke laughter or amusement, as a witticism, a prankish act; an object of jesting: a thing or situation, or a person laughed at rather than taken seriously. Something that is amusing or ridiculous.
A riddle is indicated when the tip of the index fifinger and thumb of the right hand form a circle. A riddle is a question or statement so framed as to exercise one's ingenuity in answering it or discovering its meaning; a puzzling question, problem, or matter. A puzzling thing or person.
When a game is described the left fist makes a quick knocking motion at an invisible door in space. A game is an amusement or pastime: the material or equipment used in playing certain games.
The group dance 1–2–1, performed at DanceHouse, in Melbourne, Australia, in September 1996, contained a ten-minute sequence that strongly appealed to me right from the beginning. It was characterized by a tight, unpredictable musicality, suggesting acolytes in ludicrously formal worship.
I imagine every cell in my body has the potential to perceive Now Is Here — a 1990s response to the 1960s cult adage Be Here Now. Now is the past, present, and future acknowledged as it unfolds each moment through each performer. Here is the awareness of that performer as he/she changes in relationship to the physical space, the other performers, and the audience. The practice of this meditation was the primary focus of a three-week workshop leading to four public performances. The dancers applied the meditation to the performance of the choreography. The presence of a choreographed consciousness helped create an unseen landscape of relatedness among the all-Australian cast.
Twenty minutes into 1–2–1, a short blackout concluded sequences of solo, small, and full group activity. Just enough light returned to the stage for the twenty-five performers to rise, walk to, and in the same moment complete, a square-shaped grid where each player faced at least one other player. The square was divided into two invisible triangles, Group A and Group B, with a common diagonal line from one corner upstage to its opposite corner downstage. Every dancer held two small rattles, one in each hand. The rattles were made from plastic vitamin, water, or similar capped containers with rice, salt, pebbles, or other small objects.
Stillness was broken by a short sound, neither loud nor soft, a single syllable that combined one consonant and one vowel voiced collectively by Group A. The sound initiated two events. Neither slowly nor quickly, Group A's arms rose overhead, holding the rattles still. Everyone in Group B turned 180 degrees, quickly placing their rattles on the floor. The economy of the action almost erased it. Next, patterns that typically connect body to movement and sound appeared to be inoperable as Group B ungenetically traveled backward in a tight half circle around the inert rattles. The absence of timing, the limited use of space, and an overall appearance of bodies without pulse, pattern, or flow, created a visible coherency. Each dancer also produced short, one-syllable sounds that inventively evaded correspondence to the steps. Collectively, they orchestrated a deliberate interplay of monosyllabic music.
When Group A's arms arrived overhead, their rattles started to shake without fanfare. Quietly beating, the arms lowered. Halfway down, the rattling uniformly ceased, followed by a pause of indeterminate length.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "My Body, The Buddhist"
Copyright © 2000 Deborah Hay.
Excerpted by permission of Wesleyan University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of ContentsForeword – Susan Leigh Foster
My Body Benefits in Solitude
My Body Finds Energy in Surrender
My Body Enjoys Jokes, Riddles, and Games
My Body Engages in Work
My Body Commits to Practice
My Body Seeks Comfort But Not For Long
My Body is Limited by Physical Presence
My Body Knowingly Participates in its Appearances
My Body Likes Rest
My Body is Bored by Answers
My Body Seeks More Than One View of Itself
My Body Delights in Resourcefulness
My Body Trusts the Unknown
My Body Feels Weightless in the Presence of Paradox
My Body Equates Patience with Renewal
My Body Hears Many Voices, Not One Voice
My Body Relaxes When Thoughts Abate
My Body is Held in the Present
A Chronicle of Performance Practices by Deborah Hay
What People are Saying About This
"This book is a fascinating record of what it takes to find a dance. Ms. Hay writes frankly and intimately about looking and seeing; and noticing what many people who work in dance have learned to ignore. I am skeptical of magic, but somehow there is magic in the way she conjures her beautiful dances. A pleasure and a kind surprise."—Mark Morris
"This book is a fascinating record of what it takes to find a dance. Ms. Hay writes frankly and intimately about looking and seeing; and noticing what many people who work in dance have learned to ignore. I am skeptical of magic, but somehow there is magic in the way she conjures her beautiful dances. A pleasure and a kind surprise."