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at Link's Hall, February 11-13

Deborah Hay's slant on dance came to her while she was on a road trip in the 60s with Robert Rauschenberg, Steve Paxton, and Yvonne Rainer--all seminal figures in postmodern dance. On a stop in New Orleans they decided to see a strip show. The strippers danced lasciviously, but obviously their minds were miles away. Hay felt a subterranean affinity with them: though she'd danced for Merce Cunningham--the pinnacle for a dancer in the early 60s--she hated performing because she felt alienated from herself. Hay's effort to reconnect dancers with their feelings has taken her from dance meditations in a Vermont commune to large-scale group projects in Austin, Texas.

Hay's method for 30 years has been to find the simplest, most emotionally rooted movements. She now uses mantras to create a kind of meditative dancing; the mantra she used in her Chicago workshop was "All 53 trillion cells in my body are saying yes and no at the same time." She encourages a roomful of people to move in any way they want while remaining mindful of the mantra. During the workshop I had the exhilarating experience of feeling completely alive--serious adult intentions melted away, and I felt a child's emotional immediacy again.

Hay's concert was more controversial. Her solo Lamb at the Altar violates almost every aesthetic principle I've learned. It never makes much sense, it meanders terribly, it's excessive, trite, and even boring at times, it doesn't have many kinetic thrills, and it's self-involved. But it does resonate emotionally because Hay is completely present at every moment. And she devises new movements that express emotional states quite precisely.

The dance starts with Hay tiptoeing across stage shakily, her arms at her sides twitching occasionally. The sea gulls on the accompanying sound track made me see her as a careful bird. During a blackout she disappears through a side door into a closet, then a loud jangling sound signals her being tossed back onstage. Hay repeats movements of a similar texture but bent half over at the waist, looking at the ground and between her legs, nonsense words bursting from her lips. While in the first section Hay seems to be interested in something outside the dance space, in the middle section she acknowledges the audience in strange, unsettling ways--staring, seeing each person. Her inchoate words slowly turn into "Mary had a little lamb," which she coaxes the audience into singing. Toward the end Hay stares at the audience, laughing and crying alternately, then turns to face the wall, still laughing and crying. Later she returns to the crying, her face a Kabuki mask of grief. In her final, repeated phrase she lunges, scooping air to her mouth, choking out the word "lamb."

But Lamb at the Altar is not really a story of monumental suffering. In other sections, Hay goes into the audience and says in the voice of a little girl talking to her doll, "How are you today? Did you eat your three meals today?" The two maracas she holds become puppets in a demented argument. She shows her fingernails to someone in the audience, observes that all ten fingers end in nails, and gives the maracas to the person. At such moments Hay seems a monster of self-indulgence. Then the moment passes.

A program note says that Lamb at the Altar is "the story of a dance." Perhaps Hay means that Lamb at the Altar is the story of the making of the dance itself. If so, then the dance's mood of monumental suffering should be read as the monumental suffering of the creative artist--and as monumental egotism.

In her workshops, Hay always asks dancers to see other dancers as emotional beings who need connections. And connections are the focus of a more likable dance on this program, titled with a symbol: two concentric circles around a dot, with a slash through all three. The dance is performed by ten members of a workshop Hay led in Chicago; some sections were created during the workshop while others were taught to the dancers by Hay.

Each dancer has a solo section in which the other dancers act as a chorus. I was struck by the emotional insight of each section: Cynthia Reid's anger and the ways the other dancers slip past it; Michele Marie White's fearful negotiation of a hostile field of staring dancers; Leif Tellman's tentative friend making; Marianne Kim's wonderful strange howling; Bob Eisen's aerobic game of follow-the-leader; Lezlee Crawford's off-kilter mechanical toy that keeps to itself; Susan Bradford's swirling connections with the other women; Sylvia Jania's and Karen Lurie's desire to be absorbed by the crowd; Ron Bieganski's outrageous, funny version of a soft-shoe routine. Each section is filled with quirky, raw movement and loose, unself-conscious performance. The dance is marred, though, by a long introductory section in which nothing happens.

Hay dedicated the evening to John Cage, whom she knew. Cage was a master saboteur whose works--like the infamous 4'33", in which a pianist just sits at a piano for four minutes and thirty-three seconds--try to point out the barnacles of social convention on the music world. Hay and other seminal postmodernists gleefully carried out their own sabotage of dance conventions. But after the revolution in the long, slow work of nation building, Hay is doing her part, teaching workshops about the vital connection between movement and feeling. It's all that can be asked.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Phyllis Liedeke.

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