Reflections in the Well – Postmodern Dance Pioneer Deborah Hay

Reflections Minerva Bloom


REFLECTIONS IN THE WELL by David Arthur Walters

The Author’s Reflections on Postmodern Dance Pioneer Deborah Hay with Special Thanks to Minerva Bloom for designing, printing, publishing, and distributing the original little chapbook on foot.

I. Returning to the Well

Where and when should I begin? Here and now shall do quite well. As far as I am concerned, anywhere and anytime is good enough to press ahead with this pressing business called life. Yet from my progress I am always returning to the well for yet another drink that I may proceed.

I would fly free beyond the arc between ashes and ashes and dust and dust, but my flight is rooted in the past. I fly backwards like the mythical Jayhawk. I don’t give a damn where I am going and I only care about the where I’ve been. What else is really mine? What else can I know except the past as I realize it in the future? To that end my life is an essay or trial. I double back on what I have done along the way, pull myself together and carry on. I am constantly rewriting my life, but my life’s essay I would never throw away.

The arc of my life is really an ark. The arc is the cradle of dimensional existence. Witness the Earth falling into the Sun, missing the Sun curving away from it. Thus the orbiting Earth falls while it recovers itself. Likewise I would never stop moving. But I know I will slow down soon enough. Long before the Earth stops moving, I shall achieve an absolute state of rest in Nothing, where everything gets done by doing nothing. I shall ride the arc until then and dance upon the globe. I do believe I am going somewhere as I circle back on myself. I am never quite satisfied with my present state when I return to where I once was, hence I dream of returning to the place from whence I returned.

Today I returned to the dustbin of my history, reached into it and pulled out an essay I wrote in 1985, entitled ‘Reflections in the Well.’ Therein I described Deborah Hay’s (1) choral dance workshop at St. Mark’s Church in Manhattan and her subsequent performances of ‘The Well’ and ‘Leaving the House.’ I knew nothing of Deborah at the time: I did not know that ‘Leaving the House’ was considered by critics to be a major feminist statement of the day.

Part of my essay was published in 1985 by arts enthusiast and feminist Effie Mihopoulus in her literary magazine, SALOME. As I examined my manuscript, I felt a twinge of regret that the rest of my essay, my reviews of Deborah’s performances, had not been published. Therefore I decided to edit the entire essay. Now I have not altered any of Deborah’s statements nor have I made any fundamental changes to my views at that time: I have simply dusted off the work and polished it up a bit.

At first glance the reader might not suppose my subject would be of much interest to the non-dancer. But I believe it is, for I speak of the human spirit, bound by matter to dance on Earth. The dancer is a moving, conscious synthesis of spirit and matter. She needs no other machine or tool than her body to express the tragic joy of her Earth-bound existence, to convey to her audience the essence of humanity’s gravity, dimensions and dynamics. For that expressive purpose I believe Modern Dance evolved .

Everyone is essentially a dancer; we can all experience the joy of dance movement. Modern dance pioneers such as Isadora Duncan and Rudolf Laban strove to bring the direct experience of that joy to everyone. Isadora wanted to bring America to its feet; unappreciated at home, she became a dance prophet in Europe. Laban, a native European dance prophet, worked to restore dance to its ancient and rightful place at the center of the community where all can come together to mutually celebrate life. He trained cadre leaders who in turn organized dance movement choirs for community participation. One massive pageant orchestrated by Laban in Germany had over 10,000 participants. But the Nazis did not appreciate the democratic aspect of Laban’s dance choirs, wherein each person is autonomous although interdependent. The fascists preferred to march people around aimlessly yet in drilled order, using the elements of carefully choreographed pageantry to mesmerize the marchers into believing they were doing something grand besides being obedient. But Laban’s dance choirs celebrated the individual’s striving for spiritual harmony with the cosmos and not collective submission to the leadership principle. Goebbels disallowed Laban’s choral movement entry (Of Warm Breeze and New Joy) for the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Laban fled to Paris. His work in Germany was thoroughly annihilated by the Nazis, but his ideas gained influence in Britain and America. It is with Laban’s aspirations in mind that we may better understand Deborah Hay.

II. Peering Into The Well

“Flee then, be free then,
A clay pot bewinged be then,
In your saintly seriousness
Be then like those who weep for joy,
Speeding to the mark that is
But is not.”

Deborah Hay, “the Jung of post-modern dance” (Dance Magazine), asked me what I thought of her workshop at Manhattan’s St. Marks’ Church.

“A cup of cold water in the desert,” I responded, and returned to the serenity of a grand silence I had forgotten until Deborah had returned me by indirection to the profound source of inexhaustible nourishment. And still, until this very moment as I sit grasping this hard pen in my soft clerical hand, it is difficult to shatter that precious silence with an explanation. It is not that I have nothing at all to say: rather, I would say it all at once and once and for all, say everything that could possibly be said; but, alas, that is impossible.

“I moved from New York City to a commune in Northern Vermont,” Deborah explained to us when the workshop began, “and I lived there for eight years. Moving to a small community, I was fresh, naive and frightened. In fact, I am attracted to states of insecurity. For me insecurity is AHA! Without an AHA! Two or three times a week, life is too painful for me. Unless you put yourself into this state of opening, of unknowing, there is no AHA!”

I was deeply moved by her soft-spoken introduction. Her honest words and sincere demeanor gave me cause to believe she had refreshed herself from the same Well I had fearfully abandoned some time ago, the Well referred to in the ancient I CHING, the Chinese Book of Changes, translated by Richard Wilhelm:

“The Well.
The town may be changed,
But the well cannot be changed.
It neither decreases nor increases.
They come and go and draw from the well.
If one gets down almost to the water
And the rope does not go all the way,
Or the jug breaks, it brings misfortune.”

As I opened my heart in recognition and felt myself reflected in Deborah’s being, I appreciated once more the value of what I had forsaken, what had now been inexplicably returned to me by fortuitous contingency, coincidentally unmasking my destiny yet again. “Coincidence or God?” Herman Melville once posed the question. A small coincidence can bear the stamp of the universal. I suppose we have all prayed for big things at one time or another. Other than my life, my god does not supply me with big things but rather communicates to me with seemingly insignificant signs, such as the eraser lost by a stranger and found by me just when I needed it, in lieu of the small fortune I had prayed for. I ask my god for the universe and I am given a tiny detail in time and space that simply says “I AM”, then the mystical moment vanishes leaving a vague, soon forgotten impression of the divine detail. But every vanishing moment is a divine gift, is it not? I believe existence is a constantly changing changeling. I want the security of being permanent, but my presence here is all motion, I thought as I surveyed Deborah Hay’s lithe figure before me. Yet the only thing I can take for granted is in itself Nothing that I know of. So here, once again, I stand again at Hecate’s crossroads, at the crisis of being in existence, my heart suddenly thumping with a skip: AHA!

“The only constant is change,” Deborah reminded the class, as if she had read my mind. “Our purpose here is to present change fully and visibly, and to create AHA! in dance, taking nothing for granted,” she continued. “As a choreographer, I am least interested in choreography as choreography. I am most interested in the performance of movement. Of course, there are some little tricks, some of which I will demonstrated to you.”

Aha! Tricks! I was eager to learn a few tricks. My eagerness was due in part to the suggestive emphasis she had placed on the word “performance” when she pronounced it, insinuating something wonderfully exciting and inscrutably sacred underneath its sound. A writhing serpentine shape came to mind, or was it a rope projected and enlivened by her maya? Obviously this subtle mistress of suggestion knew many tricks. I was already losing my objectivity. I felt as if I were leaning over the edge of the Well, peering into the depths, fascinated by my fortune.

III. Crawling Into The Well

We proceeded with our warm-up exercise lying flat on our backs in a circle with our feet towards the center. Deborah Hay, our body-spirit guide into hitherto unknown, improvisational regions, began with firm suggestions to “open up” various areas such as the top of the head, the temples, the soles of the feet, the palms of the hands and so on. Her commands were punctuated every once in awhile with a liberating “AHA!” Her opening-up suggestions induced physical relaxation without directly ordering it – as policemen and other authority figures know only too well, ordering an uptight person to relax can provoke a violent reaction. Eventually she advised us to pick a moment and to begin moving close to the floor as spontaneously as possible.

“Open your eyes. See change. Let your eyes see change constantly, ceaselessly changing,” Deborah intoned, seemingly in harmony with some transcendental power. “Brighten your performance with seeing. Your eyes are excellent indicators of where you are.” I saw I was wrapping myself around one of the church pillars as if I were an uninhibited python in paradise. In any event, we never stopped moving. We squirmed and crawled about the floor for awhile, eventually sitting up or getting onto our thighs or knees while moving every part of the body still moveable.

“Use each other to recognize change. BE everything you are in your changing,” we were instructed. Clueless and without a cue, we stood up, everyone moving, moving, moving, changing, changing, changing….

“Keep yourself free from path, create pathlessness…every cell is awake, open, stimulated…now move the spine…this dance is not your duty…this dance is the perception of the beauty and the perfection of your spine….your goal is single-mindedness…. AHA! Embrace the floor with your feet…feel the sense of vulnerability of a child embracing the floor with its feet…now let your eyes reflect that embrace…let your body follow where your eyes takes you…take your eyes, take your heart with you…now deliberately create changes in direction, be fully there, be there in the change…use your eyes to recognize one another changing….”, Deborah incanted.

During this phase I stepped back to observe, listen and take notes for future reference – I fancied I was a writer in those days. And what a sight is was to behold, thirty people wending their way to mysterious destinations, turning and curving, winding and weaving, bending here and there, always changing wholeheartedly as individuals yet bound by the bodies of the other writhing occupants in the thriving community space….

Deborah suddenly interrupted and scolded us, insisting we were not seeing yet, not really SEEING, for she could see we were shielding our eyes as city people tend to do. Instead of shielding ourselves, we were asked to “invite people to see you, invite being seen, open your eyes, show a willingness to be seen. This is one of the tricks,” she confided, “finding the balance between seeing and being seen. This is rarely achieved, but we must take this practice seriously, and if we do, we shall arrive at our goal with an AHA!”

The participants recommenced moving, now to the Zulu vocals of ‘Manguzutho.’ Deborah danced with the group. She was poetry in motion, an African dancer possessed to possess. Fleet-footed with winged feet, she flew about the church; which, despite its modern-dance reputation, had never before bore witness to such a wild liturgy. She encircled the participants with her dynamic charms; each person was in turn visibly energized: each charge was amplified, and all felt the shock of each.

Although I had withdrawn to the perimeter to record the occasion, I became enchanted by Deborah’s African sorcery. I was tempted to hurl myself into the discombobulating frenzy. The others could not see what was going on in its entirety as I did from my assumed reportorial perspective. The sight of the incongruities her sympathetic manipulations had aroused in the crew caused me to crack up and cackle in a silly manner that had, nevertheless, as most good jokes have, the import of some profound truth.

That being done, we were in the mood for the lunch break, soon to be followed by some theory and practice to temper our indiscipline. As we enjoyed our drinks and snacks, Deborah casually remarked, “The older I get, the more I return. Returning to the moment, the principle of change, I can acknowledge change, being present in the change.” I ruminated on her words as I chewed my buttered roll. The older we are, I opined, the more we return because there is more to return to. That is our pool of experience, I reflected, as I took a sip of water. We note how older people live in the past, I noted, thinking of my old friend Paul, who became so occupied remembering the glory days that he wound up sleeping in a Bowery shelter. We should admonish a young person who dwells on the past too much, I proposed to myself as a terrible memory of my childhood flashed in my mind–especially if the dwelling is negative. It is impossible to live in the past anyway, I mused, then noticed that the guy at the deli had spread the butter on my roll much too thinly.

The thought of the past, or of a future derived from past information, I went on, occurs in the present and influences my behavior. Wait a minute, I paused, Where did I put my water? What was I thinking? I wondered, after finding the bottle slightly behind me. Oh, yes, I was thinking about thoughts. Maybe thoughts do not really matter unless we are superstitious about them. I swallowed the last of the bread, finished off the water, swept the crumbs into the corner to feed the insects and mice, then was moved to further ponder my personal situation.

I cling to the past by returning to the places I have been, so here I am again in New York hoping for a repetition of the glorious Sixties I ran away from. Back and forth I oscillate in a vicious curve carved by jet flights between Hawaii and New York. That vice can only end virtuously in the present moment, when I am fully aware of the fact that everything is in flux and that, by the time I get to where I am going to recover my past, that place has changed and so have I. Only in the present world before me may I perform fully as a person. Perform: to thoroughly complete. Is not that the joy of living to a happy ending? Then we may not adjudge a man happy until his completion in death, hence the ultimate question is not how to live well but how to die well. As I try to tear myself away from the community I cannot do without and to which I must always return to refresh myself, I may be just another imagined personal mask projected by the social mirror. Still, imagined or real, the show must go on. I must not falter in mid-stage, slump and slink away, hoping I am somehow rendered invisible. I must finish well. I must die well. I must perform fully across the stage, from wing to wing, and plunge into the wings as if I know exactly where I am going. Yes, to die well, that is…..

“O.K., break’s over, let’s go,” Deborah announced to the workshop participants, halting my ponderous reverie–and I was gladdened by her voice, for I had not the slightest idea of where I was going on that old black freight train.

IV. Well Made Tricks

After our lunch break, Deborah Hay introduced us to a sequence of images taken from her choreography ‘Leaving the House’, which she was scheduled to present as a solo performance at the Roulette performance space over the weekend. She called the images “fronts for being aware”, or “references that assist us in returning to the moment to fully perform conscious movement.” She meant by “consciousness” a more contemplative, expansive state of mind than a concentrated, contracted state of mind. She gave us a little demonstration or movement hint of each image as she described it, then we experimented with each dynamic image.


“Do a slow, well-paced run, leaving everything behind you, with a clean slate before you,” Deborah instructed, and we tried doing just that. Someone, not understanding what he saw or heard, asked what she meant by a “slow well-paced run.” She watched his effort for a moment, then advised, “Not too much down in order to go forward, just find the place where you are always travelling forward.” That did the trick for him, and he proceeded with an AHA!

‘Leaving the House’ had a surrealistic appearance. We did our best to imitate what we had seen, but because of the state of consciousness recommended for the action, the subject imitated was not an entirely objective model. And if the motion itself were imitated without consciousness of the motive, the performance did not come off well. As for running without a memory of the past, and with a clean slate: if everything were completely forgotten, we would be in an infantile state, rendering the act of running impossible; but Deborah’s suggestion was helpful to the extent thought and self-awareness did not hamper full expression of the movement. For a moment, however, being the sort of person I am, the idea of a clean slate or Nothing before me provoked me to think rather than act, inasmuch as it brought to mind the silent whistle of that ol’ black freight rain to nowhere–thinking is my favorite stalling activity. But then we moved onto the next image.


The guided imagery of ‘The Wave’ is that, while running, the runner encounters a big wave breaking his forward motion, to which he reacts with a strong wavering motion in harmony with the wave. Deborah’s personal wave was uncannily realistic. I had often tried to abstract ‘waving’ while living on the North Shore, but I did not have much success, therefore Deborah won my respect. It is difficult for a dancer to successfully represent a wave or any other object with the human body so effectively that an audience will immediately recognize it. Yet when the objective is made known before it is performed, we certainly know which dancer is most faithful to it.


The wave ends in a bubbling brook. The dancers’ feet become that bubbling brook with little side-steps in line and stamping indicative of a shallow brook gurgling over stones on its bed. The body above reflects and magnifies the movement below: arms wave, head rolls, torso twists and so on and so forth.


The dancer becomes a still summer hill, holding whatever pose she may strike for the expression: each person strikes a different interpretative pose. Again, the observer usually does not know precisely what object is being represented unless he is informed of the performer’s intent; then, AHA! However, if the motive of the dancer is strong enough, sometimes the still summer hill is intuitively recognized by the uninformed observer, or by the mind reader.


Now the still summer hill dissolves or melts away. Deborah was asked for tips about how to dissolve. She said the face dissolves before the rest of the body, that dissolving starts with the eyes, and the mouth relaxes and rounds. This continues throughout the body. Taking this as their cue, everyone in the group melted differently, as if they were snowmen of various sizes and shapes under different temperatures. Eventually everyone became a puddle on the floor.


Each in their own way, the dancers started jerking some part of their bodies off the floor, eventually arising to jump up and down in a squat. Short fat jumps backward and forward. Plop! Plop! Short fat jumps from side to side. Plop! Plop! Short fat jumps around and around. Plop! Plop! Plop! Short fat jumps turning in the air. Plump! Plump! Deborah told us to “feel the weight.”


Without prompting from anyone, the dancers wound up their short fat jumps facing the same direction, ready for the next image: Universal Love, a moving image resembling a victorious god or goddess with face lifted to the heavens, one palm lifted up and forward to receive blessings, who, with long, slow strides, leads everyone who cares to follow. Particular love is a contraction of universal love in mid-stride, a moment in the path where the extended palm returns to the body, bringing in universal love to the particular person. As the dancers repeated the movements across the floor, I envisioned dark lines flashing in the background, black neon signs forming two hexagrams from the I CHING. I looked the hexagrams up later:

‘Universal Love’ evoked the 20th hexagram for me: ‘Contemplation’ or ‘Kuan’. ‘Kuan’ means both contemplating and being seen as an example. It refers to the deepest inner concentration, between Libation and the Offering, during the sacrificial ceremony: “The ablution has been made,” states the I CHING, “but not the offering. Full of trust they look up to him.” Richard Wilhelm explains: “If piety is sincere and expressive of real faith, the contemplation of it has a transforming and awe-inspiring effect on those who witness it. Thus also in nature a holy seriousness is to be seen in the fact that natural occurrences are uniformly subject to law. Contemplation of the divine meaning underlying the workings of the universe gives to the man who is called upon to influence others the means of producing like effects.” (1)

‘Particular Love’ evoked the 61st hexagram, ‘Inner Truth’, or ‘Chung Fu.’ The humble heart is open to receive truth from outside, while being strong in inner truth. For example, when deciding tough cases, a judge should be free of prejudice and willing to hear the truth given by others, yet at the same time he should remain true to his insight. In this truthing process, we are brought into an interdependent relation with each other, as trustworthy members of the cosmos, thus resolving at once our alienation from the natural world without and the supernatural realm within.

Man’s alienation from the cosmos and his self proceeded with self-conscious thinking, the division of thinking subject from its objects, including other thinking subjects. Thus divided, homeless thinkers have yearned to return home again from their homeless state. No doubt ‘primitive’ people felt at home in the foundation of all the arts, dance, wherein they communed with God and Nature. But the formal development of thinking eventually led to the death of god and nature, aggravating man’s homelessness. The industrial-scientific revolution embedded the logical process in machines, and now the information age is gradually rendering many of us rather redundant by means of thinking machines. We are gradually being reduced to the performance of meaningless tasks for the production and consumption of vanities.

The modern dance movement recognized the modern, industrial form of alienation and sought to resolve it by casting off meaningless, impersonal routines. Modern dance made a heroic effort to re-establish the primordial harmony of man the microcosm in community with the cosmic macrocosm. For that redemption he has his human energy. He needs no other tool to apply than his human spirit. He needs no other matter to mold than his own body. Barefooted modern dancers protested ballet’s pretty lies about man’s Fall, defied ballet’s illusory defiance of gravity and grave. In other words, although the modern dancer might be striving for heaven, she dances her heavenly redemption on Earth.

Modern dance recognized that man’s recovery is from the fall to nature, and that his destiny here is to fall and recover again and again in living motion. Thus modern dance focused on the moving principle of life above dead forms, just as the Hindu goddess Sakti, in her Kali form, dances on her dead husband, Siva. Modern dance recognized and even emulated the efficient machine of the modern age, yet its dancer turned the wheel and was not crushed beneath it. Most of all, the spirit of modern dance rebelled against perfunctory dance movements which alienated the dancer from the meaning of her performance.

However, modern dance evolved into various technical cults. Before long modern dancers were taking ballet classes and ‘doing technique’ instead of dancing. But that was contrary to the leading principle of modern dance. Enter post-modern dance pioneers such as Deborah Hay to protest the stultification of dance and the alienation of the dancer. The post-modern dancer seeks unity not in formal choreography but in naturally moving awareness, when mind and body are at home with each other and at home with spirit and matter in cosmic unity. Of course that is nothing new although it is revolutionary and radical in the sense of returning to the roots of dance. There is nothing new under the Sun. All rebels are spoiled by the authorities they rebel against, and in their protest they harken back to a previous protest, ultimately to that first point and instant which is the principle of their line at any position in space and moment in time.

I think if philosophy is to know thyself, then at its best modern dance is the energetic philosophy of being thyself in motion moving through forms in contrast to striking permanent classical poses. But what do I know? In the final analysis: nothing. My philosophy shall always fail pending my end. My particular freedom is my failure to achieve the universal ideal wherein no further movement is warranted. So, again, I think the modern dancer, feeling the fire between the poles, never stops moving between and through all possible forms, which are, as Deborah Hay might say, “fronts for awareness.”

Be that as it may, During the enactment of ‘Universal Love’ and ‘Particular Love’ by our workshop, each dancer had a different manner of bringing in universal love to herself. Deborah, for example, seemed to deflect or reject Universal Love with her hand before it reached her, hence I longed to see her bring her palm boldly over her heart so the heart she shared so ardently with others could be returned to her. Sometimes she looked drawn and emptied by her giving. Perhaps she was suffering from jet lag and was now in fact exhausted as the workshop drew to a close. Be that as it may, her performance of the dynamic images of love reminded me of how I had turned away from the well a few years prior, my jug broken.

We had completed our experiments. Someone asked a final question about the images:

“Do the images really take us to the place we want to go to? Can we have, in this world, what we imagine? That is, by examining the object, can we obtain it?”

“I am not hooked on imagery” Deborah replied. “The process is a very long one. Sometimes the movement itself takes me to the place.”

Sadly, our workshop with Deborah Hay at St. Marks Church in Manhattan was drawing to a rapid close. I made sure I had the flyer, announcing her performance for the coming weekend, in my dance bag.

“I appreciate your willingness to play, “Deborah said in closing.”Your willingness to play is visible. It can be seen. But do not forget, always remember that choreography is not to be seen. What is to be seen is performance, the consciousness, the light. What is to be seen is all of the person, not just the dance, not just part of the person, but all of the person. Thank you.”

V. Questioning the Well

Yes, the Beatles were certainly right, it is “a long and winding road,” I mused as I rode the subway home. As the hours passed, I plunged into reverie to a depth where my thoughts took on a life of their own. Submarine monsters, bearing no resemblance whatsoever to any creature I had seen before, glided in the deep, occasionally illuminated by shafts of light from above, then, AHA! Without bidding from me, certain recognizable features from my past emerged, animated images, long since submerged and embedded in sandy bottoms, were now reincarnated and swept through my mind in a flood of nostalgia.

“The older I get, the more I return,” Deborah’s recent remark recurred to me as memories from the past long gone proceeded. Now willing to cooperate, I dug into my unpacked suitcase – my home was a temporary space on an old friend’s floor – and brought out phonograph records I had been lugging around unplayed for several years; I could not afford to purchase a record player while on my long and winding road. I gazed at the album covers advertising music played by the courtly, mystical gamelan, the lyres of ancient Egypt, and the long flutes of the East. Deborah had broken the cryptic seal, and now, despite my necessary concern with present exigencies, I had become the archaeologist of my own existence.

“Belay the past! Set aside the irrevocable reality of the past in brackets!” I ordered myself and withdrew abruptly from my excavation. This is the present, this is my now, I am what I am here and now, nothing more nor less, hence the past avails me not for it is forever gone and better forgotten lest it interfere with my pressing task.

Still, I could not put Deborah aside. She is an uncanny woman, I conjectured, someone who has sipped the sacred spring from the occluded well by which the dragon sleeps. As time proceeds, her suggestions will take root and grow in those of us who attended her workshop. Unbeknownst to us, her commands shall have enlightening effects above as the subliminal stalks draw sustenance from the mud below.

“I must see her perform at the Roulette this weekend!” I enthusiastically proclaimed to my alter ego, putting my records back in their rightful place under the trousers at the bottom of the beat-up suitcase doubling as my portable bureau. “But take care,” I warned myself, “and know whom you really adore. In her you see yourself mirrored, the self you actually love, and, if your self is false, so shall be your love. Hopelessly infatuated romantic do not be, then, for a romantic’s great expectations causes him always to fall short of his mark with a broken heart and, in the end, to exclaim, ‘Twas not love but mere foolishness!'”

As I traveled along the long and winding subway tracks next Friday evening to the performance space downtown, I wondered if Deborah Hay would realize her visions in public performance or if she would fall short. I determined to approach her work from a more critical, “objective” perspective. That would require the consideration of objects other than my subjective projections onto her personal screen.

Deborah had called her images “fronts for being aware.” Aware of what? What is behind the image if the image is just a front? She had also said, “I am not hooked on imagery. It’s a long process. Sometimes the movement itself takes me to the place.” And what place might that be? An invisible spiritual home? Does she dream the old dancer’s dream of reconciliation with the Object in order to BE the subjective within the objective, which is not its image or front but its spirit? Would she be one with the Universe or its Law or Energy by moving through its representative forms? Perhaps her images or fronts for awareness are fetiches. Maybe she makes an image to make a connection with the ultimate Power. Maybe she uses the image as a tool to realize the Supernatural beyond the Natural. Yet the spirit within is always unseen although it might be felt, hence any image without is incompetent to adequately express it. It would seem that, as a postmodern dancer, the images would be inconsequential to her true intent. If any particular order is irrelevant, then choreography is futile.

Well, if the indefinite spirit within cannot be seen as a sight or scene, why bother to perform before an audience? The performance might feel good to the performer, but feelings can be had anywhere. And if whatever is behind the image could be communicated to others by parapsychic means, no performance would be required.

I think postmodern dancers want to break through the traditional images and dispense with the imagination itself in order to spontaneously obtain the concrete realization of ideas; as if ideas were beings divorced from the imagination, with its relative and continuous motion of time through definite spatial boundaries perceived as forms. No matter how much we might object that our “beings” or ideas represent or are the real principle of the natural rather than the contrived supernatural, our intention is still transcendental; that is, we really want to escape. But concrete realization of the supernatural on Earth presents a paradox, for escape velocity is only achieved in death, and, although Nothing exists, Nothing cannot be portrayed or imagined in any shape or form. The danse macabre in itself is futile as a means of communicating the reality of death behind maya’s imaginary front.

Well, then, we might as well return to the pretty balletic illusion that gravity does not exist instead of bemoaning gravity and somehow trying to find our existence in the mass or in the grave. Of course modern dance would demonstrate the tragic synthesis of matter and spirit in the human being. Despite our transcendental aspirations, redemption is only had on Earth; with modern dance we can have joy in our complaints and communicate the same in sublime forms appreciable to a broad audience. But what can postmodern dance do in its protest of the modern? Where can postmodern dance go except to eventually return to the very images it protests, to return to the sophistries of classical and modern dance rhetoric in order to coherently communicate its protest?

I think we want to get behind or beyond the imagination by means of ideation, yet we are the prisoners of imagination. Our very ideas are grounded in and arise from the imagination. And I speak not only of the optical imagination, upon which most of us are too dependent, but of the imagination of the blind man as well, whose other senses are sharpened to compensate for what the seeing take for granted.

With those reflections in mind as I hurtle along the winding subterranean rails to witness Deborah Hay’s solos at Roulette, I cannot help but think my trip is unwarranted given the postmodernist rejection of objective standards. I might as well be blind to them; someday I will ask a blind man what it is like to attend a dance concert. Will he say the spiritual ambience of the postmodern audience feels better than that of the modern or classical?

I had already seen postmodern dance performed once before. I described Pooh Kaye’s choreography in my review ‘Punkmodern Object Relations.’ Her company’s performance had its sensational merits in gut feelings, but its chaotic flip-flopping around was not very handsome or pretty, nor did it communicate anything in particular; rather, it seemed to simulate a hysterical, narcissistic return to the womb. It seemed as if the rebellious dancers, feeling homeless in their alienated individuation, were struggling to leave the house forever, unaware that the process of rebellion was returning them to the house they were rebelling against. Indeed, rebels, like snails, carry that house around on their backs, but they think it is a new house, a house of freedom, when they withdraw into it at another location. But the good they flee to has its origin in the evil avoided. Their attempts to leave the orderly house behind collapses into hysterical antics. Finally, In order to overcome the dread of incest implied by the mission, the individual human is bound to return to the horrible scene of the alienating crime, where he fell into time and space as an individual.

Well, now, it is 1985 and Deborah is about to perform ‘Leaving the House’ in Manhattan. I recall she said her movement takes her “there” (wherever that might be) more than the image. But again, whoever we might be, are we not prisoners of our images? Is not a man’s epitaph an image of his work upon which is inscribed ‘He Tried To Break Free.’ And do we not as rebels against the traditional wisdom throw off our shells to travel the long and winding road to freedom, and, if we survive the circuitous road, find ourselves embracing the very concepts we rebelled against? Moreover, are we not all snails who have, besides our individual personalities housing our guilt, the same cosmic house on our backs? We would shed our skins, cast off our shells, dispense with the standards and become function itself, but function has it being through forms. Function has an objective, meaning a communicable use, and has no end in itself.

Which forms shall Deborah Hay use and to what end? What sort of solo per-formance or “through to completion” shall she present at the Roulette? That remains to be seen. Some of us might want it to be a “sight” or vision fixed to permanent reality, preferably planned out well in advance to please us with recognizable forms we are safe and sound at home with in a neat, tidy house. Others, more bold, or perhaps more foolish, want no choreography at all and would rather be thrilled by the challenge and homelessness of improvisation; they would view a continuous operation, experience every house as an never-ending house with stuff thrown all over the place to trip over. Indeed, seeing is continuous motion of the eye; nevertheless there exists. relative to the motion, the immovable sight.

Finally! The subway train is pulling into the station. I am climbing the stairs. I shall see.

VI. Reflections in the Well

That we may better understand the gravity of Deborah’s performance, we should remember that dance is the foundation of the arts. Despite Cicero’s statement that sober Romans did not dance, common sense informs us that life itself is a dance no matter how seriously we take it. No matter how silly dancers might appear to sober sages, life will never stop moving. As we settle into our seats we may rest assured that Deborah Hay is a significant example of a science and art requiring no other tool for discovery and expression than the dancer’s original triunal gift of body, mind, and spirit. After all, she is one of the founders of the “radical”, “revolutionary” and “explosive” Judson Dance Theatre. Since we heard her say that, the older she gets, the more she returns, we may expect a stunning show this evening as she approaches her radical roots.

Existentialists claim existence is prior to being no matter what the definition of being may be. Therefore we might assume that the return to existence explodes traditional conventions. However that may be, I feel guilty for the past because I believe it could have been different if only I would have taken that other path, but I could not know then what I know now, so things could not have been different then or, alas, for that matter, now…. All I can envison is the past because that is all there is therefore I am revisioning and not changing. My supposed freedom alienates me. I want freedom from freedom, freedom from guilt, freedom from thinking that it could have been otherwise than it was, freedom from my revisioning…. There is always some thing, person or god to blame for the inevitable, but I do not want to give up this freedom that irks me…. Maybe the past could have been different after all, maybe it can be different now…. I shall return to the primitive dance and start all over again…. Where are my explosive plastics?

Cram a woman in a box and she might seem rather small and pathetic until she is atomized and explodes–then all hell breaks loose. Deborah’s ‘Leaving the House’ has been critically acclaimed as a leading feminist statement of her time. I have asked her what that means. Did some man beat the hell out of her in the traditional manner? Did she have to summon all her courage to leave the house that was supposed to be her security but was actually a hell hole? I don’t know. In an attempt to dispel the “myth” that we must know something about art to appreciate art, the show bill quotes her as saying:

“When we are confronted with art, we usually think there is something we should know before we see it, but what I am dancing is what you see…whatever you see.”

So, Deborah brought us to the Roulette to spin our own answers with the aid of her visual images. Fortunately, she did not leave us with only the visual aids, but with hearing aids as well. The celebrated postmodern composer, Pauline Oliveros, armed with her glistening 120-bass accordion, personally accompanied Deborah, in ‘The Well.’ And, for ‘Leaving the House,’ Deborah used Pauline’s composition, ‘The Wheel of Time’, recorded by the Kronos String Quartet, Now Pauline has this to say about her music, which supports the proposition that knowing something about art does in fact aid our appreciation of it:

“As a musician, I am interested in the sensual nature of sound, its power of synchronization, coordination, release and change. Hearing represents the primary sense organ – hearing happens involuntarily. Listening is a voluntary process that through training and experience produces culture. All cultures develop through ways of listening. Deep Listening is listening in every possible way to everything possible to hear no matter what you are doing. Such intense listening includes the sounds of daily life, of nature, or one’s own thoughts as well as musical sounds. Deep Listening represents a heightened state of awareness and connects to all that there is. As a composer I make my music through Deep Listening.” (Pauline Oliveros,

The Roulette performance space, an apartment converted into a dingy and dirty, poorly lit avant-garde studio, certainly required a heightened state of aesthetic awareness in 1985. But the audience was oblivious to the dust and grime; New Yorkers are inured to dismal scenery; besides, the dreary conditions gave the theatre an air of postmodern authenticity. On second thought, no better house could have been contrived for ‘Leaving the House.’ When Deborah entered the crummy lighting, her right side appeared dark, old and lame, and her left side was bright, young and spry, lending her the appearance of a person split between despair and hope. She entered anxiously, seemingly frightened at first, then exhausted, drawn, unbalanced, clumsy, grieved, possessed, quite mad. I recalled what she had said at the workshop the day before the performance:

“What is to be seen is performance, the consciousness, the light. What is to be seen is all of the person, not just the dancer, not just part of the person.”

As Deborah staggered around, I was initially disappointed by my high expectations for her, expectations due to my previous admiration for her in her teaching role. Now all eyes were on her, and, true to her word, she made no attempt whatsoever to hide her weaknesses. I suppose I was subconsciously expecting a pretty ballerina to tombe pas de bourree glissade jete into heaven; or an equally lovely but modern Persephone to pull up a narcissus and sublimely descend in a wonderfully choreographed struggle with the underworld lord. Therefore I was saddened and embarrassed by the reality before me.

This is meaningless, I thought, as if the meaning of life must be all peaches and cream and bowls of cherries. She plunges into the abyss of despair and chaos under our noses to fathom Nothing. Still, I felt hope for her redemption welling up in my aggrieved heart. Maybe she will emerge from her grave depression, ecstatic in her dance. Perhaps in dance, in the seemingly illogical, mad unity of life and death, of spirit and matter, she will break the common mold with an uncommon revelation, obliterate the world with creative destruction, and by her portrayal of the essential madness of human life, momentarily resolve the paradox of human existence, so on and so forth. Therefore, whatever she brings back from chaos, I am now ready to receive it, to experience it vicariously, or, in other words, speaking words of wisdom: “Let it be.”

AHA! Now that I was open to her revelation, Deborah’s candor amazed me. Her performance was marvelous in the Now that I was seeing as she was seeing. Regardless of the physical tension demonstrating the images she calls “fronts for awareness,” I perceived she was inwardly open and relaxed. Her expressions communicated something fantastic, but never mind, for the intuitive experience itself was beyond any imaginable fantasy: it was….


I don’t pretend to know. I can only describe what I saw and felt. The images I had not seen before had a greater effect on me than the ones Deborah had previously demonstrated at the workshop. I was curious. I was both stunned and inexplicably moved. Soon Deborah was crawling across the floor with her face under her body. She uttered something unintelligible to the rational mind but profoundly affective to the heart, a cry of emotive unity: fearful yet defiant; angry but loving; begging while giving, joyous in sorrow, beastly and human. She was a baby. Normally a crying baby is unappreciated at public performances, resulting in the removal of the bawling artist from the scene – provided the parents are civilized – but this baby had our deepest sympathies. I felt like picking her up. Is not that what we all cry for, since our alienating fall into the the world? for our mothers and fathers to pick us up and hold us?

Deborah convulsed. Although wracked by contradictory movements, there was still method to her madness, an awesome harmony in her disheveled disorder. What her intention was, if there was any intention, remains a mystery to me. Maybe she set out to emulate chaos, or to somehow deliberately express the inchoate, but I received the impression she was ultimately seized by some higher order superseding her contradictions. Mystified by these proceedings, we paused for an intermission.

I gazed into the amazed faces of the audience during the interlude. The conversations were hesitant and subdued. I saw the dead ancestors in the living faces. We are the dead alive, I thought. I am returning. I am looking behind me now for my future meaning. I see a grave. I would rob it, and…

And it was time for the final performance of the evening: ‘The Well.’ Pauline Oliveros played her accordion as Deborah danced. The accordion sparkled in the light, its bellows pumping life into the song of the….

What? Music from my past! I was seven-years old when a huge 120-bass Noble accordion was bestowed on me in pursuant to the acculturation movement of the Fifties. Every child was gifted in those days; every gifted child just had to play a musical instrument for their own good. My foster brother Jim got a violin: he hated it with all his heart and soul. But I loved my accordion, heavy though it was. Since there were no accordion teachers in Muskogee, Jim’s violin teacher tried to teach me to play the accordion. Fortunately for the discriminating ear, I graduated to an accordion school when I moved to Topeka. I vividly remember dragging my instrument several blocks to that school, occasionally encountering black people marching along the avenue singing “We Shall Overcome.” I was in an accordion band. I received Third Prize at the Heart of America Accordion Festival, where I also danced a Strauss waltz. When I took my seat on stage to play my solo, ‘Malagueña’, I was paralyzed with fear; my teacher loudly whispered the name of the beginning chord from the wings; somehow I got through the performance; to this day I cannot remember a bit of it. Shortly thereafter I played the accordion for the military school dance band – the colonel saddled me with a tuba for the marching band. I continued playing the accordion after military school – I was particularly fond of the kind of classical music Isadora Duncan liked to dance to. But I needed money when I got married, so I hocked my accordion: that was the end of my accordioneering career. I regret I stopped playing. We must never stop dancing our favorite pastimes.

And now Pauline Oliveros is playing her accordion at the Roulette: I am all ears. Her music comprised delicate, simple tones of various durations, gentle discordants here and there, multiple rhythms, even and uneven. It did not distract from the dance but augmented it, or rather it was the golden thread by which Deborah found her way to the Well of Inexhaustible Nourishment. When I saw Deborah enter with a bolt of cloth draped over her head, I remembered the peculiar dream dreamed for me a few nights before, of three women approaching the village well; one of them asked, “What is the difference between a Christian and a Jew?” Another responded, “It is the taste in your mouth,” and she began drawing water from the well.

As Pauline spun the fateful musical thread, Deborah, eyes covered by the cloth, paced about calmly. The burial cloth slowly slid off her head. She wrapped it around her torso, a dress of life, and proceeded with her dance. I was being drawn into a trance. I saw an Egyptian priestess, maybe Isis. I heard high-pitched screams, then very low, hollow, round, open groans. That is all I can remember until the end, when she knelt, cupped her hands and drank….

“A cup of cold water in the desert.”



(1) THE I CHING, The Richard Wilhelm Translation, Transl English, Cary F. Baynes, Princeton: University Press, 1972

Official Web Site Biography of Deborah Hay (

DEBORAH HAY “is a phenomenon capable of expanding and diversifying the language of movement in the most striking and unexpected ways.” Dance Australia. Her choreography, from exquisitely meditative solos to the dances she makes for large groups of untrained and trained dancers, explores the nature of experience, perception, and attention in dance.

Born in Brooklyn in 1941, Deborah grew up making annual pilgrimages into Manhattan with her mother, to see the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall and the New York City Ballet at City Center. She was a founding member of the Judson Dance Theater, one of the most radical and explosive art movements in this century. In 1964 she danced with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. In 1965 she abandoned all dance training. By 1967 she was choreographing exclusively for untrained dancers thus removing herself from the performing arena.

Hay left New York in 1970 to live in a community in northern Vermont. Her daughter Savannah was born one year later. It was here that she began to follow a rigorous daily movement practice which, to this day, continues to inform her as a student, teacher, and performer. She created a series of Ten Circle Dances, which did not have public performance as a goal. Her book, Moving through the Universe in Bare Feet, Swallow Press, l975, is a collection of these simple dances.

In 1976 she moved to Austin, Texas, and began performing as a solo artist for the first time. Since l980 she has conducted fifteen annual large group workshops, each lasts four months and culminates in public performances. The group dances become the fabric for her solo performance repertory. Her book Lamb at the Altar: The Story of a Dance, Duke University Press, l994, documents this unique creative process.

Deborah received a 1983 Guggenheim Fellowship in Choreography and was awarded numerous National Endowment for the Arts Choreography Fellowships. She was awarded the prestigious McKnight National Fellowship from the Minnesota Dance Alliance to conduct an extensive performance residency in 1996 in Minneapolis. She is also the recipient of a 1996 Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Fellowship in collaboration with the Austin sculptor, TreArenz.

She tours extensively as a solo performer and teacher. Her writings appear in The Drama Review, Contact Quarterly, Movement Research Journal, and the Performing Arts Journal. She was just awarded a National Dance Project Touring Grant from the New England Foundation for the Arts which will help subsidize her tour My Body, The Buddhist, on Tour from January through May 2001. <i, will be available from Wesleyan University Press, Fall 2000.

Since l980 she has collaborated with composer/musicians Pauline Oliveros, Richard Landry, Terry Riley, Ellen Fullman, with poet/percussionist Bill Jeffers, visual artist Tina Girouard, and TreArenz, and theater directors SaskiaHekt and Johannes Birringer.

Chapbook Copyright 2001 David Arthur Walters
Original Art Copyright 2002 Minerva T. Bloom


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