We often think of dance as a means of steering the body through space and time using more awareness than in the usual pedestrian sense of movement. But after viewing two solos created by Deborah Hay on Friday night at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, this sort of description seems too passive and limited. When dancers Jeanine Durning and Ros Warby took the stage to interpret Hay's works, they became the very embodiment of possibility.
Hay, a pioneer in the development of postmodern movement, began her career with Merce Cunningham in the 1960s and was a co-founder of the influential boundary-breaking Judson Dance Theater, a New York collective of performing artists who ushered in a new era in experimentation. She approaches her choreographic and teaching process with the questioning mind of strategist, finding infinite potential within deceptively simple instructions, inviting the performer and viewer to consider what lies beyond the obvious.
There can be an overemphasis in dance to execute with effortless polish, but Hay, true to the Judson spirit, allows the process of grappling and the whirring wheels of thought to show through the seams of her work, rendering it virtuosic in a wholly unexpected way. With the 2010 solo "No Time to Fly," for example, the basis for Durning's movement is essentially a prolonged fidget, her feet tip-tapping along the floor, her arms and hands grasping at something elusive.
She pauses to break into song or unleashes a gravelly voice, engaging her mind and body in subtle and intimate acts of transformation continually revealed over the course of the piece. Not everything she does holds attention, but that isn't the point. When Durning pauses to survey the scene around her she radiates a mix of calm and curiosity.
In "Fire" (1999), Warby mines Hay's sneaky sense of wit by using her lanky body, alert face and capacity for multiple vocal effects to wend through a work that is at once awkwardly comic and enchantingly beautiful. Her body is rubbery and elastic yet also controlled.
In many ways Warby has an alien quality, but when she confronts the audience with a hissing "Who are you?" it's clear we are the interlopers in her carefully constructed world, one marked by the forceful inspiration that Hay has cultivated over her 50 years redefining dance.
Caroline Palmer writes regularly about dance.