Deborah Hay’s Figure a Sea Creates a Space for Reflection

United StatesUnited States Deborah Hay, Figure a Sea: Guests and Artists of the Cullberg Ballet, Freud Playhouse UCLA, Los Angeles, 16.10.2016. (JRo)

Cullberg Ballet. Credit: Phinn Sriployrung.
Cullberg Ballet (c) Phinn Sriployrung

Adam Schütt, Anand Bolder, Barry Brannum, Camille Prieux, Daniel Sjökvist, Dario Barreto Damas, Eleanor Campbell, Eszter Czédulás, Eva Mohn, Gesine Moog, Jac Carlsson, Katie Jacobson, Katie Vickers, Samuel Draper, Simon Tanguy, Tiran Willemse, Ulrika Berg, Unn Faleide, Vera Nevanlinna, Vincent Van der Plas

Composer – Laurie Anderson
Sound Design – Martin Ekman
Lighting Design – Minna Tiikkainen
Costumes – Marita Tjärnström

Meditative, spare, hypnotic, fascinating, and tender – words that aptly express the experience of seeing Deborah Hay’s Figure a Sea. Her minimalist aesthetic combined with her insistence on the poetry of everyday movements forge a quiet yet compelling inner dialogue for every dancer, and offer the audience a window into the workings of each dancer’s mind and body.

Hay’s choreographic investigations began in New York in the 1960s in the fertile ground of Judson Dance Theatre among such contemporaries as Trisha Brown, Lucinda Childs, and Yvonne Rainer and composers such as John Cage and Robert Dunn. For Figure a Sea, Hay collaborated with Laurie Anderson, who created eighteen short scores for the dance. Long periods of silence,  punctuated by Anderson’s subtle, innovative, and often celestial soundscapes, contributed to the hushed atmosphere – a welcome change from the over reliance on jarring electronics favored by many of Hay’s younger contemporaries.

Twenty dancers, roughly demarcated by three different groups of costumes, all a version of casual attire in soft grays, blacks, and dark blues, performed before an elegant backdrop: a large rectangle divided horizontally, with a gray sea in the lower portion and a white space in the upper. As the dance progressed, the lower rectangle took on a darker opacity and the upper glowed white. It was a minimalist delight that put me in mind of the paintings of Vija Celmins, Agnes Martin, and Mary Corse. Overhead, a grid of lights kept the stage brightly illuminated and allowed the audience to engage with the dancers as individuals.

The dancer as individual was the driving force behind Hay’s conception. With the wings of the stage open to public view, dancers engaged in independent movement in every available space, from the dark depths at the back to the apron on either side of the stage in front of the proscenium. If one chose to focus attention on the entire picture encompassing all twenty dancers, the experience was much like viewing a panoramic landscape (or seascape) – a bit fuzzy but uplifting. But if one zeroed in on each individual, an entirely different experience unfolded. Whether dancing in the dark wings or in the brightly lit center of the stage, any given dancer could be seen performing a noteworthy solo.

Actions that seemed random were, in fact, highly choreographed steps, ranging from casual everyday movements to classical ballet’s attitudes, arabesques, and entrechats. The thoughtful Cullberg performers and guest artists were up to any challenge. Dancers sometimes paired up, hugging, strolling the stage together, or supporting one another in more traditional dance postures. There was the odd trio and the occasional pile-up of bodies, often suggesting a tableaux vivant. All the while, one sensed each dancer’s personal exploration of body and mind, and though the performance seemed a bit long at one hour, I wouldn’t have traded the experience. The evening was unusual and rare – modest, contemplative, and intelligent, it satisfied the soul in these noisy, troubled times.

Jane Rosenberg

Leave a Comment