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The art of dis-attachment

INTERVIEW: Deborah Hay. Tanz im August is still in full swing and on Friday, August 24, author and choreographer Hay brings her unique performance to HAU 2 as part of it. Here she explains why it's a good thing that she can't fly.

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Photo by Rino Pizzi

An unmistakable fixture in experimental choreography since the 1960s, Deborah Hay comes to Berlin this summer as part of the Tanz im August festival.

‘Dis-attach’ in two steps: realise where you are in time and space, and then detach from it. This way of dealing with the body has formed the core of Hay’s work and, together with her books, has made her an icon of postmodern dance.

The 2010 score for her solo work No Time to Fly includes sketches of movement, as well as directions for singing and thoughts. In keeping with this year’s festival theme of language in performance, she also incorporates a quotation from playwright Samuel Beckett: “Strictly speaking I believe I’ve never been anywhere.”

Has your work changed over the decades you’ve worked as a choreographer?

My work has always been about the same thing: I learn from my body. My question is what is the potential of the whole human body, as opposed to the mind existing above the shoulders or as opposed to most dance framing, where the body is just trained into existence and has no voice whatsoever.

The idea of intelligence in the whole body is something I have been stuck on investigating. I’m just driven to plumb whatever I can from this body that I walk around in all day long: the wisdom of it, the intelligence of it, the blasphemy of it, the shit and the ache and pain, to learn from the whole body as opposed to the little patient part.

That sounds like a far more emotional body than one would guess from the title of your book My Body, the Buddhist

I’m not fixed on any one of these things; I just include everything in my dancing. I’m not interested in teaching my body how to move, nor am I wanting anybody in the world to move like me. When I’m transmitting a dance to a group, I never demonstrate. I’m not interested in facsimile – I’m interested in how we perceive. So I ask: how much can I notice, with past, present and future? In a way there’s nothing fixed in my work, except the process of intention.

How would you describe this process of intention?

Just noticing the body unfolding in time and space. Noticing one second after the next after the next, noticing and letting it go and noticing and dis-attaching. The work is really about detaching from the kind of patterns that keep us from noticing. It’s not detachment from the body; it’s dis-attaching from any one moment.

It’s impossible to do this work, and that’s also what’s so thrilling about it. Do you know how long it takes to come to the understanding that I’m not going to get it? And every person that works with me has to give that up, this insane notion of grasping, holding onto and getting it. You just work your butt off trying to notice.

So what’s kept you going nearly half a century in the dance world?

Until about 2002 it was a dog’s world of survival, every single year, looking for enough presenters of one form or another, and about every seven years I would swear I was going to quit. It was an insane way to live. But as everyone who knew me said, “Well what else are you going to do, Deborah?” I did apply for a print job in Austin, Texas, but I was rejected [laughs]. In 2002 it changed and I started getting asked. That is my measure of success, when presenters come to me instead of me going to them. If it wasn’t for Europe that wouldn’t be happening. I’m so grateful to Europe for its interest and its support, because there is no money for the arts [in the US].

Is there a growing audience for the kind of work you do?

I think dance audiences are getting very smart. I think the art form is going through a huge surge of comprehension. It’s much more spacious than five years ago. I find audiences are much more open than I’ve ever experienced before.

How does writing fit in to your practice?

I write partially because I can’t afford a videographer that could do justice to what my work is, so it’s both a documentation and a separate art form in and of itself. There are people who know me through my books, and have never even seen my work, and that’s kind of interesting. My writing teaches me about my dances, and then my dances teach me about writing.

What’s the meaning behind the title No Time to Fly?

When I am performing I have no time to fly because I’m so busy noticing as much as I can that I can’t fly off. I can’t leave my audience if they have come to see me: I can’t fly off; I can’t fly away. I have this relationship to my audience, to the space where I’m dancing and that isn’t a negative. It’s really easy to look at that phrase, “no time to fly”, and think, “oh, poor girl”. But I mean it as a celebration of how fantastic it is that I have this opportunity, this relationship with this audience to practice the performance of this material, and not fly away. It’s easy to fly – what’s difficult is being here.

NO TIME TO FLY Aug 24-25, 20:00 | HAU 2, Hallesches Ufer 32, Kreuzberg, U-Bhf Hallesches Tor