Deborah Hay presents Up Until Now
January 29-31 & February 4-7, 2009 @ Winchester Street Theatre
By Leandra de Valois-Franklin
Have you ever arrived at a party where everyone’s tripping on psychedelics and entactogens and you seem to be the only sober one with no clue as to what’s happening? If not, you can experience a similarly discombobulated feeling at Deborah Hay’s trippy world premiere of Up Until Now. The work, which began as the solo I’ll Crane For You, was taught to 20 dancers/choreographers last summer, and was recently adapted by Toronto Dance Theatre artistic director Christopher House for his company. The result is a drug-fueled disco that invites viewers — if they dare — into the world of the avant-garde club kid of 2009…I think?!
In a choreographic discussion held a week prior to opening night, Deborah Hay confirmed that there is no right or wrong interpretation to the movement, which is composed of directions that challenge and confront each dancer’s separate experience in the field, engaging them on several levels of consciousness at once…whoa, man! The whole spiel deals with the notion of infiltrating the choreographed body in order to transcend it. Hay creates a set of questions, referred to as the “balls in the air,” which the eleven dancers ask themselves while performing. These are huge questions with no answers about grand narratives, with the effect of “continually shocking the performer into a state of awareness”. The dancers are also given impossible tasks, like “turn without turning” which undoubtedly elicits various results from each body. The performance is more about the dancers discovering themselves on a deeper level than it is about audience entertainment. The audience members are invited to make their own assumptions about the cellular body, as opposed to the dancers’ personality.
Without set design or music, the only details which lead my mind to create a party scenario are the dancers’ ultra-glam outfits of glitter and gold. Their sporadic behaviour is what causes my imagination to develop the impression that I’m observing a re-enactment of various drug trips, including the introspective trip (I am at the disco, dancing), the reflective trip (what am I doing at the disco, dancing?), the social trip (can I please stroke your glitters?), and of course the bad trip (your glitters are trying to kill me).
While one performer is experiencing a movement tantrum in the corner, others calmly wonder across the stage and around the bleachers, appearing to search aimless for the next hit. They are aware of each other, sometimes vaguely, but seem to be studying the audience as intently as we are studying them. For the majority of the hour-long experiment, sound is restricted to soft humming, bouts of gibberish, and loud grunts. As the party quietly subsides and the guests congregate into a group, a performer makes absurd statements like “break it in two and it’s still one,” and “don’t underestimate your hair; it will only make you stronger…at the beginning.” What seem like spontaneous ’shroom-driven commentary is in fact well-rehearsed, as the others mime along with the words. I can only imagine how hilarious the rehearsal process must have been!
Hay is renowned for her unconventional methods, stating, “I choreograph my dances after they have been performed.” She honed her unique approach to performance art/dance as a young choreographer in 1960s New York with the radical experimental Judson Dance Theatre. As one of the pioneering post-modern dancers — who were heavily influenced by artists Merce Cunningham, John Cage, and Robert Rauschenberg — Hay, along with the other Judson artists, challenged dance by throwing out conventions and shocking the modern dance world. At 67, Hay continues to be an influential choreographer, performer, teacher, and writer. Acknowledging that “dancers were fairly late to pick up the pen,” Hay stresses the importance of intellectualizing (on paper) the artists’ process and philosophies, so that one may articulate a language for abstraction. “In order to make an esoteric experience, you better put it in writing; otherwise no one will get it.” Um, please pass the programme notes?
Tamara Rojo, principal dancer for the Royal Ballet, once said that “one of the most beautiful things ballet has brought me is that I can escape from reality whenever I want — and I don’t have to take any drugs.” Surely this statement is true for all dancers, but what about the observer? As the audience of serious spectators stared intently at the thought-provoking work, I could hear Christopher House giggling away in the back row. I can only surmise that: 1) he was being reminded of some inside jokes from rehearsal, 2) he was taking the postmodern-piss out of us all, or 3) he was on some sweet drugs.
Perhaps if a complimentary hit of je ne sais quoi was distributed at the door, we would all see the humour in this RETROspective of 60s NYC performance art, and the Winchester Space would have been transformed into a rave of ecstatic dancers and dancers on ecstasy. As it turned out however, Up Until Now proved to be a performance that I enjoyed more during the reflection process than I did watching the work itself. I can only relate my post-performance reaction to that curious day-after-hung-over feeling of OMG, WHAT JUST HAPPENED?! …I’m still not sure.