Deborah Hay

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Deborah Hay
Known forPerformance art, Choreography, Dancing
MovementPostmodern dance
AwardsGuggenheim Fellowship

Deborah Hay is an experimental choreographer working in the field of postmodern dance. She is one of the founding members of the Judson Dance Theater.[1]

Early life and work (1960s)[edit]

Deborah Hay was born in 1941 in Brooklyn. Her mother was her first dance teacher and directed her training until she was a teenager.

She moved to Downtown, Manhattan in the 1960s, where she continued her training with Merce Cunningham and Mia Slavenska. She was part of the collective of dancers, composers, and visual artists who performed at the Judson Memorial Church and became known as the Judson Dance Theater. This was a group of experimentalists who rejected the confines of Modern dance practice and theory, inventing the precepts of Postmodern dance.[2]

In 1964, Hay danced with the Cunningham Dance Company during a 6-month tour through Europe and Asia.[3] She and her Judson colleagues focused on shedding the artificial distinction between trained and untrained performers. She created large-scale dance projects involving untrained dancers, fragmented and choreographed music accompaniment, and the execution of ordinary movement patterns performed under stressful conditions.

In October 1966 she along with other artists worked with Bell Labs computer experts in collaborative performances, that led to the creation of a seminal piece of art, Ken Knowlton and Leon Harmon's Studies in Perception #1, an image of a reclining nude using typographic symbols for halftone densities.[4] This image of Deborah Hay was printed in The New York Times on 11 October 1967, and exhibited at one of the earliest computer art exhibitions, The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age, held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in from November 25, 1968 through February 9, 1969.[5][6][7]


In 1970 she left New York to live in a community in northern Vermont. There, she distanced herself from the performing arena, producing 10 Circle Dances, performed on 10 consecutive nights with no audience whatsoever. Thus began a long period of reflection about how dance is transmitted and presented. Her first book, "Moving Through the Universe in Bare Feet" (Swallow Press, 1975), is an early example of her distinctive "memory/concept mode" of choreographic record, and emphasizes the narratives underlining the process of her dance-making, rather than the technical specifications or notations of their form.

In 1976 Hay left Vermont and moved to Austin, Texas. Her attention focused on a set of practices ("playing awake") that engaged the performer on several levels of consciousness at once. While developing her concepts, she instituted a yearly four-month group workshop that culminated in large group public performances [8] and from these group pieces she distilled her solo dances. Her second book, "Lamb at the Altar: The Story of a Dance" (Duke University Press, 1994), documents the unique creative process that defined these works.


In the late 1990s Deborah Hay focused almost exclusively on rarified and enigmatic solo dances based on her new experimental choreographic method, such as "The Man Who Grew Common in Wisdom", "Voilà", "The Other Side of O", "Fire", "Boom Boom Boom", "Music", "Beauty" and "The Ridge, Room", performing them around the world and passing them on to noted performers in the US, Europe, and Australia. "My Body, The Buddhist," her third book, was published by Wesleyan University Press, 2000. It is an introspective series of reflections on the major lessons of life that she has learned from her body while dancing. Her fourth book, "Using the Sky: a dance," was published by Routledge Books in 2016.

Hay conducted 14 annual Solo Performance Commissioning Projects from 1998 through 2012, first on Whidbey Island in Washington state and then at the Findhorn Community Foundation in Findhorn, Scotland. A film about this groundbreaking experiment, "Turn Your F*^king Head," was made by Becky Edmunds in 2012. Rutledge Books produced and is now distributing this one hour documentary.

In 2000, Hay strayed from her preferred method of solo dance-making to create a duet for herself and Mikhail Baryshnikov, which toured extensively with the Past/Forward project, a series of performances that updated the work of the Judson Dance Theater.[9]

In 2002, Hay began applying what she had learned from 30 years of working with mostly untrained dancers to choreographing dances for experienced dancer/choreographers. In 2004, she received a NYC Bessie Award for her quartet "The Match." In 2006 she choreographed “O, O” for 5 New York City choreographer/dancers and then for 7 French dancers of comparable experience. The Festival d’Automne, in Paris, presented "The Match" in 2005, “O, O” in 2006, and "If I Sing To You" in 2008, which was commissioned by The Forsythe Company and toured extensively in Europe and Australia. In 2009, The Toronto Dance Theatre premiered her work "Up Until Now," and in 2010 "Lightening" premiered at the Helsinki Festival, a dance for 6 Finnish dancers/choreographers.


After a two-year research collaboration with Motion Bank, a project of the Forsythe Company directed by Scott delaHunta, an online interactive website dedicated to Hay's choreographic aesthetics was launched in June 2013. One outcome of that collaboration was Hay's first museum installation, Perception Unfolds: Looking at Deborah Hay's Dance, curated by Annette Carlozzi for the Blanton Museum in Austin, TX. The installation also travelled to Yale Art Museum in New Haven, Connecticut.

Hay, in collaboration with Laurie Anderson and lighting designer Minna Tikkainen created an evening length work Figure a Sea, for 21 dancers and commissioned by the Cullberg Ballet in Stockholm, Sweden. It premiered September 24, 2015.

May 5, 2015 France's Minister of Culture and Communication awarded Hay the title of CHEVALIER DE L'ORDRE DES ARTS ET DES LETTRES.

In October 2016, Deborah Hay presented a trilogy of works at the University of California Los Angeles's Center for the Art of Performances. It included multiple works including "As Holy Sites Go", performed by UCLA faculty members Ros Warby and Jeanine Durning, and "Figure a Sea", performed by the Cullberg Ballet of Sweden and featuring the music composition of Laurie Anderson. Both works were revisions of her original score, "No Time to Fly", which she adapted to be, respectively, a duet and a group piece. Deborah Hay says of the work, "It is a space for self-reflection: for seeing oneself seeing." All works were performed at UCLA's Freud Playhouse.

Honors and awards[edit]

In October 2009 Deborah received an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Dance from the Theater Academy in Helsinki, Finland, and in 2010 she was awarded a US Artist Friends Fellowship and a 2011 artist's grant from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts, based in New York. In April 2012, Deborah Hay became one of the 21 American performing artists to receive the inaugural and groundbreaking 2012 Doris Duke Artist Award.

External links[edit]

  • [2] official site of Deborah Hay Dance Company
  • [3] Deborah Hay Dance Theory Writings


  1. ^ "Deborah Hay", 10.31.12, Art Forum
  2. ^ "Judson Dance Theater". 100 Dance Treasures. Dance Heritage Coalition. Archived from the original on 11 November 2018. Retrieved 27 September 2015.
  3. ^ [1] Hay Bio
  4. ^ "Bell Labs & The Origins of the Multimedia Artist", November 8, 1998
  5. ^ Ken Knowlton. "Mosaic Portraits: New Methods and Strategies" (PDF). PAGE 59 (Winter 2004/2005). Computer Arts Society. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2007-09-26.
  6. ^ "Studies in Perception I (1966), by Knowlton & Leon Harmon". Archived from the original on 2009-06-29. Retrieved 2016-04-19.
  7. ^ "A Critical History of Computer Graphics and Animation: Bell Labs". Archived from the original on 2006-09-06. Retrieved 2016-04-19.
  8. ^ Gus Solomons, Jr., "The Deborah Hay Dance Company" in Dance Magazine (May, 2004)
  9. ^ "Deborah Hay". Daniel Langlois Foundation.