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Horses for Courses

Horse, the solos” is yet another new work with a pandemic backstory. Deborah Hay created the work remotely from her living room in Austin, Texas while the dancers of Cullberg were in Stockholm, rehearsing in the studio with Jeanine Durning, who has previously performed in Hay’s works. The premiere, in an empty theater on March 2021, was also atypical and unique to the time; but perhaps, completely aligned with Hay’s postmodern ethos. She writes in a program note:

Performance

Cullberg: “Horse, the solos”

Place

The Joyce Theater, New York, NY, February 2, 2023

Words

Candice Thompson

Katie Jacobson and Eliott Marmouset in “Horse, the solos” by Deborah Hay. Photograph by Shaon Chakraborty

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There was no choreographer, rehearsal director, nor artistic director. There was not one technician, no photographers, future presenters, no documentarian of any kind. In costume, on stage, with lights and sound already programmed, the dancers soared, at least this is what they told me.

On Wednesday evening, an audience gathers at the Joyce Theater for the New York premiere of a work that potentially doesn’t need them. The seven dancers artfully resist unison, defy inflection of pacing and tempo, and avoid presentation in a very disciplined hour of dancing. All of it quite contained. In various combinations of red shirts and pants by costume designer Behnaz Aram, they take small incantatory steps and cast a spell with fluid, looping gestures that don’t acknowledge a linear experience of time or progression. Within these solos, few moments break the placid surface. In one spirited blip, Johanna Tengan flits through the group in a large circle of jetés; later on, Eliott Marmouset’s supple spine ripples as his legs lift higher and lunge deeper.

Eliott Marmousetin “Horse, the solos” by Deborah Hay. Photograph by Shaon Chakraborty

Writing a review in 1968 entitled “Hay’s Groups,” critic Jill Johnston astutely observed:

“To define the movement as revolutionary, is to observe simply that its deviation from precedent forms [like ballet, modern, and social dance] was much greater than its conformity to those structures.”

Indeed. Arms continually float skyward as if to signal or acknowledge something, but never do they reach the limits of extension. Similarly, arabesques avoid their yearning cliche, reduced to the elements of balancing on one leg and simply lifting the other. Hay’s interest in efficiency as a guiding force is clear and it appears that these dancers could move in this way endlessly, without breaking much of a sweat.

There is also the sense that the dancers of Cullberg might be just as deft and comfortable in other, more demanding styles of contemporary dance as they are here in Hay’s easy, stream-of-consciousness style. Founded in 1967 by Birgit Cullberg, the Cullberg’s repertoire is home to a broad range of works from choreographers like Mats Ek, Alexander Ekman, and Johan Inger (Ek and Inger both served as artistic directors). But since 2019, Cullberg has worked exclusively with three artists: Alma Söderberg, Jefta van Dinther, and Hay.

Louise Dahl, Agnieszka Sjökvist Dlugoszewska, Freddy Houndekindo in “Horse, the solos” by Deborah Hay. Photograph by Shaon Chakraborty

Hay’s solos unfold simultaneously—meditative recitations that feel both spontaneous and practiced in their cacophony of measured movement. The use of hands frequently draws the eye whether it is limp and broken, open and flexed, pointing, or making a peace sign. Upturned palms become their own form of communication. Each dancer offers them with a singular, however obscure, intention. Their individuality sustains and complicates the idea of a coherent whole without puncturing the collective atmosphere created by their juxtaposition. This speaks to Hay’s questioning of an ensemble existing to support a soloist. Her choice to direct each dancer as a soloist disseminates any sense of hierarchy and the inclination toward preference.

In contrast, the music and lighting create a more charged atmosphere. Graham Reynolds’ score repeats phrases of shuddering percussion, something that sounds like a wave of sand crashing, and intervals of silence, forging a tension for the dancers to slough off with small and subtle syncopations. Likewise, Minna Tiikkainen’s stark overhead lighting appears often as a spotlight, establishing a dark perimeter for the dancers to retreat to and return from. Historically, Hays’ work has played with how dancers respond to the staged environment and one another. Here, the dancers rarely touch or actively respond to one another, though occasionally they occupy close space. Rather, the shifting focus of the overhead light—augmented by repeated blackouts that felt similar to how the score was tuned with silence—serves as the reference point for their navigation.

Freddy Houndekindo and Vincent Van der Plas in “Horse, the solos” by Deborah Hay. Photograph by Shaon Chakraborty

Even though Hay is from New York and her work has a lasting legacy in the city and on postmodern dance, the reception on Tuesday night felt chilly, as if the audience was expecting something different. People left in the middle of the show and the applause was tepid as many seemed to be using their hands to gather their things rather than clap. On my walk to the subway, I passed by many pairs of people doing their best to position a takeaway to one another, even mimicking gestures to underline a point.

When it was over, I pondered what felt like an open secret, a fleeting glimpse into the ephemeral and unknown. After experiencing these dancers follow their own ritualistic path to its abrupt end, I could almost visualize what was unavailable to me and most every else. I could now conjure a feeling close to what must have been the sacred and visceral power of that clandestine premiere.

Candice Thompson


Candice Thompson has been working in and around live art for over two decades. She was a dancer with Milwaukee Ballet before moving into costume design, movement education and direction, editing and arts writing. She attended New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, graduated from St. Mary’s College LEAP Program, and later received an MFA in literary nonfiction from Columbia University. She has written extensively about dance for publications like Andscape, The Brooklyn Rail, Dance magazine, and ArtsATL, in addition to being editorial director for DIYdancer, a project-based media company she co-founded.

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