Ode to a horse and something vaguely Norse
To watch Layard Thompson interpret Deborah Hay is a minor revelation, an experience that reminds me of the integrity and intellectual promise that contemporary dance once held. Charismatic, wicked, debonair, off-putting and downright salacious at times, Thompson is a dancer possessed as he performs for three nights at DNA from May 25-27. Thompson presents his pieces with the help of Hay's Solo Performance Commissioning Project (SPCP), a unique program in which Hay coaches different dancers in a residency setting. It's all very '60s-ish and communitarian, and it works. Some 80 dancers have participated to date, including Thompson, Lise Serrell, Scott Heron, Hana van der Kolk and Maryanne Chaney.
The Brooklyn-born Hay was a key member of the Judson Dance Theater, an associate of Merce Cunningham and John Cage, and as such a pioneer in contemporary dance. Though not a Buddhist herself, Hay has been influenced by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and Buddhist teachings. After taking part in the tumultuous artistic and political upheavals of the '60s, Hay retreated to Vermont for seven years, where she refined her affinity for Buddhism and developed many of the dances that have now become her trademark. In this and other ways, she is a true original. As Thompson points out: She choreographs literally how the performer is thinking as (s)he is performing. It's actually about consciousness.
On May 27, Thompson performed two dances, Room and The Ridge, while Scott Heron presented the wildy funny Viola. For Room, from the first time Thompson appears, half leprechaun, half ringmaster, decked in green suit and top hat like some Vaudevillean Irish trickster, you know you're in for a remarkable show. To describe the exact movements or trajectory that Thompson re-enacts would be difficult, as much of it is minimal: a shake of the arm, a leg extension while he pushes back his posterior or pushes out his chest, a bending of the upper body forward or backwards. At times he lets out strange guttural sounds or a cry that seems to come from nowhere. He approaches audience members and sings to them in tongues, mixed with made-up French or German-sounding nonsense words. The audience plays along, answers back and interacts with Thompson.
After a short pause Thompson comes back out witha white rat under his hat. Once the initial surprise is over, Thompson places the rat in a large transparent bowl in the middle of the circle. For much of the remaining performance, the rat stands on his hind feet sniffing the air, trying to figure out how on Earth to get out of the bowl, or just what to do next. In Room, Thompson asks the question, What if every cell in my body has the potential to surrender the habit of facing front? What starts off as a very structured piece ends up completely de-structured, basically giving the performer free reign. Hence Thompson's clever idea to have both himself and Serrell perform Room back-to-back on the 25th.
Scott Heron does an equally wonderful job with Viola. He comes out galloping and cantering and makes remarkable lifelike horse sounds, until eventually he runs into a wall. While he waits to move again, sentences are projected onto a giant screen explaining in semi-poetic irony what the audience has just noticed. Heron comes out simply dressed: it's just him in a shirt and pants and a bare stage and screen. The pared down nature of Heron's presentation makes for an almost unfair contrast to Thompson's visual lushness.
Few performers could pull off ninety minutes of this type of minimal, partially improvised choreography. But both Thompson and Heron do it with gusto. The real tour-de-force consists in being able to adapt something as quixotic and difficult as Hay's enigmatic choreography. Though these particular dances were all created within the past decade, those of us who are too young to have witnessed Judson Dance Theater live are grateful to Thompson and his colleagues for so vividly adapting the work of one of its doyennes.
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