Deborah Hay’s “As Holy Sites Go” at Danspace Project

Deborah Hay’s As Holy Sites Go/duet debuted at Danspace Project over the weekend as part of PLATFORM 2012: Judson Now. This newest work is a duet adapted from her 2010 return to solo performance, No Time To Fly. Here, Australian Ros Warby and New York-based Jeanine Durning reveal their experience of Hay’s choreographic language after having lived and worked with it since the trio version (including Juliette Mapp) debuted in 2011.

Hay describes the work as a “continuity of discontinuity.” There are no detectable repetitions or even a real sense of phrases, triggers, or consistent rhythms. Instead, we experience their experience as a collection of sensory information. Durning shudders, kicks and hops while Warby’s vocabulary is supple and quiet, her limbs seeming to move independently. They are discrete entities, but it is most exciting when they make contact. They treat each other with eerie, glassy-eyed detachment, even as they brush cheeks and thighs. It’s like watching some sort of distorted court dance, with bowing postures, intricate sequences of steps, and gestures that range from totally abstract to charades-like: animal ears or wearing a crown. It feels both ceremonial and completely idiosyncratic. There is attention paid to the periphery of the limbs; they each take up a lot of space, visually and energetically.

They sing separately and together, sometimes harmonizing in the style of hymns or sung prayers, in a language we don’t know. One sings, the other joins in, they stumble away from each other, crumple to the floor, rest in silence, recover, and dance again, separately. This is the only discernible pattern; each period of singing, resting, and dancing is new. (In a single moment of lucidity, they each say, “strictly speaking, I believe I have never been anywhere,” a sentence also spoken in past works I’ll Crane for You, Up Until Now and Market… A hint of continuity?) Sometimes they seem alert and slightly frantic, swiveling their heads to see each other, Durning vocalizing softy as if punched. Other times they are totally relaxed, slumped to the floor at rest. They are almost always looking, most memorably when at us. Warby is particularly expressive in her face and posture, holding tension in her eyes and shoulders, while Durning’s temperament is sober.

The event as a whole leans a little solemn; it’s a world that feels sealed and foreign. We are given no way in, we can only watch from outside of their habitat, observing with curiosity but without investment their mincing step-touches and tiny spasms. (The environment is so silent and the vocabulary so subtle that I found myself feeling restless until my perception adjusted about halfway through, as if I were developing in real-time the level of attentiveness required by the work. I needed to be given the challenge in order to rise to it.) The combination of the hazily lit, black-costumed performers in the cavernous space with the reverent stillness of the audience makes the experience feel heavy. We are witnessing a series of rituals that we can’t understand, but we are privileged to be allowed to see them.