Lamb at the Altar: The Story of a Dance

Lamb at the Altar: The Story of a Dance

by Deborah Hay

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"The intention of my work is to dislodge assumptions about the fixity of the three-dimensional body."—Deborah Hay

Her movements are uncharacteristic, her words subversive, her dances unlike anything done before—and this is the story of how it all works. A founding member of the famed Judson Dance Theater and a past performer in the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Deborah Hay is well known for choreographing works using large groups of trained and untrained dancers whose surprising combinations test the limits of the art. Lamb at the Altar is Hay’s account of a four-month seminar on movement and performance held in Austin, Texas, in 1991. There, forty-four trained and untrained dancers became the human laboratory for Hay’s creation of the dance Lamb, lamb, lamb . . . , a work that she later distilled into an evening-length solo piece, Lamb at the Altar. In her book, in part a reflection on her life as a dancer and choreographer, Hay tells how this dance came to be. She includes a movement libretto (a prose dance score) and numerous photographs by Phyllis Liedeker documenting the dance’s four-month emergence.
In an original style that has marked her teaching and writing, Hay describes her thoughts as the dance progresses, commenting on the process and on the work itself, and ultimately creating a remarkable document on the movements—precise and mysterious, mental and physical—that go into the making of a dance. Having replaced traditional movement technique with a form she calls a performance meditation practice, Hay describes how dance is enlivened, as is each living moment, by the perception of dying and then involves a freeing of this perception from emotional, psychological, clinical, and cultural attitudes into movement. Lamb at the Altar tells the story of this process as specifically practiced in the creation of a single piece.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822399742
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 05/18/1994
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 136
File size: 21 MB
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About the Author

Born in Brooklyn in 1941, Deborah Hay began her career with the Judson Dance Theater and the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in the 1960s. In the early 1970s she created a series of Ten Circle Dances, which were collected in the book Moving through the Universe in Bare Feet. Since 1976 she has lived in Austin, Texas, where she conducts annual large-group workshops, each lasting four months and culminating in public performances. She has performed and taught workshops in Europe, Canada, Mexico, Australia, and throughout the United States.

Read an Excerpt

Lamb at the Altar

The Story of a Dance

By Deborah Hay, Phyllis Liedeker

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1994 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9974-2


Lamb at the Altar / the story of a dance

There are no funds to commission a composer to create an original work for the large-group workshop performances four months from now. I decide that the dancers will be their own chorus. How to make this happen is beyond me at the moment; I am tone deaf with no background in music theory. Fear and desperation force me to request that we sing "Mary Had a Little Lamb." By the end of our first rehearsal, a childhood tradition is willfully deconstructed.

Lamb, lamb, lamb, lamb is a rapid, thick-tongued, gentle utterance created inside the mouth cavity. The word lamb does not drop or land. Rather, a dancer, with hands poised in front of the lower lip, scoops the word lamb back up into the mouth as it falls out.

Lamb appeals to me in this form. The dancers are urged to include the choreographed scooping hand gesture whenever the name of the dance is spoken. I title the dance with an unfixed number of lambs so that it is not repeated the same way within a paragraph or a simple conversation.

On February 18, 1991, a month and a half into the four-month workshop, Matthew Fox, a radical Dominican priest, stands before a large Austin audience. Halfway through his talk, he speaks of the mystic interpretation of lamb in the Bible as the cosmic child within. Tears spring from my eyes. The timeliness of the information feels like a benediction for Lamb, lamb, lamb, lamb, lamb, lamb, lamb, lamb, lamb, lamb. ...

a movement libretto for forty-one individuals inspired by the dance Lamb, lamb, lamb, lamb ... premiered in Austin, Texas, April 25-28, 1991

Dying is movement in communion with all there is.

It is January 6th, the first day of the Playing Awake 1991 workshop. I can't resist the anticipation already in effect, so I get out of bed at 4:30 a.m., shower, dress, sit in the darkness and drink two cups of coffee, hustle out the door, and drive eight miles to the studio. By 6:30 a.m. I use seven calla lilies from last night's dinner party to make the centerpiece for a studio altar. This is the first public altar I prepare in ten years. Candles, shells, a Vermont rock, a tin globe, and a bowl of water surround the flowers on a richly hued Turkish kilim. A photograph of an Indonesian stone figure, smilingly quiet and spine straight in a lotus position, is taped to the green crystal vase holding the lilies. Dark striped silk cloth hangs behind the altar. I purchased the fabric three years earlier when I taught at the School for New Dance Development in Amsterdam.

Beside the vase is a red and blue circus tent music box with a white clown suspended over a stage floor. His knees are jointed, giving movement to his legs as his body bobs to the music. He juggles a yellow ball overhead from one open palm to the other. "DA Da dada DADA / DA Da dada DADA / Da Da DaDA / Da dadadadada" (Tico Tico, by Zoquinaba de Abreu). The music box becomes a symbol for the workshop. The clown's short wacky adjustments from side to side, balancing a little bit here and a little bit there, is the same dance that we will practice for the next four months.

It is spring and twilight in Texas. A bleached blue-green sky spreads across an abandoned shopping center parking lot. An ex-boomtown triplex theater has become the experimental underground Vortex Performance Cafe. The audience begins arriving at 7:30 p.m. The movie house glass doors are pushed open and swing shut for the next forty minutes.

Performance enhances adrenaline. Its fullness attracts me to the stage. My solar plexus swells with its chemistry the morning of an evening's show. Like a ship passing along a narrow channel I guide myself through the day. Entering the theater, I notice a further quickening and grab it to clarify my stillness. In the dressing room grooming before the mirror, the adrenalin reddens my cheeks. As I step onto stage, the locks break open and my ship sets sail.

* I move to Austin in 1976, and through 1979 I am frustrated by sporadic attendance in my dance classes. I create options to bypass this behavior. I schedule weekend intensives, three-hour workshops, group dances/not classes, instantaneous performances / not workshops. I clearly remember thinking, "I only want to work with people whose choice to study with me is a priority in their lives for months at a time" Thus the large-group workshop format is born.

In January 1980 it is a revelation to me when thirty-eight people register for my five-month dance workshop scheduled to meet every weekday morning for two hours. In late May of that year, thirty-seven people premier HEAVEN/below, an hour-long choreographed dance, performed for the Austin community.

The role of consciousness is choice.

Consciousness of movement is performance.

A performance meditation practice is the choice of the performer to exercise movement consciousness.

For four months the same performance meditations are collectively practiced by the trained and untrained dancers in Playing Awake 1991.

Music, altar, lighting, and incense ease passage into the studio for the forty-three who arrive. Tomorrow we top off with forty-six.

Many students arrive early to stretch or become quiet. Just after 8 a.m. we form a circle and hold hands. This too is a ritual that I abandon ten years ago. During the 1980s I fight the impulse to spiritualize. I do not want to be labeled as cosmic, hippie, or naive. For ten years I subvert evidence of ritual or ceremony. I learn to deliver language simply and directly. But something in me is changed. In 1989 an imaginative dance company board member registers me in Gay Luce's Nine Gates Mystery School, a California-based workshop. It is the first time I participate in a workshop since t'ai chi classes on Canal Street in New York in the mid-sixties. The board member attends Mystery School the previous year and feels that by supporting my presence at this twenty-day intensive, I can potentially incorporate some ineffably potent material into my teaching.

At Mystery School we practice many ancient ceremonies for inducing and participating in universal energy systems. I surrender to suggestion and have ninety percent success. I levitate; see two grandfathers I never met; monitor my soul traveling through the void toward a distant light; envision a close-up magnification of a hawk's feathers, beak, and talons; I see my dead mother entirely alive; I experience prophesy. Now I feel compelled to include this potential for expansion in my teaching. Creating an altar and forming a circle are two such avenues for transmission.

We gather by the altar. I feel a strong urge to express my gratitude and appreciation to the powers, people, and events that bring us together. My embarrassment and apology about publicly enacting a ritual, with no experience except perhaps five minutes on Thanksgiving Day, is agonizing. To add to the discomfort, I am about to ask that everyone present, many whom I am meeting for the first time, follow in kind. My request helps me to recognize that playing awake does not discriminate between mystical, earthly, or practical sources of strength.

We discuss living arrangements for the eleven people from out of town, some of whom still need housing. The availability of inexpensive student-like apartments near downtown Austin makes it easy to live within walking distance to the studio where the workshop is located. This is a determining factor in choosing which studio space to rent.

Information about the local job market is pooled for those from out-of-town who need to supplement their income while the workshop is in progress. Many trendsetting restaurants provide part-time employment. There are tutorial, child-care, after-school programs, house-cleaning, and clerical jobs, all offering minimal wages which can nevertheless support Austin's laid-back lifestyle.

A list of logistical workshop tips is given to everyone:

—Get enough sleep the night before so you can be here before eight in order to start with everyone at eight.

—Bring drinking water because the studio air is dry.

—Eat a light breakfast and bring fruit, juice, or a light pick-me-up to help get you through the workshop. There are no breaks.

—Hang coats on the rack in the hallway. Keep other belongings against the south wall of the studio. This way the studio is free of clutter.

—Wear layered clothing.

Tea cakes placed on the altar at eight are eaten by the time the studio empties.

White calla lily flesh appears to resist the advance of time during the first week of Playing Awake.

The only indoor lighting is for a circular concession stand in the middle of the lobby. A seemingly ad hoc arrangement of chairs and tables stands amidst twenty shacks. A volunteer group of Lamb, lamb ... artists build the shacks with home, street, and studio findings and minimal construction requirements. All materials are, or are painted, white. Performers wear white clothes, chosen to expose the neck and limbs.

I meet Sheelah Murthy in a performance class I teach at the University of Texas at Austin several years ago. She is an art major who consistently brings unexpected and provocative dances to my class. In addition to performing in Lamb, lamb ..., she designs and coordinates the transformation of the Vortex theater lobby. Only a few shacks reflect what I imagined. I saw a shanty town. Instead the lobby becomes a thematic art installation with a vast amount of personal integrity and imagination built into the quasi-structures.

Sheelah asks Pittsburgh Paint to donate two cans of white paint and several paint brushes to prepare the lobby installation. They request a letter from the director of the nonprofit organization that is seeking the donation. I sit down to my computer and write:

To whom it may concern:

The Deborah Hay Dance Company is requesting the contribution of two gallons of white latex paint, two cans of white spray enamel and three brushes for the Austin, Texas premiere of Lamb, lamb, lamb, lamb, ...

This dance is choreographed by Deborah Hay and performed by a cast of forty individuals of all ages and backgrounds. Since 1976 Ms. Hay has performed in Austin at the Paramount Theater, Auditorium Shores, Ballet Austin Studio, Capital City Playhouse, SouthPark Skating Rink, Studio D, Nierika Studio, the Crystal Ballroom of the Driskill Hotel, the Hyde Park Theater, Mary Moody Northen Theater at St. Edwards's University, the outdoor theater in Zilker Park, the grand ballroom of the Hilton Hotel on Town Lake, South Austin Recreation Center, the State Theater, Dougherty Arts Center, the B. Iden Payne Theater and the Opera Lab Theater at UT Austin, and Synergy Studio.

The Deborah Hay Dance Company is a non-profit tax exempt organization based in Austin, Texas, since 1980. We are grateful for your generous contribution and will acknowledge your support with all due respect in the program for Lamb, lamb, lamb, lamb,....

Sincerely, Deborah Hay Artistic Director/Deborah Hay Dance Company

* In 1980, on the advice of several friends associated with the art world in Austin and New York, I form a nonprofit organization. After six years of grant applications, collaborations, board meetings, fund-raisers, budgets, incomparably meaningful relationships with dance company members Heloise Gold, Emily Burken, and Diana Prechter, I realize that greater energy leaves the dance company office and practice space than returns to it. I let go of the dancers in 1985 and the general manager Sheri Goodman in 1986. I make a personal vow to simplify my life, my art, and the organization.

Now I negotiate performance and teaching gigs; I write press releases, calendar listings, public service announcements, thank you letters, requests for donations, newsletters; I hire tech people and find volunteers; I barter; I choreograph, teach, perform, write articles, produce, and my vow remains intact.

I rent studio space for a nominal fee from the Dance Umbrella of Austin. In return Dance Umbrella becomes a co-sponsor of Playing Awake '91. Dance Umbrella's name appears with the Deborah Hay Dance Company on all workshop and performance promotion and publicity. Every day I imagine a studio of my own.

Every morning I arrive between 6 and 6:30 a.m., mop the floor with a damp towel, adjust the lights I buy to replace the studio fluorescents, set up the sound system I loan to Dance Umbrella on a semi-permanent basis, and cover the two wall-length mirrors with black velour curtains. I prepare the altar last.

Artificial air-circulation replaces windows and ventilation in the studio. At first we average two eight-inch tapered candles per day because the altar sits in the path of the blower fan. I move the altar to a quieter setting. A pair of candles now averages several days of dancing.

New objects appear on the altar: photographs of children and loved ones, a painted clay turtle whistle, a green stone anteater with hair growing from the ridge along its back, poems, candy.

As children we play hide and seek while lunch waits. Playing matters. As adults dancing together, remembering to play matters.

Nina Winthrop, a choreographer from New York who is participating in the workshop, offers to be responsible for the flowers. One week we have eight thick-stemmed white gladioli, gradually opening over the course of five days from tight laddered buds into soft fleshy trumpets. Prior to the gladioli she brings two thick bunches of daisies circled by fern.

"Some of you experience impermanence as limiting. What I mean by impermanence is not loss. What I mean by impermanence is a steadily transforming present. What I mean by seeing impermanence is a feeling of humility"

Each audience member is greeted individually and handed a program by one of several performers. A suggestion to "notice the inner activity of your stillness and impermanence" is made. These attributes are reflected in the shacks and the performers inside the shacks that fill the lobby ahead .

Everything is an apparition. I am the impermanence I see.

I position myself inside the front door of the lobby. My role amid the wave of people is overwhelming. I run backstage and summon a group of dancers to help me meet our audience.

I think part of the success of the workshop is its unique Texas location. The people who attend are usually students or teachers taking a semester off from school; artists, poets, dancers, performers, healers, replacing a northern winter without leaving their interest in discipline behind; individuals in a job transition with a window of opportunity to fulfill a childhood dream, some of whom have never danced and always wanted to, many of whom have never performed; people I meet in workshops or performance settings at colleges or alternative performance venues who recognize something that draws them to study with me. Additionally, Austin is one of the few remaining cities in America where it is possible to live well on relatively little money.

Prior to the public performances of Lamb, lamb ... are two free public events called Playing Audience. While the workshop participants practice the performance meditation I am the impermanence I see, I sit with the audience and:

—read quotes from physicists, philosophers, and healers

—suggest alternative contexts for seeing movement

—encourage a dialogue among audience members about what they are experiencing.

The event runs for an hour. The first one is on St. Patrick's Day. The dancers decide to wear green or black.

According to the bootstrap hypothesis, nature cannot be reduced to fundamental entities, like fundamental building blocks of matter, but has to be understood entirely through self-consistency. Things exist by virtue of their mutually consistent relationships, and all of physics has to follow uniquely from the requirement that its components be consistent with one another and with themselves. "Carried to its logical extreme," writes Chew [the creator of the bootstrap hypothesis], "the bootstrap conjecture implies that the existence of consciousness, along with all other aspects of nature, is necessary for self-consistency of the whole."

According to Prigogine, physicist, chemist, and Nobel Laureate, the patterns of organizations characteristic of living systems can be summarized in terms of a single dynamic principle, the principle of self-organization. A living organism is a self-organizing system, which means that its order is not imposed by the environment but is established by the system itself. In other words, self-organizing systems exhibit a certain degree of autonomy. This does not mean that they are isolated from their environment; on the contrary, they interact with it continually, but this interaction does not determine their organization; they are self-organizing.—Fritjof Capra, Uncommon Wisdom

Mind is the essence of being alive.—Gregory Bateson

When I ask what brings people to the workshop, many reply "I want to be in my body more" For these dancers, my work serves to remind them that they are.

There is no selection process for the workshop. Aside from the fee, whoever is willing to commit to arriving on time to play awake for three hours daily for four months is welcome.

How is it that the moment I grasp the hands beside me and see a circle curving and across from where I stand, I am held holding everyone's hand?

Our circle is big, at other times small, despite the same number of people.

I deliberately use music to arouse heart energy that is often slow to rise from my culturally muted body. It is effortless to promote an enthusiasm for movement by playing tapes that are surprising and aesthetically stimulating. I have collected an extensive cassette library of indigenous peoples' music and a growing selection of works by new music composers. I find great pleasure, and undoubtedly a great sense of power, in placing my finger on PLAY.

People mill around and visit the various dwellings while sacred music is heard coming from inside the theater. It plays at a low volume so as not to intrude or shape the events in the lobby but to stimulate quietude and curiosity.


Excerpted from Lamb at the Altar by Deborah Hay, Phyllis Liedeker. Copyright © 1994 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments Preface Lamb at the Altar / the story of a dance Afterword Lamb at the Altar

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