Ode to a horse and something vaguely Norse

Written by Chris Atamian on . Posted in Dance, Posts.

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.