When the American choreographer Deborah Hay began her work with Motion Bank, the four-year project of the Forsythe Foundation exploring the intersection of dance and science, she told the two technical partners assigned to her that they would have trouble making a digital map of her choreography because her dance did not use patterns of movement. They took that as a challenge. They would show her the patterns in her choreography.

Cullberg Ballet performs Deborah Hay's <i>Figure a Sea</i> © Urban Jörén
Cullberg Ballet performs Deborah Hay's Figure a Sea
© Urban Jörén

One of the results of that interaction was presented at Cal Performances’ Zellerbach Hall in the form of a collaborative dance work with the Cullberg Ballet. Figure a Sea  is a 60-minute performance for 21 dancers, and it encompasses the realization of dance that Hay has been working toward throughout her long career. It was exquisitely realized by the dancers – the entire company of 16 and five guest dancers.

Hay opened the evening with a 40-minute talk, during which she gave an idiosyncratic history of her dance life and thought. While she talked images and clips were projected to the side of her, but as she explained, she isn’t good at multitasking and the images won’t necessarily match up with what she is saying. And they don’t: there is a disconnect in their timing, so that at times the images precede what she says and at times they trail behind. At every point memory is forced into play. The listener is either remembering the images or remembering the text in order to place the two together and give them meaning.

At the opening of her talk she pointed out a white board on which were three phrases: “continuity of continuity”, “discontinuity of continuity”, and “continuity of discontinuity”. Her definition of the first term includes “linearity, cause and effect, the learning that shapes our lives”. Discontinuity includes experimentation, the power of choice, and limitations. Her life and choreography – it’s impossible to imagine them as separate – is formed by the third term, continuity of discontinuity, and “a turning from what I know to what I can’t possibly know about my body”.

As she continued to speak her ideas grew less transparent, taking on the enigmatic quality of zen kōans. When she asked the audience if they understood, several people answered back “no”. She re-explained, and the answer was still bafflement. However, once we were shown the source of the ballet we were about to see, a short clip from a work titled No time to fly, what she had said started to take on clarity. And by the end of the evening what she said became absolutely crystal clear.

So what is this philosophy of dance? How does it manifest itself? Hay’s choreography exists in two distinct places. First, in the prose description of what the piece of choreography is, and this is a writing down of Hay’s feelings when she has completed a piece. Second, in what the dancer in their particular body makes of that prose.

Hay’s prose description is like no other form of dance notation. Here is a sample: “I sing a wordless song that arises from and combines joy and sorrow into a single melody that resonates through my bones.” It’s easy to see that any one performance may differ radically from any other performance, even with the same dancer.

In No time to fly three dancers performed the choreographic script seven times. Each performance was filmed so that finally there were 21 film sequences. The clips were then superimposed into one sequence so that there seemed to be 21 figures dancing. Although there appears to be some repetition, for the most part the dancers are making separate combinations of movements. Here and there are clusterings, but the overall effect is one of random and distinct chains of movements. Hay was so pleased by the final film that she decided to use the concepts and the script for a new commission she had just accepted from the Stockholm-based Cullberg Ballet.

Voilà Figure a Sea.

Once the screen, white board, mics and stands were cleared from the front of the stage, the curtains were opened and the dance floor uncovered as a white rectangle covering the center third of stage from upstage to the proscenium arch. An image appeared on the backstage upper screen. On it was projected a subtle image of ocean and sky dividing the screen in half, the lower half whitish, the upper half bluish. Dancers wandered in, their movements casual. They were dressed in vaguely nautical blue or black trousers of varying lengths, black net tops or navy blue striped shirts. Each dancer seemed preoccupied in their movements, but they were not unaware of each other – they never collided or misstepped.

At last the overhead grid of lights goes on, and sky and ocean become rectangles of soft monochrome color. Music begins, an intermittent presence of soft synthesizer and amplified instrument composed by Laurie Anderson. Someone hops across the stage, a ballet step is executed, couples merge, groups cluster, another ballet step is executed, several dancers walk stiffly by on demi-pointe. An occasional patch of unintelligible voice is heard. It all seems random, existentially tender and, finally, terribly poignant, terribly human.