DH Bio

Deborah Hay was born in Brooklyn. Her mother, Shirley Goldensohn, was her first dance teacher, and she directed her training well into Hay’s teenage years. A three-year modern dance training followed, with Bill Frank, a former member of the Alwin Nikolai Company. He awakened in her a strong emotional resonance with dance. She moved to Manhattan in 1961, where she continued classes with Merce Cunningham and Mia Slavenska. In 1964, Hay danced with the Cunningham Dance Company during a six-month tour through Europe and Asia. She was also working with other dancer/choreographers as part of Judson Dance Theater. She focused on large-scale dance projects involving untrained dancers, using fragmented and choreographed music accompaniment, and the execution of strict ‘ordinary’ movement patterns performed under stressful conditions. 

In 1970 Hay left New York to live in a community in northern Vermont. Soon, she distanced herself from the performing arena, producing Ten Circle Dances,performed on ten consecutive nights within a single community and with no audience whatsoever. The work was supported primarily by museums and art galleries. Thus began a long period of reflection about how dance is transmitted and presented. Her first book, Moving through the Universe in Bare Feet (Swallow Press, 1975), is an early example of her distinctive memory/concept mode of choreographic record, and it emphasizes the narratives underlining the process of her dance-making, rather than the technical specifications or notations of their form.

In 1976 Hay left Vermont and moved to Austin, Texas, where, in 1980, the Deborah Hay Dance Company was established. Including herself the dance company members were Emily Burken, Heloise Gold, and Diana Prechter. Her teaching focused on a set of practices, “playing awake,” that engaged the performer on several levels of consciousness at once. While developing her concepts she instituted a yearly four-month group workshop that culminated in large group public performances, and from these group pieces she distilled her solo dances. Her second book, Lamb at the Altar: The Story of a Dance (Duke University Press, 1994), documents the unique creative process that defined these works.

In the late 1990s Hay focused almost exclusively on rarified and enigmatic solo dances based on her experiments with language discovered during her personal practice of performance.  The Man Who Grew Common in Wisdom, VoilĂ , The Other Side of O, Fire, Boom Boom Boom, Music, The Ridge, Room, and No Time to Fly wereperformed around the world and also passed on to noted performers in the United States, Europe, and Australia. Also, My Body, The Buddhist (Wesleyan University Press), her third book, was published in 2000. It is an introspective series of reflections on the major life lessons that Hay learned from her body while dancing. Wesleyan will also publish Hay’s fourth book, originally published by Routledge Books, a revised and enlarged edition of Using the Sky, in Fall of 2019. The book follows a twenty-year evolution of language, from 2000 to the present, that Hay distilled through her own practice of performance. It also includes dance scores for A Lecture on the Performance of Beauty (2003), If I Sing to You (2009), No Time to Fly (2010), Richmond Hall (2012), and my choreographed body (2016).

Hay conducted fourteen annual Solo Performance Commissioning Projects from 1998 through 2012, first on Whidbey Island in Washington state and then at the Findhorn Community Foundation in Findhorn, Scotland. A one-hour film documentary about this groundbreaking experiment, Turn Your F*^king Head, was made by Becky Edmunds in 2012, and produced and distributed by Routledge Books.

In 2002 Hay made a decision to apply what she had learned from thirty years of working with mostly untrained dancers to choreographing dances for experienced dancers and choreographers. In 2004 she received a NYC Bessie Award for her quartet The Match. In 2006 she choreographed “O, O”  for five New York City choreographers and dancers and later for seven French dancers of comparable experience. The Match premiered at the Montpellier Dance Festival in 2005. The Festival d’Automne, in Paris, also presented The Match in 2005, “O, O” in 2006, and If I Sing to You, in 2008. If I Sing to You had been commissioned by the Forsythe Company and had toured extensively in Europe and Australia. In 2009 the Toronto Dance Theatre premiered her work, Up Until Now, and in 2010 Lightening, a dance for six Finnish dancers and choreographers, premiered at the Helsinki Festival.

In October 2009 Deborah received an honorary doctorate in dance from the Theater Academy in Helsinki, Finland, and in 2010 she was awarded a US Artist Friends Fellowship. In 2011 she received an artist’s grant from the Foundation for Contemporary Arts in New York. In April 2012, Deborah Hay became one of the twenty-one American performing artists to receive the inaugural and groundbreaking 2012 Doris Duke Artist Award.

After a two-year research collaboration with Motion Bank, a project of the Forsythe Company directed by Scott deLahunta, an online interactive website dedicated to Hay’s choreographic aesthetics was launched in June 2013. It is based on a trio, As Holy Sites Go, performed by Jeanine Durning, Juliette Mapp, and Ros Warby. One outcome of that collaboration was Hay’s first museum installation, Perception Unfolds: Looking at Deborah Hay’s Dance, curated by Annette DiMeo Carlozzi for the Blanton Museum in Austin, Texas. The installation also traveled to Yale Art Museum in New Haven, Connecticut.

Hay, in collaboration with Laurie Anderson and lighting designer Minna Tikkainen, created an evening-length work, Figure a Sea, for twenty-one dancers and commissioned by Cullberg in Stockholm, Sweden. The piece premiered September 24, 2015. From 2019 to 2021 she will be one of three artist associates with Cullberg. The Match (2004) and The Man Who Grew Common in Wisdom (1989) have been re-cast with Cullberg dancers who will perform these works at Tanz Im August 2019 in Berlin. A group work, Anytime Now, will premiere in 2020 for twelve to fourteen Cullberg company members.

On May 5, 2015, France’s minister of culture and communication awarded Hay the title of Chevalier de l’ordre des arts et des lettres.

Since 2015 Hay has choreographed Tenacity of Space for the Dance On Ensemble in Berlin; a trio titled pause, for Eric Geiger, Jess Humphrey, and Leslie Seiters; and Where Home Is, for Nora Moves, a trio based in London. She also participated in the 2018 MoMA exhibition, Judson Dance Theatre: The Work Is Never Done. A cast of ten New York dance ‘stars’ performed ten, which was choreographed by Hay in 1968. This was accompanied by the band Gang Gang Dance. For the exhibition, Hay also performed A Lecture on the Performance of Beauty from 2003.

As part of the RE-Perspective of her work at Tanz Im August 2019, two new works will have their world premiere.  They are Animals on the Beach, with Jeanine Durning, Vera Nevanlinna, Tilman O’Donnell, Christopher Roman, and Ros Warby. Hay’s solo, my choreographed body . . . revisited, will premiere on the same program.