Wondering Minstrels

Deborah Hay’s eccentric, unpretentious, beautiful thing

Keep it simple, if just for an hour. Keep it close to the body and the voice. Turn down the volume on hype, convoluted concepts, pretentious allusions. Turn off the shattering music, the high-tech gizmos, the multimedia bloat.

How refreshing to share a clear place with Deborah Hay.

Dancers were already scattered around the performance space as the audience straggled in, trailing giddy chatter from the outside world. A big, excited audience. Opening night of a new dance—“O,O”—choreographed and performed by generations of post-modern dance royalty.

We found seats on all four sides of the sanctuary and took forever to settle down. Noise from beyond St. Mark’s Church’s threshold continued to bleed through. Familiar, happy sounds suddenly became annoying. Meanwhile, dancers Jeanine Durning, Neil Greenberg, Miguel Gutierrez, Juliette Mapp, and Vicky Shick stood rooted in place, each one sheathed in a private silence. If you looked up from your program or away from your conversation, you would notice that one or another dancer had slightly twisted a torso, inclined a head, extended or cupped a hand in a particular, subtle way.

How to describe this effect? Herons standing near the water’s edge, wind brushing by. I loved the peace and the permission to be at peace.

So peaceful that it was a long time before my eyes focused on the eccentricity — Gutierrez in Bermuda shorts with white socks and black shoes; Mapp in a vintage shift with gold ballet slippers; Greenberg looking New York sharp in his black leather vest, shirt, and slacks; Shick pairing her black togs with oxblood Mary Janes; and Durning’s shoes surely crafted for an elf with individualistic, possibly expensive taste in footwear. Our first clues to the dance and dancers — a little dated, a little nutty, a little funny.

With all the audience finally settled in, the house lights lowered a bit. All five performers faced and approached the space’s center, forming a line before dissolving it, once again slipping off to separate territories. Someone began to vocalize, and others took up the refrain — “You are my only one…you are my one…” It vaguely sounded like a slowed-down, spaced-out version of “Tico Tico.” Mellow tones rose and fell. Arms floated. Bodies drifted. Dancers made a gesture of leading and twirling in a kind of ballroom dance without partners — or perhaps dancing with every partner all at once.

Shick, who moved with Tai Chi grace and coordination, seemed to find a Latin bombshell thing going on in her hips. Durning turned herself into a spastic bird speaking glossolalia, drawing some giggles from the audience. She infected her colleagues with the need to sing, and they piped up with warm waves of resonant vowel tones, bathing our ears in pleasure.

Throughout much of the dance, Greenberg and Shick, with their finely calibrated and textured performances, held my attention most often. Durning, Mapp, and Gutierrez seemed studiously intent on the mechanics of their often discordant, occasionally convulsive, moves. They rode these moves, while Greenberg and Shick seemed to dream their own and let these dreams seep through their skin. Certain moments made me love everyone. “We fell into a hole,” someone announced at one point, and all pitched forward, hovering above the floor with the uncanny balance of a nodding junkie. In another scene, the five shuffled around the outskirts of the space, arms extended like wings, one hand flapping up or down to shift direction. Migrating geese but with chugging, rhythmic footfalls like the trot of a pack of horses.

Where did Durning suddenly get that long, black veil covering her from head to knees? There was no time to figure this out because the dance was clearly winding down. The dancers had returned to the stillness and slight shifting of “O,O’s” beginning. The lights — designed by mage Jennifer Tipton — had begun to slowly, slowly, ever-so-slowly fade. We sat there, breathing in silence and twilight, until we could see no more. It was heartbreakingly beautiful.