Dancing with Deborah Hay: “It was so very personal”

We speak candidly with dancers Stephanie McMann and Flora Wellesley Wesley, about fulfilling their dream of working with the mighty Deborah Hay. Together with Eleanor Sikorski, they curate and dance together under the banner of Nora, inviting artists to create new dance works for them to perform.

“It was a bit surreal being on Skype to Deborah Hay. I felt like I was five years old,” says dancer Stephanie McMann, who was speaking to the American choreographer for the first time with fellow dancers Eleanor Sikorski and Flora Wellesley Wesley.

The trio were making the pitch of a lifetime to one of the most influential, post-modern choreographers of a generation; an artist renowned for developing her own pioneering method of choreography and founding member of Judson Dance Theater.

She received a retrospective at MoMA just last year, celebrating her work alongside her contemporaries and other dance luminaries Trisha Brown, Steve Paxton and Yvonne Rainer.

So no pressure then.

“We went through all the reasons we wanted to work with her and spoke for quite a while. We were very passionate in knowing a bit about her work vicariously through other artists that we’d worked with or books,” says Stephanie. “And then she said, ‘I was going to accept anyway I just wanted to hear why you wanted to work with me.’”

To their surprise, the godmother of modern dance had just accepted their invitation to work together. They had dreamed big, and it paid off.

With only a short window of opportunity to work with the much in-demand choreographer, they scrambled to find the funding they needed for the commission and flew Deborah to London to begin a life-changing five-week creative process, including a two-week residency at Dance4 in Nottingham.

From left: Flora Wellesley Wesley, Stephanie McMann and Eleanor Sikorski performing Where Home Is.

It was something of a coup that these three dancers should end up working with Deborah, without any prior personal connections. Collectively Eleanor, Flora and Stephanie wear the badge of Nora, a dancer-led commissioning project, rather than a company, as they are keen to point out.

 “We wear the title dancers quite strongly, as well as being joint dancers and artistic directors, but dancers first. We know that stands for a lot more than just what you see on the stage,” says Stephanie.

So what is it like to work with one of your heroes? Those weeks were “quite phenomenal,” says Flora. “It was so very personal. It’s not the Deborah Hay practice, but she’s sort of working from her practice with your practice. We did a lot of talking, a lot of laughing and a lot of playing.”

Playing is fundamental to Deborah Hay’s approach. She is less interested in telling a story to an audience than immersing them in an experience that questions the nature of what choreography is, using factors like space and time as a provocation. The result is a direct invitation to the audience to remove any preconceptions and look at dance through a different lens.  

“We started making the work in the first week so by the end of it we were rehearsing something. Practising the choreography, I should say,” says Stephanie, correcting herself. The language around Deborah’s practice is very particular.

This 78 year old, straight-talking New Yorker is quite specific about that and unafraid of speaking frankly. There’s something quite punk-rock about Deborah, sometimes referred to as the Vivienne Westwood of dance.

“It’s not ‘turn your head’ it’s ‘turn your fucking head.’ It’s this kind of snap yourself out of it and into it, get moving and call it: ‘What If?’,” says Flora. In fact, Turn Your Fucking Head is the title of a 2012 documentary film which captures the journey of 20 international dance artists working with Deborah as they learn the solo ‘dynamic’.

“She would keep saying ‘you’re never gonna get it, stop trying, you’re never gonna get it.’ And she’d say it to herself, ‘I’m never gonna get it.’ It’s a difficult thing in dance when you get used to rehearsing and practising to be getting better at ‘it’ . She was asking us to completely undo planning, thought, editing, prescribing or thinking about what we look like,” adds Stephanie.

Inevitably, the intensity of the process wasn’t without its challenges.

“I don’t go to bikram yoga anymore but I remember once going to a class and it was really hardcore and having quite angry feelings towards the teacher,” says Flora. “Sometimes when you’re asked to do something really hard, that relationship, there’s a tension there. That’s quite an interesting thing to negotiate.”

The importance of team bonding was something they valued highly throughout the process. What could be more cathartic than confessing their feelings over cocktails?! Flora recalls one night out involving Negronis where Deborah asked everyone to say something they had stopped themselves from saying.

“I remember Ellie saying ‘I’m glad we’re still friends,’” she laughs, “because there were some really trying times within the process.”

Whilst in Nottingham, the team also established a routine of ordering daily, yes DAILY, takeaways.

“It was kind of ridiculous to have such a big meal,” says Stephanie. “We were having Vietnamese, Thai, Indian, all sorts and it was wonderful. It was so important to us, every day we got in the studio in the morning, we might start to warm up and then Deborah would turn around and say ‘right, let’s order our food’ and it became a ritual!”

Initially Deborah titled the piece How I Sing, which changed to Leaving Our House, before she eventually landed on the name, Where Home Is. By the end of their time in Nottingham, they had created a brand new dance work to fit that title.

“The joke was, Deborah kept getting the name wrong. She’d say Is Home Where or Where Is Home, Where Is Dance, Dance Is Home. It was a kind of ongoing joke. She never got it right,” says Flora.

 ‘What If…’ questions are another principle of Deborah’s practice. What if the space is not empty? What if how I see is serving me? Different scenarios which change how we perceive the choreography.

In the case of Where Home Is, audiences will be invited to practise being an audience member and given an insight into Deborah’s way of working by being asked to consider a series of questions whilst watching the choreography.

“It’s like frames on the work. We’re giving them 3D glasses! Different spectacles to watch dance,” says Flora.

It’s clear that working with Deborah has resonated deeply with all of them. As with any process of intense learning, punctuated by extreme highs and lows and ultimately one that they won’t easily forget.

“Deborah stayed in London for a week after she finished with us to teach a workshop. I went out for dinner with her one evening and I think that’s when I realised it was goodbye. I just gave her a hug and she left and then I just cried,” says Flora.

All things considered, it’s maybe not so surprising that Deborah Hay chose to work with these ambitious young dancers given their daring attitude, experimentalism and appetite for a challenge. She probably saw her early self reflected in them.

Their work Where Home Is comes to the Lilian Baylis Studio at Sadler’s Wells this April.

To book, call the Ticket Office on 020 7863 8000 or book online.