Practicing performance of “I Think Not”
Image: Copyright – Eulanda Shead Photography


Invitation for performance of “I think not” in Auckland in April

I Think Not

Choreography by Deborah Hay, adaptation and performance by Simon Ellis.

“What happens when you can’t do it? That’s where the dance is. What is revealed when you can’t do it?” – Deborah Hay

Deborah Hay is one of the world’s most enigmatic and influential dance practitioners, and was a member of a group of experimental artists that was deeply influenced by Merce Cunningham and John Cage. The group, later known as the Judson Dance Theater, became one of the most radical and explosive 20th century art movements.

Deborah Hay’s annual Solo Performance Commissioning Project invites 20 movement artists to learn a new solo by Hay during a 10-day intensive in Findhorn, Scotland. The work involves practicing and ‘performing’ a set of complex and unanswerable questions or ‘tools for the dancer’ ( that are part of a highly developed structure. Each artist is also given license to adapt the work as Hay believes it needs the dancer’s “choreographic intervention” or “taste”. She asks, “Does your creativity exist without your intervention? Can it reveal itself to you if you stay out of the making?”

The 20 artists are then required to practice the solo every day for at least 12 weeks before premièring their individual adaptations of the project. The artists are also required to seek financial support in order to pay the commissioning fee, and are not allowed to pay for the commission themselves.

This is my adaptation of Deborah Hay’s “I Think Not”. I don’t think my creativity revealed itself to me without my intervention but, like many of Hay’s questions, perhaps it is simply asking the question that makes possible the smallest of changes in how we understand ourselves, others and the world in which we move.


I’ve been practicing in NZ this week in a small community hall at Waikanae Beach. It’s a beautiful spot to perform/dance in and after more than 5 months of rehearsal I still only feel like I am scratching the surface of the work. With this in mind, developing an adaptation feels odd (or premature), and yet I have made some additions, and a few very minor changes. I suspect the additions have really marked the work as mine but I am not sure at all.

This morning Gabrielle Eastwood Ellis (she also goes by the name “Mum”) watched me perform the work. I haven’t had any audience for quite some time and this seemed like a great opportunity to check in with watching (and being watched). Mum hasn’t seen me dance for many years now, and I got quite nervous. I did notice (however) that my ability to surrender and to keep tuning into Deborah Hay’s various tools was a lot clearer than way back in September last year. Is this progress?

Mum was really drawn to Deborah’s questions and how akin they are to Buddhist ideas of the self.

I’ve got a lot of editing of texts to do now before presenting the work to a colleague this coming Tuesday, and then 25 people on Tuesday 6 March.




What if your choice to surrender the pattern—and it is just a pattern—of facing a single direction or fixing on a singularly coherent idea, feeling, or object when you are dancing is a way of remembering to see where you are in order to surrender where you are.

– Deborah Hay “Tools for the Dancer”

Week 10, day 46 of practicing the performance of I think not. I’ve been working with Deborah’s surrender ‘tool’ a great deal. To keep noticing my desire for singularity or coherence. Although I might be (at this stage) well into an adaptation, it feels very very soon to be doing this, and instead I am staying with the basic practice. Sometimes, a semblance of an idea drifts past, and occasionally, just occasionally, I take note.


I’m at the beginning of week 5 of the (at least) 12 weeks of practice before the I think not is ‘allowed’ to be premièred. Deborah suggested that we should not concern ourselves at all with beginning to adapt the work until 6 weeks into the process. I’ve got a good rhythm going – into the studio at 8am each day, and then I just begin, do the choreography, and then leave the studio. It runs between 20 and 30 minutes.

I’ve had periods of boredom, periods of fatigue (different from boredom as it feels a little more musculoskeletal), but for the most part I’ve been fascinated by how directed the work is becoming. By ‘directed’ I mean it is beginning to take on a life of its own that feels both a deep part of me, and also outside of what I understand (not that I’m suggesting ‘me’ and ‘what I understand’ are the same thing). I’m also aware of noticing ideas that might become part of an adaptation, but I’m attempting to let them come and go as best as possible. It’s fascinating this practice of not-wanting or not-desiring an outcome. It allows the activities to merit their own practice, as opposed to being a means to an (artistic) end.

It’s nearly 8am. Time to go.