Deborah Jinza Thayer is a geek. The 38-year-old choreographer was a pre-med student at Johns Hopkins University before trading her lab coat for a leotard, and she still gets giggly talking about abstract math. "Making dance is like a meaty math problem," she explains by phone from her Frogtown artists' co-op. "I make dance-theater hybrids, so I set up a choreographic problem for them. It's risky because I might not figure out the problem by the performance," she says. "It's high stress, but that's where I love to be. Since the product is gone in an instant, you'd better like the process."
Thayer, a native New Yorker who spent seven years of her childhood in Tokyo (her mother is Japanese), is indeed fearless when it comes to extreme emotional and physical states, a characteristic sure to be in evidence during Red Eye Theater's Isolated Acts Festival this weekend. Performing with seven dancers and collaborating with designers Renato Lombardi and Robert Crossman, Thayer has created a program of five works defined by a tendency to plunge into new territory.
Six months spent with New York-based choreographer Maureen Fleming gave Thayer an introduction to the detail-oriented, Japanese postmodern dance form known as butoh, a jolt for someone who had experimented with nearly every jazz, modern, and ballet technique. "In butoh you attempt to manipulate your chi and create form out of your energy, whereas in Western dance there's a tendency to go from shape to shape," she says. "I like the impulse of butoh and seeing things so distorted that they are beautiful. Butoh is a rebellion against everything we value in Western dance: elevation, purity, verticality, beauty. It stays close to the ground. In a Christian culture, we think of God as high up, but in Japan God is in everything: a pebble, a pot on your stove. A culture's dance form can reflect so much about faith."
While Thayer remains loyal to butoh's turbulent philosophy, her own work is more aesthetically layered, reflecting everything from her years in New York's eclectic downtown scene to her study of movement theater with Margolis Brown after moving to Minneapolis in 1995. She credits the company with her second formative experience after butoh, but soon after arriving Thayer sensed it was time to take control of her work. In doing so, she discovered a love for the dramatic impulse, the urge to remove dance from the decorative realm. Her own compositions blend conceptual art and visual metaphors to generate provocative movement motifs, such as patients trapped in a semi-death state. This tendency is especially apparent in the title work "Afflictions, Entanglements & Associations," a striking piece for its use of IV and surgical tubing to create a most unusual visual grid.
"It reflects my obsession with life and death and sustenance," explains Thayer, whose philosophical bent has earned her a semifinalist spot in France's Recontres Choreographic Competition. "I wanted to make visible all the connections to my environment and people who sustain me. It's like a web. The [tubes] form a cat's cradle with bodies in it. The bands bounce you around in unexpected ways, leading to alliances that may or may not be anticipated. I explore whether people use these entanglements for compassionate actions or animalistic behaviors."
It's a typical Thayer experience--a strange encounter that's also utterly normal to the extent that it speaks the language of living.