Guest Blog Post by Julian Carter
I’m not an uncritical Keith Hennessy fan—are there any of those? He’s not an easy artist. He puts himself out on the edge, he asks his audience to join him there, and he doesn’t give you a spoonful of choreographic sugar to help things go down. I don’t always enjoy his shows, exactly. But I go back because something in every Hennessy performance makes me feel with a sharp clarity that lodges and persists for years. So on November 2, I chose “Sink” over significant competition: the Maryinski was doing “La Bayadere” at Zellerbach Hall, and the world’s largest queer country-western dance festival was hosting the Sundance Hoedown at the Regency Ballroom. I made the right call. “Sink” was a magical evening.
The evening began softly with a typical Keith welcome. He wandered back and forth as people were getting settled, saying hello, offering paper cups of lemon- ginger tea with an optional splash of Jamison’s. Rows of plastic chairs faced a curtain made of used blue plastic tarpaulins artfully draped from the ceiling in huge swags. As we settled, Keith made a detailed and specific acknowledgment of our presence on unceded Ohlone land; then he asked us to turn to strangers to share our hesitations, confusions, and resistances to this relatively new social ritual that asks us to consider our involvement in the ongoing history of invasion and genocide. I admit I am sometimes wary of land acknowledgments made by white people, who can use them to signal their own wokeness, so I especially appreciated the opportunity to have this discussion. And in this case, the ritual seemed vitally connected to the work. “Sink” is a summons to pay passionate attention to the enormous violence of this place and time.
The first movement began with a short solo executed atop a small stool in front of the blue tarps. Dressed in white and gold and crowned with a bright wig, Keith danced to his recorded voice speaking about the rich who are claiming our country as their own. Constrained by his tiny stool-stage, the movement flowed upward through his hands and head in complex and mesmerizing counterpoint to the sharp, even biting quality of the analytic text. When he observed that for indigenous activists an environmental award is a death sentence I felt my stomach drop. When he said “It is much easier to open prisons than to shut one down. I wish the same could be said about hearts and minds” the bodies around me rustled like leaves responding to a wind.
The blue tarps rose on a stage-space startling in its sudden revelation of piled orange: he explained that these were life vests, from Lesbos, where he will be going to participate in Ai Wei-Wei’s 1000 person opera on the beach responding to the global refugee crisis. Keith migrated us watchers onto the floor and took the time to make sure everyone had the seating they needed before the tarps descended and we were enclosed with him on the stage. A few of us used the vests as cushions for a while; there was no chastising irony here, no sense of mockery at our presumed complacency about our unearned good fortune, but instead, a profound welcome to our place in the circle of mourning for a world both drowning and on fire.
I’m groping for a way to explain the emotional and political significance of the ritual Keith offered here. The best I can do is put the dance in relation to powerful memories of past gatherings in moments of great collective pain. At the end of October 1984, seven months after HIV was isolated as the cause of AIDS and the week before Raegan was elected to a second term, I walked a silent night path through an oak wood to observe Samhain with a temporary coven gathered by a Welsh witch. At the end of January of 2017, I joined a thousand strangers thronging San Francisco Airport’s international terminal to reject the Muslim ban’s claim that we must buy security with cruelty. On November 2 Keith gathered a hundred of us around the marley in Joe Goode Annex on Dias de Los Muertos to cast a spell for all our kin harmed, betrayed, abandoned, left to die.
Each of the dance’s six segments had its own ritual power. In one passage Keith’s movement was mirrored by a much younger body, supple muscles round and full under his white hood. They danced to abstract sound distantly derived from Nazi death metal, side by side, upside down, twining their ankles around their own feet, suspending themselves on their flanks in a gesture like a shared howl. Worlds folding into one another. In another segment, Keith sat on the floor and accompanied himself on a droning squeezebox as he chanted a long song about mass murder: “Why pick up a gun? You can’t protect yourself. You know it can happen here. It is happening here.” From my angle of vision, he was framed by two pairs of men leaning against the wall across from me. They had settled into matching spoons, one in each pair cradling the other against his chest. Their faces shone with tears. Around the room, many others were holding hands as Keith sang the litany of murder: “A knife a gun a bomb a backpack a truck that is a bomb a body that is a gun.” Christchurch, Gilroy, Paris, Charlottesville, London, Orlando. The list goes on and on. He brought us the news of our common vulnerability, the bitterness of frustration and fear, our shared inheritance of mistrust “like ghosts, like bruises, like terror.”
It’s an enormous tribute to Keith’s compositional skill that he could and did transition from this appalling encounter with violence and despair into three more segments. One featured Keith bounding goatlike on spring stilts, crowned with ivy in a bright corset woven of Maypole ribbons, matching his young partner’s grand allegro to Sylvester’s iconic “(You Make Me Feel) Mighty Real.” The woman next to me was doing a shoulder dance. When the music dissolved into a stormy industrial grind the smiles dissipated and the performers, no longer mounted by the gods, panted hard as we all remembered gravity’s burden; but then Keith swung himself into the air, into a song of love and freedom suspended on a stream of blue and green light punctuated with silver shapes as reflective as crumpled aluminum foil. As he slowly rotated head down the people across from me looked like they were gazing up into an aquarium, absorbed in timeless blue.
There is no way to conclude. The world we inhabit is very far from stable – climate chaos, fascism rising, endless incarceration and inevitable extinction. Some of us are surviving and some are not. Keith can’t wrap that up for us. But he has wrapped himself around it and wrapped an audience around the work. For 37 years in San Francisco Keith has helped create and sustain a community that can receive this beautiful ranting. “Sink” is the work of a fully mature artist embodying his place and time with integrity and breadth. Happy 60th birthday, Keith. Thank you.