Joe Goode Annex

Keith Hennessy/Circo Zero, “Sink” November 2, 2019

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.

Nov. 13th Aura Fischbeck Dance, “Dusk”

Guest Blog Post by Julian Carter

The sun glares weak and orange through the ashen skies at noon. By 4 it looks tired. We stand in the little lobby at Joe Goode Annex waiting for the house manager to let us in; when she pulls the door-curtain back, the tall western-facing windows glow brighter by contrast with the gleaming black floor. There are four bodies scattered in huddled lumps that remind me of dropped socks, although these, unlike laundry, are moving…. A red line of chairs frames the three unwindowed walls.

IMG_0272

Many audience members stride into the space and choose seats without visible self-consciousness. Maybe they’re schooled in contemporary performance, and aren’t easily perturbed by the lack of clear boundaries; maybe they’re just focused on getting to the bathroom. Either way, we all share the stage for an extended moment. Without a light cue, it takes quite a while, maybe ten or 15 minutes, for the house to settle down.

Was there sound when we entered? I think so, and it has no propulsive energy or melodic structure to mark time. At some point, I realize I recognize only two people there, choreographer Gerald Cassell and tattoo artist Idexa Stern. The red chairs are full and a house manager comes to offer floor mats. I stand; several children choose to sprawl. After what seems like 10 minutes, the dancers are moving more now, not faster really but more frequently. Eventually, it becomes clear that the one closest to the windows is migrating toward the audience, while the other three, already closer to us, are migrating toward one another. I think about knotted clumps of worms. I wonder about their timing, and I fancy I can identify a leader from whom the other three are taking some cues. I notice that two of the dancers are now touching—spooning in slow motion– while a third is several feet away and the fourth is still separated from them by yards. From 4 individual sock-piles, they’ve morphed imperceptibly into a dyad with two asymmetrical outliers. At the end of the evening—after much dancey-dancing– they huddle under the windowsill, where the streetlights can’t touch them and their shapes recede into the shadow, four individual bodies in a line that then stand to come toward us and take their bows.

I’ve come to this performance for three reasons. One is that dusk has always been my favorite time of day. The other two are Arletta Anderson and Karla Quintero, who are dancing tonight; both are lucid, eloquent, and intelligent movers, always worth watching. Anderson is quick and fierce, with something urgent in her concentration. Quintero is languorous and elegant and sophisticated. More than once during the performance I find myself imagining that Arletta is setting the pace, but when I seek confirmation by focusing my attention, whatever I thought I saw has dissolved. (Phoenicia Pettyjohn and Aura Fischbeck, the choreographer, are the other two dancers. While I’ve known who they are for years, I don’t know that I’ve ever watched either of them perform before.)

How do you track the fade to grey? When does afternoon give way to evening? What is the difference between twilight and nightfall? These are questions that occupied and enriched the seasons of my rural childhood, quiet in the backyard near my brother; I’m well prepared to pass time with people, being near them as darkness gathers, sharing the end of the day in silence. Maybe that remembered companionability is part of why I am most attracted to the segments of the dance when the edges of the stage dissolved. At one point, while the other dancers are leaping about, Karla lies down on her side with her back almost brushing the toes of the people sitting two chairs to my left. In front of me on a floor mat, her back brushing my toes is a child (about 8) whose body begins to vibrate with the extra energy of Karla’s proximity. Careful not to be in the way, she pulls herself into her center the way a snail pulls in its eyestalks; and taking up a smaller space makes her dense so that I can feel her intensified presence as a charge in the air. I am half-hoping and half-fearful that this subtle disruption of the boundaries between dancer and audience, stage and house, will be developed. Will the child by my feet be able to hold even more energy? That’s when I realize I’m really not finding much meaning in the larger composition, and without formal clarity or choreographic experimentation to engage me, I am reaching for relational motivation. It isn’t isolated and framed and highlighted and developed the way I’d like it best, but it’s there. At another point Arletta mirrors Karla’s placement, curling up on the floor across from me. The audience members behind her—both women– simultaneously swing their closed knees to opposite sides, opening a V between them as though they’d rehearsed becoming a frame. Here as in our entrance into the space it seems as though we are about to be solicited to understand ourselves as in the dance, with the dancers. It’s as though the point of dusk is to be in it together.

These moments are fragmentary, but even as shards they are beautiful and not always safe. Twice Arletta performs a series of short runs, full tilt on a straight line directly toward the end of a row of seats so that her feet have to stutter under her, breaking her momentum just in time to avoid a collision; and again I find myself eager and interested. I hope she is looking directly at the person she is running toward. I hope she slips and careens into them. I do eventually identify a couple of unmistakable cues the dancers use to shift into new sequences, but I no longer concern myself with them, because it seems clear that the relationships among them will remain abstract and disconnected as long as they are on their feet. When they are on the ground, something else happens. Toward the end the four women curl around one another in a loose and mobile geometry, limbs and heads resolving into momentary comfort before one slight adjustment sets off a chain of responses in all the bodies.

The dancers’ mobile spooning reminds me powerfully of the way infant mammals climb on their mothers’ bodies, of the comfortable accommodations of middle-aged lovers, of the presumption of sexual innocence in contact improvisation. What would have happened if the dancers had inserted themselves into the body of the audience with the same calm and skillful boldness? What might have happened if the lights had not come up as the sun went down and the movement gained force? Could touch and sound have taken over from vision as a way to know who was where in the room, doing what with whom? I don’t mean to imply that Fischbeck ought to have staged an orgy, but rather to underscore the interesting moments of discomfort she created when the boundaries weren’t held stable. I’d have liked to have spent more time there, then, hovering in the moments when it isn’t clear whether it’s day or night

I’ve Been Watching

First Performances of 2018.  

Another slow start. I have yet to process all the dance from 2017. I saw a lot and wrote a little less. I did an interview, had a conversation, and invited a guest writer. I had fun.

My first show of 2018 was back in January. I caught Fresh Festival Performance Weekend #2 at the Joe Good Annex with choreography by Gerald Casel and Keith Hennessy; Sara Shelton Mann; Rachael Dichter and Allie Hankins. It’s interesting to look back – what do I remember? What lingers? Here are two lingering memories:

In” A Dance in a Theatre” Keith Hennessy kept all his clothes on!

Loved the refrain at the end of “FramesFrames/The Revolving Door II” by Mann. It was a satisfying repeating of song and movement that brought some of the audience on the stage – I couldn’t help but smile.

I also snuck in A.C.T.’s production of Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party. I loved all of it – the acting, storytelling, the humor. I didn’t mind being out past my bedtime. 

IMG_5907

 

September 22nd, “King Tide”

Choreographed by Nina Haft & Company

It’s been a while, again.

On the recommendation of friends, I walked into the Joe Goode Annex.  Before any dancing started, I saw this:

file_000-2

As I took my seat, I felt immersed by the visual and sonic representations of water.  The title, King Tide, refers to what happens when the moon and sun align to bring about what is more commonly known as high tide.  This theme of water was reflected in all aspects of the dance The three sections made references to water’s action:  “ebb & flow”; “almanac”; and “shrinking ground.”  Haft’s program notes referred to the crisis in our watersheds and climate change.  The brief dancer biographies describe not their dance credentials, but their connections to water.  Haft undertook extensive research (a 3 year process) to make King Tide, which was evident in what I saw on Thursday night.  

The first section, “ebb & flow,” was beautifully composed and performed.  The movement (and sound) expressed not only the ebb and flow of water, but also of time and breath.  It all seemed deliberately slow even when the movement quickened.  I found myself with time to consider how human bodies are also ebbing and flowing as the dancers breathed with their limbs, extending their reach out into the landscape.  For me, there was something very satisfying to slowing down; a different way of being with time.  For the second section, I was brought down to the perimeter of the stage with about ½ of the audience.  Sitting so close it was not hard to notice the strength between the two dancers in “almanac.” It was striking to track their orbits and how they responded to each other.  The last section, “shrinking ground” was aptly titled.  The faces, movements, and lighting all contributed to a sense of closing in, of being pushed back by some force.  The diversity of bodies on the stage added to the human realness of the piece. Sometimes when a piece gets worked on for a long time it looses its edge but this is not the case with King Tide.  There is a maturity of thought happening not only in the choreography, but also between the dancers.  I greatly value this kind of thinking through movement and the research that sits behind the piece.  I wonder what’s next for Haft.  Next time I won’t wait 3 years.  

 

January 25th, “Bear/Skin”

Choreographed by Keith Hennessy

“It’s ok to sit in front”

I didn’t know that Hennessy’s previous show included urinating on the stage. So, we sat in front.  On cushions.  I sat next to Guillermo Gómez-Peña; it seemed the place to be.

The best part of this dance was the speech at the beginning.  The rest was oddly interesting as a study on The Rite of Spring and the act/action of sacrifice.  It was at times strikingly personal and at other times strangely unrefined.  Space blankets!  I didn’t “get” the piece in its totality, but I don’t think that was the point.  I was happy to be left with questions:

Why do we keep returning to the The Rite of Spring ? Sacrifice? The unknown (and hence a filling in or creating in).   Why do we want to fill in the gaps?  What does it matter to recover a lost dance?  What does this kind of repetition say about dance, culture, history?