Keith Hennessy

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.

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. 

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December 16th, “future friend/ships”

 

By Keith Hennessy and Jassem Hindi, with lighting designer Dennis Döscher

Last post of 2016 

I arrived at Counterpulse early and picked up the December issue of indance. On the last page was an article penned by Hennessy and Hindi about future friend/ships.  They started with this quote:

“Irony is about the tension of holding incompatible things together because both or all are necessary and true. Irony is about humor and serious play. It is also a rhetorical strategy and a political method.

– Donna Haraway, First test space monkey

In their article, Hennessy and Hindi identify their research practice as “ironical” and aim for the dance to “host otherness.” As hosts, Hennessey and Hindi welcomed us on stage before we took our seats and the lights dimmed. As we walked around the stage, we were asked to look at the photos (“a partial tarot deck”) scattered around and sample food they offered on trays. This opening did resonate with the theme of hospitality that they claim “is the name of [their] game.” Later in the piece, they also invited the audience to view the tarot cards again as Hennessey and Hindi passed them through the audience. It left like we were in someone’s living room (the fabric curtain and costumes added to this effect).Another thread that became clear from the “performance/installation/science fiction salon” was the idea of Arab Futurism. A quick google search didn’t reveal much on this emerging genre (?) in contemporary art.

With all this mind, my response attempts to sort out what all this might mean in the context of what occurred (and what I noticed) on stage. In order to do so, I found myself reading through the performance zine and digging into literature about irony.

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When my friend sat down next to me, I turned to her and said, “this is a dance about language.” Reflecting back, I still think this claim captures this piece as whole for me. It is easy to point out the tangible textual elements of the performance such as the use of spoken word and its written manifesto. This piece is also about making, tinkering, and fashioning. In addition to the text, Hennessy and Hindi “made” sound and props, which seemed to fit with their directive to imagine and transform the future. The future made visible in “future friend/ships” is not yet sorted out – the tarot deck isn’t complete, the drones didn’t really work that well, and the dance movement unrefined. When Hennessy and Hindi danced their bodies moved as if they forgotten how to “dance.” They tried out steps (I noticed grande jeté en tournants and temps levé sauté), arms dangled, and bodies dropped to the floor. This movement suggested a kind of scratching-your-head-thinking, which for me is the work of language, which can be thought as a form of making or even invention. All of this might serve to remind us that making the future requires some forgetting, a forgetting that stretches out and strives for possibility.

The ironic nature of “future friend/ships” eludes me, and I wonder if the logic of irony – its movement of strategic reversal can be danced. Hennessy and Hindi might answer yes. I, however, am still wondering, which seems an appropriate way to conclude 2016.

April 19th, “Sarah (the smuggler)”

Choreographed by Sara Shelton Mann in collaboration with Keith Hennessy

What if I don’t get it?

I haven’t seen it yet, but I read a little bit about the background on this piece.  I must admit to some hesitation.  Does it matter if I know the history or Mann’s story? 

After seeing the piece, here are my reflections:

Moving history – Moving self

A beautiful exercise in present-ness

Archive/Study/Repeating Differently

Energy – energetic

Great words

I didn’t get the whole of the piece, but I came away with something. Sometimes dance makers/collaborators make dance for themselves or small “select audiences” (take a look at Hennessy’s interview).  I get that as a process, and yet I don’t get it.  I wonder how many in the audience had seen or worked with Mann before?

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?