April 20, 2009

CROTCH - Keith Hennessy in NY

Here are links to reviews in the NY Times, Village Voice, and my buddy Don Shewey's blog. After too many tries, 2 of the links aren't working so you'll have to copy and paste. Sorry.

Claudia LaRocco, New York Times
Dance Review | Melanie Maar and Keith Hennessy: A Choreographer Creates Special Ties to the Crowd

Deborah Jowitt, Village Voice


Crotch (all the Joseph Beuys references in the world cannot heal the pain, confusion, regret, cruelty, betrayal or trauma…)
April 2-4, 2009
Dance Theater Workshop, NY

Crotch references the images and actions of artist Joseph Beuys. On the surface the work is about art, its histories and heroes. Deeper, a sadness grows, a queer melancholy. A song, a dance, a lecture, an image. Talking to the dead. Chaos through Play becomes Form.

Performance & installation by Keith Hennessy
Music: Emmy Lou Harris, Craig Armstrong, Teddy Thompson, Down River, Nirvana
Crotch was developed at Ponderosa (Stolzenhagen Germany) in 2007 and was commissioned/presented at L’Arsenic (Lausanne Switz) in 2008.

Crotch was presented in San Francisco in January 2010 as part of A Queer 20th Anniversary celebrating the 20th anniversary of Hennessy's coming out solo performance Saliva. Additional performances include: Impulstanz (Vienna), The Southern (Minneapolis), Bluecoat (Liverpool), and Queer Zagreb.

April 19, 2009

Pichet Klunchun & Myself (Jerome Bêl)

Pichet Klunchun & Myself
By Jerome Bêl in collaboration with Pichet Klunchun
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 3/3/09
Co-presented by Dancers’ Group

“He’s full of contradictions,” comments Guillermo Gomez Peña as we leave the bar and say goodbye to French dance artist Jerome Bêl. More of a conceptualist than a choreographer, Bêl has achieved considerable international success with a series of anti-spectacles that interrogate dance performance and the Western theater.

In his first Bay Area performance, Bêl performed with Pichet Klunchun, a Thai dancer in the Kun tradition. Pichet Klunchun & Myself, which was warmly received in San Francisco, is smart, generous and delightful. Its provocations are its charms.

The performance is like a scripted talk show. Each artist questions the other about his work and gives brief yet evocative demonstrations. In common they share the struggle of finding or developing an audience that can understand their work. How they represent death in performance (or not) is one of many contrasts between their approaches to dance making. Despite Bêl’s almost coy distancing, they are both moved by the other’s work. That is to say, they were moved during their first meeting, of which this performance is a recreation. The performance is a documentary theater piece based on an actual meeting in which they introduced their work to each other. The mood is informal and anti-dramatic, and yet the fourth wall is firmly in place, as are the conventions of theatrical artifice and repetition.

In the lobby after the show, theater artist Kevin Clarke says, “It’s theater, not performance art. It’s a representation of their first encounter, a showing.” When I mention this to Bêl after the performance, he says, “Yes we are representing something. It’s a real fourth wall piece. I’m not proud of it. It’s what happened. We didn’t have time.”

The work has been performed around 100 times since it premiered at the Bangkok Fringe Festival in 2004 and is probably one of the most often presented and written about works of contemporary dance in the past five years. And yet the two men speak as if they’ve never met, and have no idea how the other will respond to their questions or demonstrations. In an interview with choreographer Jess Curtis, Bêl informs that there is no written text and that each performer is free to change the discourse at will. “Depends on our mood, our situation. For example, Pichet says different things if we perform in Thailand, Asia or in the West. I can say specific things if I know that somebody is in the theater and I want to make him/her understand a particular thing.”

After the show Bêl told me that the piece with Klunchun is his first popular success. He added, “The first time we performed it, I thought it was a failure, not to be repeated. We were convinced to remake it in Brussels.” Clearly, it snowballed from there. Previous works have been successful, he pointed out, but only with curators, presenters and a limited contemporary dance audience. The audience in San Francisco, for their Tuesday-night only performance at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, included more local choreographers and dance-performance people than at any other performance in the past few years. Explaining his work to Klunchun, Bêl describes the audience for his work as an audience interested in contemporary art. He says he doesn’t return money to dissatisfied patrons because contemporary art does not promise anything, so there is no contract with the audience to break.

The second half of the performance, in which Klunchun interviews Bêl, is a primer in contemporary art aesthetics, tactics, and tensions. Bêl articulates the primary role of research and experimentation, the importance of state funding, a critique of spectacle and representation, a resistance to virtuosity rooted in populism and democracy, and a deconstruction or appropriation of pop culture. Since the late 50s, there has been a genre of dance that investigates dance more than presents dancing. Central to this project is a critical inquiry of Western theatrical practice.

Bêl said that he could no longer find meaning in dance so he took two years off to read philosophy, art criticism, history and more. He cited Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle (“All that was once directly lived has become mere representation.”) as particularly influential. Explaining to Klunchun, Bêl said, “So there was a struggle, how to keep doing performances, which I love, but how to do spectacle without being the société du spectacle?” Since that time, Bêl’s work has been spacious and slow paced. If there is dancing to a pop song, movements generally respond to a single idea and play out for the length of the song. Minimal and conceptual describe his approach to choreography and performance. He said that the slow pace of his work gives the audience room to have a response. UC Davis professor Lynette Hunter notes that most anti-spectacle is not intended to provoke emotional affective response, and yet this one did. Not a communal catharsis, she notes, but instead the performance prompted a particular and open-ended emotional response.

Bêl is moved by Klunchun’s dance of a woman crying upon finding out that her husband has been killed in battle. With gestural precision he shows her hiding tears, and then hardening to anger.
When Klunchun adds the gesture for ‘raining’ to the slow funeral walk, Bêl says, “This is a funeral. It starts to rain. It is sad.” We feel not only the dance, but also Bêl’s feeling of the dance. He is learning to read Kun. Later, Bêl performs a dance in which he dies slowly, or softly, to the sounds of Roberta Flack singing, Killing Me Softly (with his song). Some in the audience laugh at this overly literal joke, but Klunchun is reminded of his mother dying. While the performance reveals the limitations to translation and mutual understanding, their simple gestures of grief seem to transcend cultural difference. The work suggests that cross-cultural respect and understanding require both patience and dancing.

Although their movement demonstrations are brief, each artist reveals an embodied virtuosity rooted in both reverence and concern for dance. It’s as if by limiting the actual dancing to short excerpts that punctuate a spoken conversation, the audience might appreciate dance even more. The work suggests that if you understand the meaning, with space to insert yourself and your concerns, then you’ll consider it “good.”

Klunchun states that western concert dance throws the energy away. He demonstrates a jeté, a leap from one foot to the other. The legs extend forward and back through space, the arms reaching up, as if thrown, releasing something from the hands. Bêl starts to analyze and maybe even to defend but then he agrees. What is not mentioned is that much dance of the past 30 years, even by people extending European classical or modern dance, practices recycling and circulating energy in the body, between bodies, between the body and its environment. This is evident in the influence of Aikido on Contact Improvisation, the dance practices describe as release technique or releasing, Simone Forti’s passages about flow, Alexander Technique in the work of Anne Bluethentahal or Augusta Moore, and William Forsythe’s approach to improvisation. David Zambrano teaches a technique that focuses on recycling energy, except that the ground, the earth, is the center or king, and the body is both indicator and energy itself, moving into and out of the floor. Klunchun’s description of the body as a literal metaphor for a Thai temple, with Buddha at the center and hands and feet continually redirecting energy back to Buddha, offered specific language for re-considering contemporary dance techniques.

We have seen anti-spectacular performance that is intentionally not enjoyable, not pleasing, but as Curtis points out, Bêl’s work is often witty and enjoyable. Bêl addresses this possible contradiction with, “I love that audiences enjoy the work, but not too much. If they just enjoy it, I am disappointed. I am more ambitious than that.”

The thought-provoking work is arguably most contradictory in its relationship to transnational and post-colonial debate. Despite Bêl’s intentions to avoid exploitation, the work simultaneously resists and complies with larger structures of neo-colonialist practice that would privilege a reading of Bêl’s contemporary European dance over Klunchun’s traditional Thai/Kun dance. Within the limited field of contemporary dance and performance, Bêl is famous and funded. Klunchun is neither. Even in their respective countries, their status is neither symmetrical nor comparable. Their performance is theorized, marketed, and presented in contemporary dance contexts, where contemporary is simply the most current, and globalized, version of European and American cultural developments. Klunchun’s work, both by being foreign and by going first, becomes the ground for re-viewing and re-valuing not only Bêl’s work, but our own; we, the white people in the audience, and we, the postmodern dance and performance people who are the most represented ‘community’ in the audience. Simultaneously the conversation reveals the complicated role of the western tourist. In Thailand, as consumers of “traditional” dance, tourists are the primary audience for Kun performance, albeit a performance adapted to tourist attention spans and hotel poolside schedules. Sitting in the audience, resonating with Bêl’s situated knowledge as a European dance artist, I wondered if I/Bêl was just another tourist using the Other as a mirror to see myself more clearly. It is a tribute to the work that it’s surface simplicity and generous spaciousness, provoke personal considerations of cultural shadow. A mirror, indeed.

Pichet Klunchun & Myself is an excellent failure. It paradoxically embodies all that it attempts to critique, in terms of spectacle, a democratic exchange, virtuosity, and the role of the European in global culture. Its contradictions are inspirational, evocative, encouraging, and generative.

If you're interested in Bêl's work, there is a website/archive/catalogue worth checking out.

My review of this work is more of a failure than the performance itself. When I sent this to my prof Lynette Hunter she told me that dance thinker Susan Foster suggested that gender was key to analyzing the piece. I feel dumb that I missed this. Duh, representations and memories of the female body are the primary reference in the work as well as its gateway to feeling, grief, and to bonding. Klunchun dances a woman crying. Bêl dies to the voice of a woman which reminds Klunchun of his own mother dying. Absent and present, woman is, throughout. I look forward to Foster's writing on this.

July 2009, Oaxaca, The Prisma Forum
I just saw this piece for a second time. When Klunchun demonstrates Kun dance, he casts Bêl in the role of the King, counterpoint to Klunchun's role as Demon. Klunchun dances a sequence that illustrates the ineffectiveness of the King's magic arrow, concluding with a tiny yet forceful gesture of flicking his pinky at Bêl. The following conversation between them clarifies that the Demon is telling the King that he is a insignificant piece of shit. It's hard not to see the smirk in this colonial clowning.


Penny Arcade's

Through March 8, 2009
Brava Theater Center, San Francisco
myspace page

Queer underground survivor and superstar Penny Arcade has made a deliciously vibratory experience for all whores, feminists, fags, dykes, faghags, and the people who love (or pay) them. Appropriately the performance is titled, BITCH! DYKE! FAGHAG! WHORE! An ever-evolving vaudevillian ritual spectacle, the work was born during the sex and censorship wars of the 80’s, but is updated and adapted to today’s San Francisco.

Penny is backed by a chorus of ten saucy strippers and go go dancers who surround the audience on a series of platforms. Men and women, boys and girls, these young people are already masters of sleazy representation, coy flirtation, and camp erotica. Depending on your mood or preference you might find the burlesque seductive or provocative, titillating or even inappropriate. But whether it’s lust in your pants or morals on your mind, consider these scantily clad crotch hounds as temple dancers making the stage holy for Penny’s mythic storytelling, political ranting, and erotic preaching.

B!D!F!W! is about history and love and intimacy and the struggle to survive. It is about the importance of sexual energy liberated from hypocrisy and marketplace. The show is long and probably too much. But it's gay honey, and gay liberation is intended to be too much. In fact, it’s super gay, over the top, excessive, and even includes the very gay songs, "I will survive" and "We are family", with and without an ironic wink wink.

Calling for a new language that is neither politically nor academically correct, B!D!F!W! embodies the histories of the last 30 to 40 years of LGBT activism and queer theater/performance. Walking us through the 70s we visit the queens and queers of the avant-garde who adopted Penny as a wayward teen faghag. Then we visit a very late 70s militant separatist lesbian land where men can’t even touch a toe and gossip rides the winds of patchouli. We know the 80s are coming and still it’s a painful shock when Penny’s friends start to die. Three hundred of them. Her grief and rage are tempered with the wisdom of survival, even as her intense feelings extend from her body to awaken in our own. The stripper chorus, too young to have been there, become the queer kids at drag momma’s feet, still, attentive, grateful, and sad.

Penny can speak to loneliness and devastation, isolation and rejection, without drowning us (or herself). She's hilarious and occasionally dangerous. Prepping for a righteous finale state of the union address, Penny proudly strips and teases her hot aging body to a film of Wooster legend Ron Vawter being Lenny Bruce. The juxtaposition is punk, fierce. Queering the stage in many ways, she switches genres from 80's performance to Laugh-In standup to burlesque Happening. My favorite moment was when she held my hand in the dark, while bragging that her unique gift to performance history is simply turning all the lights out and hanging out with the audience. A long monologue by seven-year old Penny, chatting lesbian histories while her legs swing from a bench too high for her feet to touch the ground, was probably the only scene that I wished were shorter. B!D!F!W! is wildly imperfect, contradictory and eccentric which is exactly what allows all the love, intimacy, political liberation, and sexual healing to be available to any audience willing to receive.

My buddy Neil and I left the show sensing that our own intimacy had shifted, that we felt more comfortable and friendly with others in the audience on the way out. Maybe that doesn't turn you on. Maybe that won't happen. I felt more alive and more sexual; more inspired to take bold action and fondle more ass.