Here's a story about performing improvisation followed by everything you (or I) need to perform my most recent 'piece'. Of course you can also read this as a description of recent improv performances...
A solo performance by Keith Hennessy developed unintentionally while improvising.
Written documentation, July 20, 2009, Berlin
I have been performing solo improvisations since the early 80s. I think my first spontaneous choreographies for an audience were in 1982 or 83 at The Alchemy Lab, a weekly improv ‘club’ held in a side room of the Fillmore West in San Francisco. Since these earliest experiments I have merged talking and dancing to extend postmodern dance into mongrel post-genre performance. When I perform improvisation I am sharing a particular research practice that informs nearly every aspect of my life: how I make art, how I live in my body, how I participate in social movements, how I clean the house, how I relate to others, how I experience or sense the world around me, how I make decisions, how I make money, how and what I teach, how I sense and play with energy, how I relate to spiritual and religious ideas and feelings, how I consider memory and history. Although my influences are many and ongoing, here is a list of the primary artists and situations that have inspired me to improvise in performance: the wide network of contact improvisation jams and festivals, Dena Davida/Catpoto (Montréal), Lucas Hoving, Terry Sendgraff, Ed Mock, Sara Shelton Mann and Contraband, Mangrove, Akira Kasai, and the performances Unsafe, Unsuited (with Patrick Scully & Ishmael Houston-Jones) and Antibody.
In the past year I’ve performed a few solo improvisations that have generated a series of actions, images and moments that I would like to gather into a new choreographic project. I intend to perform this work and am also interested in it being performed by others. This work, tentatively titled Keith Score, is my first piece made without a political or ritual intention distinct from the ritual and politics of improvisation, i.e., distinct from performing the making of performing, i.e., my first unintentionally sourced choreography/performance. This score will most likely be updated after further testing in performance and/or watching videos of past performances.
A space in which all of the audience can see the floor.
In the round is possible but other audience configurations are preferred, e.g., frontal, two or three sides, ¾.
White or grey floor preferred.
Present the space as raw as possible: no wings or back curtain or objects that can’t be removed.
A fully lit space, prefer no color. Some light on the audience.
2 (two) instruments, on the floor, with long cables, to be manipulated/placed by the performer.
1 (one) light operator, available for spontaneous requests from the performer, based on pre-discussed options.
1 (one) microphone with cable. For extra safety, tape the mic to the cable.
1 mic stand.
On stage monitor if possible.
Reverb if possible.
1 (one) sound operator, available for spontaneous requests from the performer, based on pre-discussed options.
The sound/light operator can be the same person.
Carried on stage in two cheap plastic shopping bags, preferably not identical.
• Digital camera.
• Black ruffle under shorts, like what a vintage cancan dancer might wear.
• Flesh-colored dance belt (cover genitals, reveal ass).
• For women with mid-large breasts, a flesh-colored bra.
These under-garments are not about modesty; they are about erasure, history, fetish and representation. They are intended as the most minimal costume that transforms a naked body into a ‘dancer’s body.’
• Long strand of pearls (fake or fresh water), to wrap 3 times around neck.
• Sequined gauntlets, approx. 5-8”. You’ll probably have to make your own.
• Stirrup tights. Preferably a little too big, bright colors, floral or of nostalgic or personal significance.
• A mask. My friend found my mask on the street. I will try to figure out what it is and buy more of them. Until then, the mask should be latex, cover the whole head, preferably not have a mouth hole, have some kind of hair, and be as unmonstrous as possible.
• A sequined dress. Preferably fabulous, or fabulous kitsch, not perfectly fitting, old/vintage, mid-thigh length.
Some object, costume, or food that you have never worked with. To use if you feel stuck, shitty, lost and have already (1) tried everything I’ve suggested or that you know to keep an improv alive, and (2) have reported to the audience that you are stuck, feeling shitty, and/or lost.
The length of the piece is 30 to 70 minutes.
Walk out in some version of street wear, clothes you wear everyday, not special. Introduce yourself and say hello to the audience. Say a few more things.
I might introduce myself, or ask the audience if they’re comfortable and ready. I ask if someone is willing to document and I give them the camera. I tell them to pass it along if they get bored or uninterested in taking pictures. In the past I have told the audience what I’ve pre-decided and that the rest of the performance is some kind of open improvisation, often referencing certain tricks or devices I’ve been doing for years. I’ve been questioned about this device of performance informality, this performance of “I’m just another one of you.” Am I sincere or manipulative, casual or calculating? Yes; And. I try to act reassuring, inclusive, and yet prepare them for an adventure.
Take off clothes (everything) and put on black ruffle shorts. Start to drool saliva into palms of hands and rub it into your legs, stroking down towards feet. If your legs are hairy, your goal is to smooth the hair. Before you run out of spit, or after 5 or 6 drools, tell the audience that you don’t have enough spit to complete the job, and suggest that they get ready to contribute. If someone snorts or jokes about coughing up phlegm, politely instruct them to gather only saliva, only from the mouth. Go towards the audience with cupped palms. Request volunteers. After 1 or 2 contributions, smear the saliva down your legs. Continue, working different sections of the audience, until you have covered all of your exposed legs from hem of shorts to ankles. If you have a particularly big contribution, press both palms together and then pull apart to show the audience, catching the light with the suspended saliva. When you feel done with this task, walk back to the stage or playing area, smearing any excess saliva into your head hair, torso, and/or face.
Take off black shorts. Put on the dance belt (and bra). Say: “I am not wearing this costume to make me look good.”
Put on the pearls. As you wrap them three times, say: “Pearls mean mother.”
Put on gauntlets. Say, “Sequins mean gay.”
Put on mask.
Stand in parallel. Think Paxton’s stand, the small dance. Feel any tension in the body and play with exaggerating (tightening) and relaxing it. Turn head to get used to mask and how people respond to it.
Shift from two-foot stand to balance on the outside of one foot for 2-3 minutes. This will involve a lot of falling off balance, adjustments, changing facing, waving of arms and free leg to maintain balance. When possible, drop arms and try to relax as much of the body as possible. This should be rehearsed! I’ve been standing (and turning, and jumping) on the sides of my feet for years and I still feel a little sore, overstretched in the ankle, the next day.
Improvise dancing. Keep your energy bright. Don’t stay on your feet. Don’t stay facing the audience. Try going to a new place in the room to stand on one foot (flat or side).
When you start to breath more deeply, heavily, play with sucking the mask to your mouth. Breathe audibly, rhythmically. Continue to improvise movement, space, action. Push yourself. If you can almost do the splits, play with stretching yourself. If splits are easy, try some other contortion. Look for body limits, borders, and play there. Follow sensations, respond to impulses, don’t get distracted with comedy and audience laughter. Continue to give yourself tasks, explorations, adventures. When in doubt, run to a new location and stand on one foot. Or hold your breath as long as possible, moving only on the exhale, or the inhale.
Use a finger to push the mask into your mouth. Biting from the inside changes the expression of the mask. Continue exploring movement.
Lift the mask part way off (half-way?) and turn it backwards, but leave it on your head. Continue moving, adding the game of twisting the body into shapes that play with perceptions of front and back. Headstands with mask face towards audience can be funny, curious, weird.
Go and get one of the floor lights. Bring it somewhere. Ask the operator to turn it on and dim all other lights. Add the second light. Focus it in some kind of counterpoint with the first. Take off the mask and leave it somewhere in the light.
Go and get the microphone. Stand somewhere in relation to the light/dark spaces you have just created. Swing microphone over your head. Listen. Adjusting length of cable, change the sound. Listen. Like a lasso artist or fire spinner, lower yourself to the ground until you are lying on your back. Fold one leg under you to recall the standing on one leg. Keep swinging the mic while remembering/translating the balancing on one foot. The audience will probably laugh with recognition and you might enjoy the absurdity. Stay focused on a most accurate translation, remembering.
The sound operator might choose to collaborate, changing the bass/treble or volume or speaker. His/her changes should be subtle, at least at first, so that initially the sound is coming only from the swinging mic and the dancer listening.
In Mexico I couldn’t have any floor lights so when I swung the mic in the fully lit space I walked closer to the audience and let some people be concerned that they or someone else might get hit, hurt. In Germany I began this section by measuring out the cable to make sure I didn’t hit pillars.
Sit or stand, while still swinging the mic. Slowly decrease the length of cable until you can grab the mic. Speak slowly into the mic, listening and responding to the sound of your own voice, “A microphone is for speaking, or singing.” Say anything else, or make any other mouth sounds, that you want. Then say, at least once, “Now I will bake a cake.” Try to balance the mic vertically, on the floor, or on your body. Catch it as it falls. Repeat. Explore its movement and sound.
Place the mic on the ground. Lay down with your mouth at the mic. Make a quick choice about where you want to be in the light. You can change location, or relation to light, or light positions at any time. Sing something, quietly. If you get distracted while singing, tell the audience what you’re thinking. This can lead to improvising with light, sound, mic, body, dance, language. You might tie the mic around your neck, or put it in your dance belt (or bra). You might drag it gently across the floor or around your body. (You also might do this much later…). In Chicago and San Francisco I focused more on making sound with the mic against my body or costume. In Mexico I didn’t speak as much because too many people didn’t speak English. In Germany I started singing House of the Rising Sun and then made lyric links to Summertime (thinking about descriptions of momma & daddy).
When you feel ready to change or if you feel lost or distracted, take off the pearls and sequined gauntlets. The next time you want or need to change (after 30 seconds or 10 minutes…), ask the tech operator to bring the lights back up. Move the floor lights and then put on a pair of stirrup tights, preferably floral, bright colored, or of personal significance. My stirrup tights were a gift from Remy Charlip. You might tell the audience, briefly, the story of your tights while putting them on.
The performance is kinda free form by now. You might want to put on the tights and not change the lights. Or vice versa. Consider how much time you have and play it as best you can.
Explore moving in the tights. Be strict with your attention and clear with your intentions. Report (honestly or poetically) to the audience if you feel distracted, or are dropping one score or task to find another.
Fourteen A or B
Start to measure the space with your body. Go quickly, urgently, hungry for external guidance. As soon as you begin to indicate something, change, find something else to measure, match, indicate. Examples: Match arms, legs or torso to angles of walls, roof beams, audience seating. Match whole body length or angle to architecture, an audience expression, a mark on the floor or wall, follow the floor tape or an exit sign. Do this until you find something interesting to explore or repeat or a fresh impulse to follow.
Explore the space – the physical and social space. Climb something or get into the audience. In New York, I had asked for a light bar to be lowered towards the back of the stage. I used a square block to reach up and hang from it. In Germany I was lucky to be performing in a gorgeous converted barn with log beams (almost pillars) that I could climb between. Do something that expands y/our experience of the space. Stretch the idea of the theater, vertically or into the audience, or out a door or window, or even out of view of the audience. In Mexico, Germany, and New York my climbing was considered dangerous, even reckless by many (not all), in the audience. Calculate your risks and play within your range, stretching perceptual borders of ‘normal’ or ‘expected’ body, theater, dance, performance, space, time, presence.
Hopefully you can have a rehearsal in the space where you can see potential for climbing, testing the space. Asking permission in advance is more important in the US than in Europe and is more important in fancy theaters than in converted barns. I enjoy the space between provocation and building consensus. I like to include the presenters and the audience in the making, performing.
Fourteen A or B
Explore the space with sound. Talk, sing, sound as you wish. In Mexico I clapped my hands to test the resonance of the space and then I started singing (almost yelling) a loud tone. I played with changing my mouth shape to make a thick, polyphonic sound, filling the space and bouncing back into even more complex sound. The audience could really feel me, the room, themselves, the fusion of these. In New York (Dancespace, St Mark’s Church) I started growling louder and louder, pushing my voice and my relationship to the audience as far as I could, and in Chicago I sang a Christmas carol with equally intense broken (growling) tones. In Germany I didn’t do anything that tested the space sonically. Sometimes I’ll stomp my feet in loud, fast triplets.
If you end up somewhere and want to reframe it with light, ask someone in the audience (or in a union space, ask a technician) to come on stage and re-position & re-focus the floor light(s). Sometimes a really magical ‘theatrical’ moment can be created. I love the tension/link between this magic and all the pomo, Brechtian, and anti-representational approach to performance and theater tech design.
Take off the tights and the dance belt (and anything else you might still be wearing: pearls, gauntlets, bra, optional items).
Put on sequined dress.
At this point you should have enough sensations in your body, awareness of breath, charged relationship with your environment – physical, energetic, audience, all – that you can just live, simply. Stand. Look. Fall down. Crawl. Walk. Talk. Sing. Dance. Don’t dance. Shake. Vibrate. Breathe. Roll.
You can always go back to mic, lights, reporting what you are doing or not doing, singing, exploring space, climbing, revisiting anything you’ve done before (including standing on one leg, testing limits of the body). If I notice that some spit has accumulated in my mouth, I tend to intentionally gather more and more, and then play with drooling, sucking, drooling onto the floor, or perhaps licking foot or hand or floor. Slowly drooling onto hand or floor, with spit illuminated by side or back light, is ‘magical’ even if also ‘gross.’ Spitting is of course optional. I’ve been playing/working with saliva – mine and others – since at least 1988 (Saliva). What have you been playing/working with?
You find or craft or decide the ending. You can decide by pre-determined length of time or by spontaneous decision. You can work with a cue from the light operator, or from a visible timepiece. In Mexico I wore a watch and ended at 31 minutes. I New York I said I’d go 45-50 minutes but I went 75. You don’t have to end in the dress. You can really follow or drive this performance to the conclusion you want.
 Mongrel: term adapted from Gulko, artistic director of Cahin-caha who uses the French word bâtard interchangeably with mongrel to describe his performance work. My mongrel is a bastard pup of dance, contact improvisation, circus, experimental theater, visual & conceptual art, theater design, lecture, performance & body art, site-specific art, stand up, Judson, Ridiculous, vaudeville, dance-theatre, music and sound art, public and activist art, object theater and more.
 Two references from a filmed interview with Simone Forti at Bennington.
I will bake a cake, as a dada-ish description for making a dance or happening. Balance an object and watch it fall, as a way to make a score for dancing.
 Remy Charlip – choreographer, children’s book author, healer. Charlip performed in early works of The Living Theater, was an original company member and costume designer with Merce Cunningham Dance Company, is the inventor of Air Mail Dances, the author and illustrator of numerous whimsical provocations for children, and has been deeply engaged in avant-garde dance, art, performance and somatics since the 1950s. He has lived in San Francisco for nearly 20 years. I relate to Charlip as my gay art uncle.