December 29, 2010

Tiara Sensation - avant-drag pageant

Tiara Sensation
Dec 5, 2010
@ Temple (in San Francisco)

The 1st annual Tiara Sensation avant-drag pageant was birthed into the world by the SomeThing team of VivvyAnne ForeverMore, dj down-E, and Mr. David aka Glamamore (pictured above). It was an only-in-San Francisco, queer-freaks-do-it-better, oh-no-she-didn’t, genius night out. As co-host Mr. David stated just before the pageant winner was announced, all the queens were gorgeous and gave fabulous performances. That wasn’t just generous, it was necessary. Experimental, messy, and postmodern drag in San Francisco (since the Cockettes, since Klubstitute, since Jerome Caja and Phatima at Uranus, since Kiki and Herb, since the early days of Trannyshack…) means that almost every queen or king invents her own genre of performance. That makes pageant judging either ridiculous, impossible, or ummm intuitive. How to compare Alotta Bouté’s sophisticated and super confident Harlem renaissance approach to burlesque with Phatima’s minimalist reciting of Journey’s Don’t’ Stop Believing? Bouté is a high-femme diva with massively voluptuous and real T & A whose wig and costume owe as much to Patti Labelle, Josephine Baker and the un-named black femmes of history as to anything that drag queens (of any race) have originated. Phatima is a gender-queer life artist famous for legendary go-go dancing at Uranus in the 90s. Neither of these performers would ever be included in most drag contests, especially outside of San Francisco. Of course with today’s post/feminist queer eye, Patti is a faux queen and Baker is recognized as pioneering the re-appropriation of minstrel that contemporary SF queens now take for granted.

We’ve seen a faux queen win a major drag title in San Francisco. At Trannyshack we weren’t surprised when drag kings were included in the performance line-up, and we grew to expect all manner of queens with diversely gendered back-up dancers. But when Fauxnique won Miss Trannyshack 2003, she cleared a path not just for other women-who-dress-like-men-who-dress-like-women but she participated in a movement of RG’s (real girls to some, cisgender females to others) queering gay male spaces and stages. Female roles at the drag bar expanded from butch drag king and adoring fan fag-hag to include femme dyke fashionistas, faux queen dignitaries (incl. Scissor Sister Ana Matronic), transwomen, and the new gen of women – queer and hetero, with their boyfriends or boi friends – who feel at home in gay spaces, some who have been bff with queer boys since middle school. It feels awfully suburban to try to describe this scene or give some historical context to explain how a drag pageant in SF could have among it’s four judges, a faux-queen called Hoku Mama Swamp who said she was looking for performances that were retarded or offensive (in a good way), Gina LaDivina, an icon of late night queer San Francisco and celebrated as the $65,000 silicone wonder, and Sister Roma, a local drag celebrity, journalist and community organizer with the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. The Sisters are simultaneously a real holy order, a camp political satire and an international community.

All this attempt at context, but how to describe the performances? Co-hostess VivvyAnne ForeverMore opened the show with an insane number. She and Mona G. Hawd appeared on giant stilts extending from both arms and legs, like lady insects with massive thorax/abdomens. They looked fucking weird, or fucking great. The audience screamed. Cross-species drag. Snap. The red veil and plastic wig kept falling to obscure Vivvyanne’s face. In this kind of poor theater drag show, we expect this kind of home-made craft disaster. In fact we love it. And the only thing better is when the queen figures out how to fix or destroy the failing headdress without fucking up the lipsynch. Snap snap snap.

Contestants were judged in two categories, presentation and talent. For presentation, ‘Lil Miss Hot Mess arrived in gold lamé spandex lyotard and tights with a light bulb on her head and an 8 foot plank of lightbulbs held across her shoulders. A gold six-pointed star made of craftily painted cardboard was attached at her crotch. Nodding her head to the music, the lights came on sequentially, one for each day of Chanukah. Drag as living menorah. She was only the 2nd queen on the stage but many of us felt that we were already looking at the winner.

Political critique flourished at Tiara Sensation. Phatima’s presentation outfit involved a one-of-a-kind, DIY couture, plaid jacket. On the back was a quilted swastika of American flag stars. ‘Lil Miss Hot Mess and Monistat both cited queer protest history in their background videos. ‘Lil Miss Hot Mess took the ‘It gets better’ campaign and flipped it furiously, seizing the youtube airwaves from the insincere politicians and popstars and giving it back to the fierce actions of those who took the streets from MLK Jr to ActUp. With a gospel choir in rainbow-colored robes, ‘Lil Miss Hot Mess led the full congregation in an ecstatic church revival of revolutionary gay pride, lipsynching ecstatically “everything's gonna be all right. It's gonna be okay,” from Dolly Parton’s Light of a Clear Blue Morning. And somehow she used camp to trump irony (just like Dolly!) and we clapped along, healing ourselves and honoring the ancestors by raising energy in the queer Temple. Elijah Minnelli and two backup queens wore full drag face and long wigs with giant six-armed cockroach costumes. After a video of Minnelli crying over spilled milk, the roach queens emerged from behind giant replicas of the milk, cereal and sugar in the video. When Destiny Child’s Survivor burst from the speakers the crowd roared. The cockroach as survivor; the queer as cockroach. The adamant repetitions of “I’m a surviver, I’m not gonna give up, I’m gonna make it” speak as much to a showgirl’s efforts to triumph as to the every-queer in the audience knowing that we have to fight just to survive. Like the cockroach we have always been here and always will be. (Of course the Destiny’s Child video of this song is noted for its silly blacksploitation and sexploitation, a neo-minstrel of black female exotica so problematic that it survives as a cult classic and therefore a drag classic.) As for every queen inventing her own genre, I recognize that there were two numbers in one evening where interspecies drag resulted in glam lady insects.

I’m tired. It’s 3am. The buzz has worn off but I haven’t finished telling you about all the crazy wonderful surprising performances that happened. Mercedes Monroe performed a virtuosic lipsynch (Ella Fitzgerald perhaps?) that seemed it might be too-classic-drag-for-this-pageant. I didn’t pay attention for a couple of minutes but when I returned my gaze to the stage it was clear that something extraordinary was happening. This number was like a work of endurance art, a slow burn that grew in importance to those patient enough to focus. Try to imagine memorizing and replicating an extended vocal jazz scat improvisation of hums and oohs, growls and moans, eees and ayayays. This bitch (as in superstar diva showing us all that we don’t work hard enough) hit every note, every slurred syllable. This was cirque du soleil, you’ve never seen this before, kinda shit. The longer she endured, the closer we gathered together to focus on her mouth’s mimetic acrobatics. At about the 6 minute mark she pulled the mic from its stand and raised the energetic stakes. We went with her, twitching to every perfectly timed pelvic thrust and shoulder punctuation, continuing to marvel that she was still perfectly aligned with the vocals. When the song finished, she was triumphant, and we made a lot of noise in gratitude.

By the way, ‘Lil Miss Hot Mess was crowned Miss Tiara Sensation, and she deserved it. And yah, the whole event was near perfect thanks to the outrageous dedication and vision of all contestants, hosts, judges, and crew. People who think they need to win grants to make art (or community or revolution) really need to visit a weekly drag bar or annual pageant. The audience at Tiara Sensation was really cute and well-dressed despite their sometimes trendy conformity but they were too few in number and I blame that on the too-expensive tickets not on the rain.

The expensive tickets hopefully generated some profits that will be shared with The Offcenter, a burgeoning crew of queer artists working to establish a venue for queer performance in the wake of the demise of Mama Calizo’s Voice Factory. The Offcenter’s next project is a co-production with my own Zero Performance, a 10-hour marathon of queered performance called Too Much! Jan 23 2011 at Dance Mission, SF. Last year’s Too Much! was legendary by its 5th or 6th hour. Don’t miss it.

Photo of the SomeThing team by Cabure, retouched by Juanita MORE!

November 28, 2010

Keith Hennessy wins a Bessie!

2009 Bessie Award & Thank you speech
October 18, 2010
Symphony Space, NYC

After an intro by HT Chen and a short video of Crotch by Charles Dennis, Yvonne Rainer read this text written by Ishmael Houston-Jones:

For combining virtuosic improvisation, the history of Western art in seven minutes, and playful, sexy, shamanistic trickery that both enchanted and terrified at Dance Theater Workshop in 2009, a NY Dance and Performance Award goes to Keith Hennessy for his work Crotch (all the Joseph Beuys references in the world cannot heal the pain, confusion, regret, cruelty, betrayal or trauma…)


Thanks everybody. It’s a funny decision you make. I grew up in Canada, I wanted to be a dancer, so I thought I had to move to New York and I accidentally hitchhiked across the country to San Francisco and never left. That was the right place for me to be but you always want to be at least a little bit in the New York dance family and this is really important to be seen here, so thank you.

For all those people who have been turned down as many times as I have for funding, I want you to know that I made this piece for fifty dollars in seven days.

It takes a million people to make a solo so I want to thank
Stephanie Maher and Uli Kaiser who run Ponderosa a dance research site and summer camp in rural Germany where a draft of this work was first presented.

I want to thank Georg Kindler, the resident beekeeper, philosopher and Joseph Beuys scholar at Ponderosa for his lecture on Joseph Beuys on which the central text of the piece is based.

I want to thank the people at L’Arsenic in Lausanne who supported a short residency and the premiere of Crotch.

In New York at DTW, I want to thank Carla Peterson for trusting me and for following through, also to the staff who were super great to me and the people who were the best there were actually the interns, who make so little, do all the work and then run the show.
Big thanks to Ryan Eggensperger, who was my NY stage manager and onstage assistant.
To Don Shewey, my brother whose NY apartment is my home.
To Trajal Harrell, Timothy Murray and everyone who worked to feature my work in Movement Research Journal.
To Jonah Bokaer for doing the early bookings of improvs that Carla saw.
To Ishmael HJ who just inspires me and keeps me coming to NY.

In SF, I want to thank to my fiscal sponsor CounterPULSE and my assistant Julie Phelps.

To Joseph Beuys – you are my Andy Warhol.

And finally thanks to Seth Eisen because if he hadn’t loved me and left me I wouldn’t have felt the intensity of sadness, despair and shame that inspired the making of this piece.

Video of the award and thank you speech, posted by Don Shewey:

To see a full list of 2009/2010 awardees:

October 4, 2010

Beuys, Queer, Circus

The following text was written as part of expanded promotional materials or background stories for my solo performance Crotch (all the Joseph Beuys references in the world...).

Because Crotch will soon be presented at Bluecoat Performance Space in Liverpool (Nov 12, 2010) and Shotgun's Ashby Stage in Berkeley (Nov 21, 2010), I'm posting these stories here.

Beuys, Queer, Circus
Blogging about Crotch and more
Keith Hennessy

What about Joseph Beuys interests you?

I dig Beuys because he talked to a dead rabbit, lived with a coyote in NYC,
planted 10,000 oaks, broke the rules at an art school by letting everyone
attend, co-founded the Green Party and then was rejected for being a
visionary freak, gave lectures as art, linked Dada to Fluxus to Performance
to Activism, had a persona as recognizable as Warhol (for a while), and used
honey to show life in action, flow, circulation, and magic.

Beuys is an art history giant in Europe and I wanted more of my friends to
know who he is. Even though I made this piece in Switzerland, if I lived in
Europe I would never have made it, because he's been exhibited too much,
written about too much and quoted too much. But I figured that if Matthew
Barney can quote him over and over and it's rarely or never mentioned, then
I can revisit Beuys' work and siphon his images for some fuel of my own.

Is Queer Performance a genre?

Queer performance is not really a genre. It’s more of an attitude, an attitude towards the body, especially its sex and gender, and how that body is or is not resonant with social norms and rules.

Queer performance is also a historical marker, describing a wave of theatrical action, on stage and off, that emerged symbiotically to the massive action/visibility/struggle/celebration of queerness during the gay male AIDS times, from the mid-80’s to the mid-90’s. Queer is also a weave of historical performance legacy, with no beginning and no end.

Queer is an alchemical detournement of insult and slander, of violence and rejection. That means magical transformation and recycling of the master’s tools. To perform queer is to embody, shamelessly, the shadows of a culture so colonized, it can’t recognize it’s own losses and failures.

Queer embraces social disruption in favor of sexual liberation, and that includes in the theater, as well as in the streets, the family, the school and beyond.

OK, if genre is how a work of art relates to audience (comedy, noir, cartoon, camp), then queer is a qualifier of genre, or an affect on genre. For example, one could be macho or sissy (or a sissy macho!) and still identify as male. Queer is that kind of description.

My work is queer because I found my performance voice in the 80s and was deeply influenced and inspired by the cultural explosion of that gay old time. My work continues to be queer because it celebrates &/or investigates faggotry, lesbian theory, camp, desire, shame, abjection, loss, LGBTIQ solidarity, and is always on the lookout to eradicate images of misogyny, heterosexism, white supremacy, and other deeply embedded and embodied shit that makes us less free.

Queer performance is a utopian phantasia. It fails, but it fails fabulously.

How does your circus training influence your work?

Circus is about putting on a show, entertaining, all in the family. Most
performance art either challenges the spectacle, or ironically works with
the idea of putting on a show to draw attention to the manipulation and
falseness and pretentiousness of the spectacle, i.e., its ideological
agendas in service of the dreadful hegemony! And performance tends towards
celebrations of the abject or queer or taboo, and therefore is not for kids
of all ages. My work tends to hover in the inbetweeny spaces where spectacle
and anti-spectacle are debated, where children's theater and conceptual
installation rub together. Also, circus training helps me look young but
makes me feel old. And it reminds me of why I play with risk and danger in
the face of a culture obsessed with safety and comfort while obliterating
any recognition of the dreadful hegemony at work in the manufactured consent of comfort and safety. That is, security makes us stupid and weak and racist. This response is starting to feel more like a circus performance
than a promo blog.

September 20, 2010

The Mission School (of Painting)

I was asked to respond to the question, "Was there ever a Mission School?" for an upcoming catalogue accompanying Barry McGee's retrospective at Brooklyn Art Museum. When I told a few friends about my attempt to document some other Mission 'schools' it seemed that most of them were not aware of any aesthetic or market phenomenon called The Mission School, which was first named by art writer Glen Helfand to identify a certain 'neo-folk' 'urban rustic' hybrid under the influence of graffiti, comics, mural traditions, skate and zine cultures, recycled wood, sign painting, and SFAI art school painting concerns, that emerged in the mid-90s as a kind of Bay Area style, centered in the Mission neighborhood. The style, or collection of resonanting styles, is linked to many artists including the following: Barry McGee (Twist), Alicia McCarthy, Chris Johanson, Andrew Schoultz, Ruby Neri (Reminisce), Margaret Kilgallen (Meta), Rigo 23, Aaron Noble, Clare Rojas.

Work shown above: Clare Rojas (top) and Margaret Kilgallen (lower). Kilgallen demonstrates one of the Mission school exhibition tactics, a group of tightly bunched paintings that accumulate to mural-scale.

A few of the schools I know in the Mission (in-process draft)
Keith Hennessy

For those of us who were in the Mission before the mid-90s and are still here, the idea of a Mission School (of painting) is an odd joke. The work that blossomed here at that time can’t be separated from the vibrant and complex scenes – artistic & political, migrant & resident – that have made this neighborhood noteworthy for generations. Naming a Mission School in the 90s masks the problematic complexity of the School’s roots in both SF indigeneity and gentrification. San Francisco and Oakland in the 90s were vibrant and engaging sites for artists and activists. Pre 9/11, pre-dot-com boom and bust, street artists around the Bay were mostly ignoring the gentrification of the world. We watched the rents get higher as more and more of us moved to Oakland (or LA, Portland, Tennessee, Berlin…). We flooded the streets in ’91 to protest the first Gulf War and whether we were queer or not, we were somehow moved by both the devastation of AIDS and the queer cultural tsunami that crashed against the hetero shores. Many of us, but not all, blossomed in this fast-paced and turbulent time. But the art structures that supported us (or not) and the aesthetics that inspired us (or not) had been evolving since at least the early 70s, since the cultural revolutions of Chicanos, feminists, gays and lesbians rewrote the text of San Francisco streets, especially in the Mission and Castro and the evershifting borders between them.

Mission High School – the visual focus and community center. A big underfunded vibrant public highschool that frames the south end of Dolores Park, where Latino teens and SF Mime Troupe audiences and gay guys in speedos and hella hipsters and dog walkers and babysitters and tennis players and pot/smack dealers and the homeless have been getting schooled for generations. Doloroes Park is also home to both the Dyke and Trans marches and countless other gatherings of folk that make up the other America of Mission School ethics and aesthetics, which in DC are referred to as San Francisco values.

Mission Mural School – since way before the mid-90s, thousands have come here, and even more have grown up here, getting schooled in the art of public wall painting. From Muralistas Feministas to Galeria de la Raza’s digital murals, from Precita Eyes ongoing schooling and public touring to Clarion Alley Mural Project and all the alleys where Mexican/Mission style murals meet the latest trends of art school kids and the anarcho politics of everyday life in the activist Mission.

Mission School of Public Performance – From weekly low-rider processions on Mission Street in the 70s to Contraband’s dance rituals in the Gartland Pit at 16th & Valencia (site of a landlord arson that killed elderly and disabled tenants) to Jo Kreiter’s 2010 performance with dancers flying along the epic muraled walls of the Women’s Building on 18th Street. The Aztec dancers are probably the most ongoing phenomenon of Mission School performance. They always lead the annual dia de low muertos procession and can be seen blessing many events, from the anniversary of the Chicano Moratorium to marking the site of a recent murder at the corner of 24th & Shotwell.

New College of California – Now a dead and defunct school but its legacy lives on in the visions and labors of the many of us who studied and/or taught here when no other university wanted us. From 1971 to 2008, NCOC was a site for leftist schooling, community organizing, political fundraisers, feminist psychology, socially-engaged conferencing, and three generations of activist artists and lawyers.

The book stores of the Mission – For many of us, this is where we really went to school, I mean in the traditional sense, of (re)learning how to read books and the world. Modern Times is the flagship of leftist bookstores but it has always thrived in relationship to a social and spatial eco-system that includes so many other independent (say what!) bookstores and zineshops including Adobe, Dog Eared, Borderlands, Needles and Pins, Goteblüd, Bolerium, Forest… And most of these bookstores exhibit local art, and talks about local art.

The Roxie – This is where Mission residents and tourists go to get schooled in independent film, specially the low-budget, the local, the weird, the queer, and the dissident.

Dance will never be sold like art, so there will never be a noted Mission school of dance that is written about in the NY Times. But there is and has been for 30+ years a Mission school of dance that is marked by some of the same hybridities and tendencies of what is referred to as Mission school painting. Thousands of dancers live here and come here to take class and rehearse. Mission dance schools include Dance Mission (home of the world’s longest running feminist dance company, The Dance Brigade), ODC, Capoiera Abada (now renting the former site of Dancers’ Group/Footwork, site of an occupation in 2000 when the dot-com era landlords raised the rent 400%, forcing eviction), and the many smaller studios in Project Artaud and the Sears building. Dancers in the Mission rehearse all year long for Carnival which showcases dances of the entire world, with a particular focus on dances of the Americas.

The Mission (like any complicated, dense, and historically rich neighborhood) has a diverse and rich eco-system of schools, that share and/or compete for, limited architectural, social, and fiscal resources. If we scratch the surface of Mission School painting to reveal the values, ethics, aesthetics of the movement, we find the same things taught at Meadows-Livingston School, a 30-student elementary school for African-Americans looking for any alternative to education systems that will always expect them to fail. Meadows-Livingston operates out of a converted farmhouse under a massive freeway vortex at Cesar Chavez & Potrero. Called The Farm when it was reclaimed in the 70s, the building has been host to punk shows, Mime Troupe performances, countless exhibits, artist housing, the Pickle Family circus, and Survival Research Laboratories, while also operating as an actual urban farm for Mission youth. Clearly this scene is a significant tap root for Mission School painters who hybridize high and low, folk and pop, legal and illegal, cartoon and fresco, white dude and everyone else.

The Burrito School – If you are what you eat then the Mission School is about 50% burrito, the SF indigenous hybrid of Mexican fast food. Without El Toro, Cancun, El Farolito, La Taqueria, Papalote, Mission Villa, La Rondella, El Tonayense, El Mariachi, and the margaritas at Puerto Allegre the Mission painters would have starved or made some other kind of art. The late night crowd is also well-fed on Salvadoreña and now Oaxacan food, especially pupusas.

PS about nationalism and capitalism
The visual and conceptual tendencies of the Mission School can be spotted in trendy art scenes all over the world. That is to say, that globalism with its inescapable hegemonic tendencies, is always in effect. What makes a dollar in San Francisco will inspire and influence the work that gets made elsewhere. And vice versa. We used to call it co-optation or selling out.

Keith Hennessy is one of tens of thousands of queer and dance refugees in the Bay Area. He has been working (studying, teaching, performing indoors and out, protesting, altering billboards) in the Mission since 1982 and lives on Folsom near 24th.

Bay Area Dance - 2008 - The West Wave Dance Festival

Here is a sprawling review I wrote in 2008 as an attempt to comment on dance (practices, issues, tendencies) in the Bay Area.

Keith Hennessy responds to the 2008 WestWave Dance Festival

August 16-24, 2008
Produced by Dance Art, Dancers’ Group, YBCA
Dance Wave 1, 2, 3
The Novellus Theatre at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

Equality. Free Speech. Democracy’s Body. The Bay Area. The West Wave Dance Festival. In the future everyone will have 15 minutes of fame. In the West Wave Dance Festival each choreographer had five minutes on the big stage at Yerba Buena. Three programs. Thirty-five companies. An equitable and representational form of democracy that celebrates a utopian correction to the cultural segregation of most of our daily lives. This kind of democracy is also championed by the Izzies (the Bay Area’s Isadora Duncan Dance Awards) and might even be considered a San Francisco or Bay Area ‘Value.’

Diversity is generally a white liberal idea. Multicultural ensembles, as well as arts spaces and festivals that offer multicultural programming, serve an audience that is primarily white, i.e., not diverse. This held true for this year’s West Wave festival. If diversity programming does not attract diverse audiences, what is its goal? What aspects of the West Wave festival were not compelling to local audiences? With each company having only five minutes on stage, the reason to attend was not to see a specific company but to be wrapped in a crazy quilt of found fabrics, to taste test from an international smorgasbord, to enjoy or be challenged by juxtapositions, comparisons, frictions, and resonances between companies. From this holistic or systems view the 2009 West Wave Festival was a delightful success. But if so few people want to experience this wide-angle portrait and if the blackouts between pieces symbolize cultural divides that no amount of stage sharing can bridge then should this form be repeated?

The intentional creation of multicultural ensembles (SF Mime Troupe, The Dance Brigade, ODC) has its roots in a radical critique of mainstream society’s institutional racism. These troupes emerged from 1960’s and 70’s counter-cultural contexts inspired by the radical left, lesbian-feminism, and a series of ruptures in the arts. During the turbulent 60’s the established powers that refused to defend Native American independence or Civil Rights were quick to fund Alvin Ailey as the #1 American cultural export. An image of African American inclusion contrasted the facts at ground level. Progressive and reactionary forces are continuously at play and depending on one’s perspective social justice is improving (Obama) or not (US schools, prisons). The white choreographers and audiences of the SF Ballet receive massive and disproportionate funding from both public and private sources. Simultaneously, there are people in several powerful positions in Bay Area arts funding and presenting who are deeply committed to equitable distribution of resources and increased visibility for minority and/or marginalized cultures.

A review written in the spirit of the West Wave Festival would give an equal amount of commentary to each company that performed. It might even give each group the same quality of praise and/or critique, interrupting any attempt to favor or privilege one performance over another. My response is more subjective, as evidenced already by a particular politicizing of perspective. I am a fan of postmodern strategies and critical of dance that seems either nostalgic or unquestioning of tradition.

There was a striking similarity to most of the 35 dances staged in the festival. Dancers entered in the dark. The lights came on to reveal dancers in a still shape. Dancers moved in time to music for somewhere between four minutes, thirty seconds and five minutes. And then, in an obvious relation to music or narrative, the dance ended with stillness (or a repeating movement), and a slow fade to black. The audience applauded.

Interruptions to this structure were infrequent enough to stand out as nearly daring even if they simply used other accepted choreographic tactics, like walking on in light (Smith/Wymore), beginning in the audience and then moving to the stage (Chris Black), or dancing as if there was no beginning or end (Amy Lewis).

I have been looking for a way to simply describe Bay Area or American dance that seems to ignore most of the innovations and experimentation of the past 50 years, since Anna Halprin and Cage/Cunningham through Judson, performance art, contact improvisation and even Sara Shelton Mann/Contraband. (Disclosure: I performed with Contraband from 85-94.) European dance writer Helmut Ploebst uses the awkward term “modernistic American post-post-modern” to contrast Bill T Jones, Stephen Petronio, and Neil Greenberg from their contemporaries in Europe including Meg Stuart, Jan Fabre, Jerome Bel, or Vera Montero. I think his term could also apply to several contemporary Bay Area companies including ODC, Deborah Slater, Stephen Pelton, Brittany Brown Ceres, Janice Garrett, and Leyya Tawil. But of course this kind of classification is mostly useless and unnecessarily divisive. Kathleen Hermesdorf’s group choreographies might fit this term but her duet work with musician Albert Matthias does not. Alex Kelty’s choreographic research projects interrupt many modernist notions but his dance for Axis shown in West Wave was an expressionist dance-theatre drama that could easily be classified as post-post-modern.

I apologize in advance to the 35 choreographers whose work I mention here. I use your creative labors to spark an eclectic critical commentary on tendencies in Bay Area contemporary dance (and beyond). Certain prejudices prevent me from experiencing your work as you intended. Seeing the performance and reading the program bios demonstrates each and every choreographer’s deep commitment to dance. From a deep well of dance-making experience I respect the deep commitment, personal vision, and years of hard work with inadequate resources that is embodied in each of the following dances.

Given the massive effort it takes to accomodate 35 companies sharing a single stage, each program ran remarkably smoothly, production values were high, and everyone looked great in lights designed by Michael Oesch. Congratulations to the producers, technicians, designers and dancers.

Dance Wave 2
Wednesday August 20, 7pm

To a striking song of acapella voice and clapping by Quay, Alayna Stroud began the evening with a dance on and around a suspended vertical pole. Bold sharp arm gestures punctuated a dance of moody poses. With Quay singing of an inability to let go of the pain, the dance ended with Stroud, high on the pole, spinning, inverted, holding on.

An ex-SF Ballet dancer now award-winning international choreographer, Robert Sund offered a trio ballet to Leonard Cohen songs. Leaping and spinning, Ryan Camou generated an energy that was not met by his partners-en-pointe, Robin Cornwell and Olivia Ramsay. The choreography and performance seemed more like an earnest study for young dancers than a finished work appropriate to this scale of venue.

Ankle-belled and brightly dressed in orange and green, seven dancers from the Odissi dance company Guru Shradha performed a ritual dance of slowly spiraling arms in lovely light. The group formations, always frontal facing and symmetrical, seemed to freeze the action within the confines of the stage, rendering it a visual event to be viewed rather than a spiritual event to be felt.

A trio of women in white danced an impeccably synchronized choreography of glances and head gestures. Choreographed by Wan-Chao Chang whose extensive cross-cultural training includes Balinese dance and music, There was like something that Ruth St. Denis dreamed of making but lacked the technical training to manifest. The work recalled a women’s Modern dance chorus from the 1920’s or 30’s updated with deeply embodied non-Western movement that could only be possible with the cultural migrations and fusions of the past thirty years.

Cynthia Adams and Ken James of Fellow Travelers Performance Group choreographed an absurdist romp that satirized martini culture, an easy target. The central image was a dancer (super compelling Andrea Weber) attached at the back by a long wooden pole to an enormous wheel. It looked like it a design by Fritz Lang or Hugo Ball. As she muscled herself to spin, the wheel circled the stage while martini holding dancers ducked or swerved to avoid being knocked over. Dancers traded clothes, Ken ended up wearing a dress, and Cynthia crossed the stage with a vacuum. No one noticed the woman-machine that kept it all moving.

In this festival everyone gets five minutes. That’s one image, one gesture, one relationship, one moment within a twelve-scene event. In this context Christy Funsch made a clear and subtle choice. Alternating curvy sensual gestures and sharp punctuating lines, Funsch slowly traversed the stage. The music, like the dancing, was emotional but not dramatic. Reading her body’s writing from audience left to right, I was drawn into the choreography, and therefore the body, and thus an intimate encounter.

The most memorable sense I have of Deborah Slater’s Gone in 5 was the joyful meeting of full-bodied dancing (big leg circles, tumbling off tables), bluegrass with a driving beat, and untamed red hair. A female trio in red wigs and black dresses seemed to enjoy every bit of their five minutes but I missed the conceptual/intellectual engagement that inspires most of Slater’s dance theatre. By this point in the program I wondered if the five-minute rule and the late summer scheduling encouraged a lite touch, or discouraged more serious inquiry.

Innovators of the American Tribal style of belly dance, Carolena Nericcio and Fat Chance Belly Dance began with controlled undulations of arms, spine, pelvis, and belly. In super colorful costumes they gathered speed, energy, and volume, with finger cymbals rocking, into a final gesture of accelerated spinning, their skirts dancing like flames.

Amy Lewis’s Dada meets Judson happening was a delightful revelation. Titled and performed as a series of tasks, 35-40 performers filled the stage playing cards, wrapping gifts, stacking blocks, juggling, stuffing balloons in their clothes, and jumping rope. A trio of musicians played live. Two dancers in wheelchairs snaked through all the activities linking them like unraveling yarn. Someone read kid’s books. An actual kid did something else. Andrew Wass and Kelly Dalrymple, wearing their signature white shirts, red ties and black pants, repeatedly lifted each other from a chair at center stage. Others ran into the audience distributing free gifts. And that’s not all that happened! The stage came alive. The audience woke up. Reviewer Rachel Howard wanted to flee the theatre. People wanted to know what was going on. (What the heck was going on?!!) People wanted it to end. People wanted a gift. This is the piece that made it worthwhile for me to leave the house and risk my attention on dance. Thank you Amy.

Hip hop renaissance woman Micaya served up a celebration of booty that recognized its own hype and played the hip hop game with a self-awareness that the suckers on MTV can’t conceive. The choreography flirted with the music’s butt-worshipping lyrics, as if the body (booty) could talk back, call and response. Her diverse young crew, SoulForce, jumped through musical genres and even crumped to classical.

As soon as SoulForce arrived on stage, their friends (friends of hip hop) started calling out to the dancers in a kind of direct feedback that Rev. Cecil Williams referred to as “listening Black”. Dance styles are not the only ways that dance marks cultural difference. Audience response differs as well. Do we “listen Black” or “White”? Do we enter ritual spaces, times and trances or do we observe with fourth wall intact? And if we have a preferred style of response, is it appropriate to jump forms, or do we stay obedient and respectful of cultural norms? Some of us experience everything on the proscenium stage, from ballet to Afro-Peruvian, hip hop to performance art, as post-colonial and post-European. Are there any traditions that have escaped colonial conditioning? There is a difference between shared (diverse) and universal (we’re all the same). I wonder if by foregrounding the equitable sharing of space by diverse communities we exaggerate difference and emphasize borders, preventing the awareness of the universal fact that we all dance.

Kara Davis made one Tuesday afternoon… for a group of young ballet dancers from (I assume) the LINES ballet school. Eleven dancers moved from whole group movement to duets in which the dynamics of shared weight spoke to human connection and mutual influence. One falls and domino ripples of weight pass through the group. It’s easy to fall into the trap of treating young or student performers as the adults they want to become. Davis artfully avoids this trap by leading these ballet bodies into relaxed weight and playful encounters. As well the simple costumes of nearly monochrome brown street clothes helped a more innocent sensuality emerge. The minimalist bluegrass score by Gustavo Santaoalla well supported the piece.

Kumu Hula (hula teacher) Káwika Alfiche and several of his students performed A Goddess with live singing and drumming. The work began as a solo invocation within a circle of light. The fabulous costumes involved big full skirts and circles of what seemed to be dried grass or brush around their ankles, wrists and head. The headpieces were like organic halos, bursts of energy extending in all directions. The program notes inform that the dance tells a dramatic story of volcano goddess Pele’s youngest sister. The movement was mostly front facing and synchronized and I lacked experience to follow any gestural or energetic narrative. What I could sense was cultural pride through an attention to visual, sonic, and gestural craft.

In DanceWave 2 there were nearly as many people on stage (partly due to Amy Lewis’ cast) as there were in the audience (approx. 100). Why aren’t more audiences attracted to this programming? Is it so tough to convince friends or colleagues from particular (dance) communities to see you perform if you’re only on for five minutes and sharing the stage with eleven other companies that do not share the same music and dance culture? I think that if the tickets had been $5 or free with a request for donations, (instead of $25 with a $7 service charge), the producers could have doubled or tripled attendance with no loss in box office income. But that doesn’t answer the larger question about what compels people to attend or avoid contemporary dance performances in any style.

Dance Wave 3
Wednesday August 20, 9pm

Working in both San Francisco and European dance contexts causes some dissonance in my perception. In the Bay Area we accept overt religious practice in the form of folkloric songs and dances as a normal occurrence. In Europe this would be considered highly unusual, either ridiculed as naïve or witnessed from a non-believing distance. I have never experienced what we unfortunately call Ethnic Dance in a contemporary dance context in Europe unless the dance/music forms are in an experimental encounter with European forms, or the forms themselves are being questioned or deconstructed. Every time I refer to my work as ritual (and I do), a European brow gets wrinkled. Still I question the language of god and religion in our work, especially as we advance towards a presidential election in which every candidate feels compelled to end their speeches with an emphatic, “God bless America.”

Aguacero is a Bomba company directed by Shefali Shah. Focused on Afro Puerto Rican Bomba the company sincerely describes their work as connected to basic folk religion practices: healing, ancestor worship, embodying the natural world, and initiating youth in traditional practice. Their work is a syncretic encounter of West African cultures filtered through the Caribbean while reframing Spanish colonial dresses, shoes and language. At Dance Wave 3 they performed Hablando con Tambores a dynamic skirt waving dance that surfed the fast-paced, joyful wave created by three drummers and four vocalists. After a lively solo, a second woman came on stage in a competitive/collaborative face-off of tightly patterned skirt tossing, moving so quickly that my eye memory retained traces of circling and spiraling fabric.

Like her Ballet Afsaneh colleague Wan-Chao Chang (DanceWave 2), Tara Catherine Pandeya has cross-trained in several non-Western dance forms and traditions. In a dance of circling hands and micro percussive movements of shoulders and head, Pandeya danced in a sensual world evoked by the music played live by the trio Marajakhan. The traditional Uyghur music and the long braids attached to Pandeya’s hat recalled the work of Ilkolm Theater (Uzbekistan) who performed the gorgeous epic Dance of the Pomegranates at Yerba Buena earlier this year. Both performances evolve from diasporic Central Asian Turkic cultures.

Alex Ketley in collaboration with Rodney Bell and Sonsherée Giles of Axis Dance Company created a tense and intimate dance drama. Punctuated by quick gestures and sudden conflict the lovers seemed caught between intense attraction and secret fears. The dancers’ intimacy with each other’s bodies further demonstrated the struggle of any two people to connect. In this case the two people had to cross the divide between man and woman, as well as between a person who walks on feet and legs and another who travels by wheelchair. When Bell fell backwards to the floor, supported by Giles, we realized that he was fully strapped to his chair and could now crawl like a snail with house attached until he muscled his way upright. The piece ended the way it began and why not? Most couple encounters circle through familiar territory.

Brittany Brown Ceres choreographed Shade a quintet of women bound in a space defined by a rectangle of light. The work alternated synchronized and solo movement with a variety of lifts to a score of uninspired contemporary techno. An unfair question blocks my vision. “Why are they dancing like that, working so hard with such tired vocabulary and choreographic assumptions?” This question only reveals my inarticulate frustration. Also it seems too specific about dance ceres (whose work I’ve never seen before) when in fact I ask it all the time when seeing post postmodern Bay Area dance. In the program text Ceres tells us that Shade was “crafted in public spaces to study landscapes which are designed to substitute for psychological balance and to unlock descriptive communication made of movement instead of words.” The gap between their craft and my experience was overwhelming.

The strangest work in the West Wave Fest was Brooke Broussard’s Moving The Dark. A solitary figure in black unitard, complete with hood, moved continuously in rhythmic patterns of extended sweeping limbs and undulating spine. In some contexts this costume and this action would cause uproarious laughter but here it was only weird, as in otherworldly. Three lengths of blue carpet were unrolled to mark the space into a geometry of lines and triangles but the choreography seemed to ignore these differentiated spaces, so after a couple of minutes I did the same. Six other dancers in three pairs completed the cast of this surreal-psychological modern ballet. Blackout. We clap. Then we hear a loud scream.

A woman’s voice is heard from the balcony. Some pop song I can’t name. “I’m gonna make a change in my life.” Then singing erupts throughout the well-lit house. The singing, by choreographer Chris Black and company, was charming as if we caught these citizens singing along with headphones on a rural trail or alone in their apartment. Moving towards the stage one of the performers faces the audience from the front row and sings only the first half of U2’s “And I still haven’t found (what I’m looking for).” A repeating motif of “change” of course recalls Obama but it is only afterwards that I find out that the piece is entitled Headlines and includes found gestures from print media with a fractured medley of pop music. Musical encounters between the performers grew increasingly complex, mashing one song against another, or everyone briefly singing the same song. Counting aloud, Michael Jackson’s Man in the Mirror, and little dances of borrowed shapes in absurdly out of context scenarios, became a virtuosic arrangement and performance of everyday life. The emotional power of this piece was a surprise. What seemed like a formal intervention and a cute referencing of pop culture became an impassioned cry for renewed meaning and solidarity. Wow.

Tango Con*Fusion offered a round robin of tango duets danced by an ensemble of six women betraying (they call it bending) the gender roles of traditional tango. Bay Area values have evolved to a point where bending gender and queering tradition is neither radical nor compelling. The dancing seemed polite, lacking the intimacy and tension that tango often evokes. I was reminded of Terry Sendgraff’s aerial dance company in the 80’s embodying a (lesbian) aesthetic that avoided competition and celebrated equal partnership. You might need to check your punk rock at the door to be able to enter the best of these egalitarian worlds.

Through Another Lens by Sue Li Jue is a modern ballet that confronts the legacy of the Vietnam War within a body that is both American and Vietnamese. The sound score succeeded in blending two distinct voices: a blues text by an American vet underscored by traditional Vietnamese folk music. Soloist Nahn Ho is a strong dancer whose spiral falls, clear shapes, and sudden turn to the audience dared us to witness him, a young man pushed to the limit by the political tensions that he embodies.

Second generation South Indian dancer and choreographer Rasika Kumar crafted the festival’s most overtly political piece. Gandhari’s Lament represented the story of the blind mother of 100 sons who were all killed in the Great War of the Mahabharata. With ankle bells marking every percussive step, Kumar’s powerful dancing used both abstract and mimetic movement to communicate a mother’s grief. Her bitter, closing curse could as easily be directed at today’s murderers.

Zooz Dance Company’s En Route opened with a gorgeous solo by Jessica Swanson in a backless top that highlighted her amazingly articulate back and hips. The fusion dancing of Zooz, co-choreographed by Jessica McKee, features ensemble Middle Eastern dance that is super precise and seductive. Their skirts, especially the boa-like trim, did not meet the quality of the dancing.

If an internal voice demanding “Why? Why?” prevents me from seeing most Modern dance made by contemporary choreographers, the volume elevates to near screaming when I’m watching modern ballet. Liss Fain’s Looking, Looking was another of the festival pieces that seemed like a study for young ballet students. How did these works get curated over the sixty choreographers who got turned down? Was there a category for student works? Or did these pieces represent the best of the ballet applications? In Fain’s work two men and five women in sexy black shorty shorts danced for five minutes to Bartok’s dramatic Concerto for Viola. There were lifts and arabesques; the dancing was neither stupid nor compelling.

Dance Wave 1
Thursday August 21, 9pm

Charlotte Moraga restaged and performed an original composition by Kathak icon Pandit Chitresh Das. The dance basically manifested its title, Auspicious Invocation. With liquid wrists, crystalline forms and an open expressive face, Moraga began in a circle of light, dancing her invocation to the four corners. Properly concluding the ritual, she ends with a bow. Moraga is an excellent dancer who has been immersed in this form for 17 years.

But what does it mean to wear a sari or Indian costume on stage in San Francisco? What relevance or resonance does a contemporary audience appreciate when watching traditional ritual dances? What combination of training and inspiration might result in a local Akram Khan? Someone who masters Kathak and subjects it to contemporary and global questions of performance? Someone who no longer feels responsible to represent a nostalgic or idealized cultural representation? Similarly what social context might encourage an African American dancer in the Bay Area to dare the kind of genre-busting performance of Faustin Linyekula? Someone whose expression of African-ness is dependent neither on folkloric tradition (pre or post slavery) nor on the specifics of urban Black cultures? I wonder what might happen if some of the local ‘ethnic’ companies abandoned representational music, costumes, and static ritual forms. I have been inspired by the complicated revelations of Khan, Linyekula, and other companies directed by non-Western artists traversing the borders of genre, ethnicity and culture, reframing ritual and spectacle for today.

Recent Bay Area resident Erika Tsimbrovsky crafted an evocative teaser of visual dance theatre that suggested we keep an eye towards further projects. Paper gowns that ballooned around the dancers as they dropped suddenly and a scratchy recording of a slow turning music box evolved a performance language sourced in image and memory. The dancers hid inside the dream space of their skirts, and two of them birthed themselves naked as the lights faded.

Sheldon B. Smith and Lisa Wymore made a smart, hip little dance generated from YouTube. Imitation, lip-synching, and multiplying the action via ensemble movement heightened our attention to the found sources and challenged a reconsideration of live performance’s relationship to online videos. What does it mean when highly trained dancers are viewed by an audience of 100 or 200 when non-professionals can be viewed by 3 million? Not only is YouTube a bigger performance archive than we could ever have imagined, but nearly all of YouTube’s most viewed videos involve dance or bodies in performance. Too many of the Dance Wave artists entered in the dark and held a static pose as the lights came up, so it was an unintentional and pleasant intervention to have the Smith/Wymore quartet walk onto the stage with the lights on.

In Mary Sano’s Dance of the Flower a woman’s head floats above a massive parachute skirt, under which we assume many dancers are hidden. To Bach’s cello the skirt begins to breath. I’m in a retro shock. Really retro. I’m thinking Duncan, perhaps after Fuller. This is neither an innovative skirt dance like Fuller’s nor a well-researched prop piece that recalls Mummenschanz or Momix. It’s more like a children’s theatre game evolved from metaphoric, expressive early Modern dance. Emerging from the skirt we are presented with a lovely poem of skipping women in Duncan-style, Greek-inspired tunics. (How many companies in this festival are all-women?) Sano, a third-generation Isadora Duncan dancer, choreographs under the influence of a series of assumptions about nature, women, dance, bodies, and flowing fabric without any recognition of the nearly 100 years of challenging and rewriting those assumptions.

Most Bay Area dancers work with such a poverty of resources (money, space, time, scheduling, management) that it is a marvel that there were nearly 100 companies applying to be in this festival. Nonetheless the lack of engagement and risk with visual design, especially light and sets, is often disappointing. This is as true for the last ODC concert that I attended as it is for most of these five-minute wonders. Dandelion’s Oust (excerpts) began with an odd solo backlit by an upstage performer with a handheld instrument, while a woman at a microphone laughed. The light shifts to another dancer who writhes, falls, twitches and freezes. Unfortunately this is neither Eric Kuyper’s strongest work with the company nor a great example of why we ought to experiment with light. But Kuyper continues to intervene with tradition, challenge conventional assumptions, and craft risky interdisciplinary experiments.

Smuin Company resident choreographer Amy Seiwert created Air a ballet pas de deux featuring Jay Goodlett and Tricia Sundeck. These dancers have considerable professional experience compared to the ballet dancers in Programs 2 and 3 which made this dance all the more disappointing with its lack of risk and insistence on neoclassical vocabulary and stale gender roles. The crowd was loud and vocal with praise. SF Chron reviewer Rachel Howard thought it was the best of the fest. I’m sure that Goodlett is a fabulous dancer but at Trannyshack, SF’s legendary drag club, he would be referred to as a ‘man prop’ (the male as functional object in service of the “female”). In diva culture this is not necessarily an insult.

Charya Burt’s Blue Roses reimagines Laura from The Glass Menagerie as a Khmer princess trapped in her own world. Wearing traditional Cambodian clothes Burt knelt in a circle of light, her wrists held at a sharp 90 degrees, palms pushing out, her fingers reaching well beyond their physical length. Despite the specific cultural invocation of gesture, costume, music and light projection Burt avoided mimetic acting in favor of detailed and articulate physical expression. Her intense presence and sensitivity were so palpable that even the subtlest of wrist and head movements seemed to charge the space around her. Similar to the slow intensity of early Butoh or Deborah Hay’s cellular movement the audience could either be bored to sleep or provoked into a radical encounter with the present, presence. I was impressed, touched.

Nine bodies in white, on their backs, marking the diagonal. In waves of canon the dancers of Loose Change pulse into and up from the floor. Choreographer Eric Fenn’s vocabulary reveals itself slowly in fragmented reference to break dance, hip hop and more. Percussion-based group movement proves this crew is the strongest large ensemble of the festival. Invoking a future city of dance monks the team falls into place remaking the opening image.

Another transition between companies. Another attempt at discreet set up in soft blue light followed by a black out, followed by lights up on dancers in stillness. Would it hurt to reveal the action, skipping the blackout and the precious stillness? Does the stage have to remain this nostalgic place of magic? How did the dancers get there? I don’t know they just appeared in gorgeous light and then started dancing.

I’m curious to see more work by Limbinal a young collective of artists directed by Leonie Gauthier. For their five minutes they presented INside which featured two man/woman duets, one on a table, accompanied by live cello. The work on the table, the mutual lifting, and the increasingly dramatic cello suggested a meeting of Scott Wells and Sara Shelton Mann in a chamber ballet.

Women lifting men ought to be more common in 2008 but its only other occurrence in this festival was with Wass & Dalrymple in How many presents… Contact Improvisation began in 1972 with an intention to democratize (remove the hierarchies from) the duet. But this is only one of the aspects of the postmodern dance ruptures that seem generally absent in Bay Area contemporary dance.

Luis Valverde (choreographer) and Eleana Coll gave a rousing presentation of Peruvian Andean dance. She, fabulosa in pink satin and white ruffles. He, dapper in blue suit, black boots, woven belt and wide brimmed white hat. Hankies revealed in their right hands, they begin to court each other. Indigenous footwork in colonial drag, they dance a timeless seduction of approaches, smiles, spins, and retreats. Their steps are rhythmic and light. The music alternates between symphonic and a military snare. These are handsome people and we want them to get together. When their faces pause almost touching, almost kissing, I want to cheer. The steps increase to skips but she never loses her coy cool. Now the hips are marking time more than the feet. A big energetic finale, racing against the music and they freeze, together. Big applause.

A voiceover instructs us to turn on our cell phones and invites us to document the dance. On stage are two men and one bride. The audience starts snapping pics. And thus begins Snap a work by Jenny McAllister for Huckaby McAllister Dance. A long tulle train attached to one man, when pulled, drags three pink dressed ladies onto the stage. The voice clowns our habit-obsessions with phones and the documentation of every waking moment. “Keep the truth safe from time. Isn’t that beautiful?” For a while this is physical comedy via ensemble dancing. Then the voice talks about grandparents in Minsk and the only photo in which no one smiled. “Bubby says it was just like that.” With efficient craft the weight of history is invoked and the simple social satire becomes only a preparation for a more intimate touch to occur.

Somei Yoshino Taiko Ensemble closed the evening with a fusion performance in which the dancers were the musicians, and the dance was an enactment and embellishment of the musical score. Four drummer/dancers moved around and within a circle of large and small drums. Sharp strikes from one arm. Boom! The other arm shoots vertically to the sky, extending its line with drumstick in hand. Quick shift. Boom! The energy ebbs and flows in a continual flirting of yin and yang carrying marked by stark freezes and silences. Synchronized activity amplifies the sound in such a concrete way: more drummers, more force, more sound. The pace increases towards a quick finale. The final gesture’s silence is the loudest action of it all. And they drop, disappearing into the center of the drums.

In a film clip shown at the Nijinsky Awards in Monaco a French interviewer asks, “WHAT IS dance to you, Mr. Balanchine?" The response was, "just dance."

September 16, 2010

The Swedish Dance History (and my contribution to it)

(and my contribution to it)

I contributed a few texts and images to The Swedish Dance History book, edited and published at Impulstanz in Vienna, August 2010. Because I haven’t seen the book yet, and because there is no index for the 1000+ pages and uncounted contributions, I’m not sure which writings or photos were chosen for publication.

Here is an excerpt from Rani Nair’s description of the book/process:
The history of dance is initiated through dance, but it is writers that fasten it and it is readers that secure it. The Swedish Dance History is dance’s claim on its own history, a history created and authorized by us who create dance and choreography. The Swedish Dance History is a collective effort to realize this history and ultimately to claim the right to our future. Read more, here:

The Swedish Dance History 2010 – it’s our history and it’s on the move!
History must be written and those who write it define the future. Dance, understood as a volatile medium needs its history but who has the authority to write it and to what authorities do those authors answer? TSDH is an open question and a claim of history by its participants. Within ImPulsTanz10, INPEX - in collaboration with the wealth of artists present at the festival – will produce (July 24+25) and release (August 13) a 1000-pages dance book (plus its sound version).

Here is the blog site for the 2009 edition with audio files.

How to get a book?
The book is freely distributed at an ongoing series of release parties and readings around the world. I will host some kind of party event when Ben Evans (Paris) and Moriah Evans (NY) visit San Francisco in late October.

I wrote the following immediately upon arrival in Vienna as a very last-minute contribution to the book. It’s a shameless name-dropping journal about meeting Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker (or not), negotiating my performance fee (or not), and asserting my name and work into dance history (or not). The text was accompanied by the above photo voyeuristic peak into my own underwear. Mårtin Spånberg, an instigator of the project, had suggested that the electric guitar and rock n' roll were motifs or themes for the project, so I interpreted that as shameless self promotion and self-centered provocation.


I arrive in Vienna, Sun July 25, 2010. The nice guy Martin Z from Impulstanz is there to greet me. My name HENNESSY is on a sign with two other names including DE KEERSMAEKER. We smile, shake hands. He apologizes that he doesn’t have per diem $ for me but reminds me that I can get it at The Arsenal from Rio tomorrow when I pick up my BIKE. We wait.

Anne Teresa and a young man arrive. After they greet Martin I offer my hand and say Keith. We walk in silence to the garage. In the elevator there is a sign warning us about TRICKSTERS. They operate in groups and visitors to Vienna should beware. Generally I like tricksters but I have been to Impulstanz before so I appreciate the warning. We all read the sign but no one speaks. I take a PICTURE with my phone. We arrive at the car. The Belgians get in the back and I get in the front. We call the front passenger seat SHOTGUN. Riding shotgun means that I have the gun ready while you focus on driving the car.

Martin spirals the car smoothly quickly down down seven floors down. Speaking softly, trying to avoid filling all social and sonic space, trying to avoid PERFORMING too much or too US American, I say: Your TECHNIQUE reveals your experience with this SPIRAL. He says that the last person he picked up at the airport encouraged him to go faster faster yah yah like rock n roll.

As we left the airport, the young man asked in English if they could be dropped off at The Odeon. There was a short EXCHANGE about dropping the luggage off at the hotel. Then no one speaks for the next 30 minutes. Our collective silence has WEIGHT, not heavy but still substantial, tangible.

I realize that I expect people to be CURIOUS. Are you performing or teaching in the festival? Where are you from? But when I try to imagine speaking it all seems so banal. Is there any way to acknowledge De Keersmaeker’s WORK without invading her PRIVACY? Are we just four introverts in need of an extrovert, one of those people who talks to strangers as if it were normal? Why don’t I CAPITALIZE stranger or normal?

They get out when we arrive at The Odeon. Then Martin drives me to an apartment next to ST. JOSEF’S bio veggie café. Marina is so good in finding me a temporary home next to the place I eat almost every day. I don’t have energy or time or interest to discover and catalogue restaurants here. I STRUGGLE with deciding whether to go down to Museums Quartier to see Benoît & Louise & Hahn in the piece that was cancelled last year and perhaps the year before that also. I use their first names as if I know them, as if we’re related. I do know Hahn and I used to live in Montréal and we’re all performing in the same festival. Is that a RELATIONSHIP?

I decide to stay home, do laundry, and watch the DVD as a kind of rehearsal. I unpack and archive all the props for CROTCH (all the Joseph Beuys references in the world cannot heal the pain, confusion, regret, cruelty, betrayal or trauma…). Where are the scissors? Make a note. Did I remember to ask for a dozen lemons? Another note. There’s the new thimble so I won’t puncture my thumb when trying to stick the sewing needle through the thick scars in my arms. Good thing I packed a second pair of green underwear since I found out that Karl has added a second performance.

I find out everything from others because Karl doesn’t use email and I almost never answer my phone. So I’m here, and my photo is in the festival PROGRAM but I don’t have a contract because I never returned Karl’s phone calls, even when he gave me his personal number. It’s a terrible ridiculous that embarrasses me.

Writing this must have been some kind of MAGIC SPELL. Karl just called me and I answered the phone! We both apologized. I said, no problem I don’t care about contracts. He said, me too. He asked if we could agree to a fee of 5000 euros for 3 performances. I said yes wondering if it is smart not to NEGOTIATE for more. He said, I am responding to your (email) request to get paid the same amount as others with comparable experience. I said, THANK YOU.

Keith Hennessy / Zero Performance / San Francisco
July 2010

July 7, 2010

Jess Curtis / Gravity • Dances for Non/Fictional Bodies

Dances for Non/Fictional Bodies (Preview excerpt)
Jess Curtis / Gravity

February 28, 2010.
Presented at CounterPULSE (San Francisco) as part of Gravity’s Intercontinental Collaborations 4.

Created & performed by Maria Francesca Scaroni, Jörg Müller, Claire Cunningham, David Toole, Jess Curtis and dramaturg/provocateur Guillermo Gomez Peña. Conceived and directed by Jess Curtis.

The stage is filled with the remnants of past performances, stuff that seems to have lost either its meaning or function. Objects from theater prop rooms: mannequin parts, black cubes, an old fridge, a child’s desk, a vintage gurney, a bike, a mirror, and even the kitchen sink, ba da ba. This is the trash of representation, stuff that looks like or evokes or locates… The appearance of the sink suggests a hint of vaudeville, that US American entertainment fusion of dance, comedy, circus, sideshow, and cultural performance. Dances for Non/Fictional Bodies includes all of these elements, but under the influence of contemporary dance and performance these elements are either reduced to abstract essence or maximized into camp excess. The mashup of these tendencies - towards essence or excess - defines the field of play for this team of improvisers.

By referring to the bodies as Non/Fictional, Curtis emphasizes the impossibility of denying the fiction within nonfiction, the imaginary within the real. The slash that interrupts the more commonly used ‘nonfiction’ intervenes on a simple reading of nonfictional as non-imaginary, not-pretend. The bodies in this carefully constructed mess recycle and repurpose objects as easily as personae, changing costumes and attitudes, wigs and positions. In Dances for… the body is real is a theatrical construction is a performance is an unstable and generative site of production of identities, knowledge and art. Dancers sing, juggle, ride bikes, imitate circus animals, manipulate objects, and dance. Sometimes they do almost nothing, daring us to stare or to question what is real. In their playful experimentation bodies and bodily talents are revealed as well as hidden. Two of the five performers have bodies that might be described as disabled, differently abled, non-normative, crippled or different. Everyone has a crutch, that is, a way of extending themselves with objects, tools, or other people to achieve things they wouldn’t be able to do otherwise. These humans seem broken yet undefeated. Together they build a queer world beyond the obvious, the norm, the rule.

The choreography or dramaturgy of this splendid provocation in the guise of a theatrical performance is not obvious. It’s more like a gestalt of performative actions, images and interventions. For most of the work there are multiple simultaneous events. A crisis of representation, of identity, is provoked by this crisis of choreography. The dancers demonstrate both virtuosity and banality. The five performers work alone, in duets and trios. Neither my notes nor memory of this densely layered performance recall any moment when all five were in the same game or image. The following descriptions attempt to resist a falsely linear chronology of the chaos-like multiplicity, simultaneity, and confusions that structure (and de-structure) the work.

Claire enters, most of her body and head covered in some kind of over-sized, insulated welding suit. In her gloved hands she holds crutches like enormous tweezers carrying a plush bunny, as if it is toxic and must be kept away from everyone. Funny. Strange. Then I notice the only parts of her body that are visible: ankles and feet. Her feet are oddly flat and her ankles seem to dislocate or relocate with each step. Her walk is fragile and I realize that I’ve never before seen her walk without the aid of crutches.

In her body-distorting fat suit Maria swerves madly on roller skates, narrowly missing people, objects, and wiping out. At a blackboard she writes, “He hides in exposure. Love is a structure. I respect Spinoza. Me too. OMG.” Standing (in roller skates) on a table, Scaroni alternately sings and lipsynchs a song that includes the lyrics, “Only in my dreams.” Her camp entertainment is unexpectedly intimate. Maria’s skates prevent any stable position, keeping her always poised at the edge of danger or momentum. Later she returns to the blackboard, now naked, to write, “What scars you? How do you pretend to be strong? Did you sabotage my roller skate?”

After an (amateur) strip to underwear, Jörg appears in a red riding hood cape. Suddenly he jumps into a wide stance with bent knees. The cape opens to reveal a fuzzy pink bunny slipper covering his genitals. Legless David Toole’s muscular upper body seems to collapse into itself, diminishing his non-chair height to below Müller’s crotch. David reaches with his rubber-gloved hand to pet the bunny codpiece. As he continues to stroke the bunny, Jörg slaps his hand away. Bad boy! We laugh and squirm. The interaction is so queer, so peculiar, so gay, complicated and delighted by reading these guys as hetero dudes engaged somehow innocently in a contradiction of queer fetishes, rubber and plushy. Touch. Don’t touch.

I nearly jumped to my feet to applaud the sublime circus-like act in which David plays both trainer and animal. He is wearing top hat and vest, and something animal print. The music is spaghetti western. Walking on his huge hands and powerful arms, David arrives on each block as if we should applaud. Ta da! See the trained cripple, I mean dancer, I mean freak, approach the wary audience. See how he balances and never falls. Maria and Jörg enter on hands and knees. Big cats. David commands them, pets them, and begins to climb onto their bodies. Slowly they rise, until they are standing (Scaroni still in roller skates!) on the blocks. Toole has continued to climb, to balance, until he is perched above their heads, his hands on their shoulders. Extraordinary. Bizarre. Edgy. Is the image more dangerous or unstable than the physical feat? The descent is controlled, awkward, and precise. In a hug, Maria carries David, and she skates them off stage.

In Dances for… Jess stages his most frequent practices: reading books for grad school and endurance bike riding. During a period of 15 or 20 minutes Curtis, geeked out in full lycra bike wear, rides a fancy road bike that powers a string of lights. He rides and rides. The action is vigorous. The impact almost ridiculous. He goes nowhere. The lights are meager. But his energy builds with the work, the sound of his labors increase via breath and spinning back wheel. With this increasingly intense action Curtis anchors the project.

Curtis, Gómez-Peña, and the collaborative performers have crowded this work with obsessions, desires, fears, taboos, fetishes, and archetypes. They’re playing with objects, playing with themselves and each other, playing with us, playing with ideas and representations, playing with identity, playing with bodies, playing with the con/fusion of real and imaginary. This serious and disciplined play informs a wisely crafted choreography of improvisations, situations, and sensations. The work is intended as provocation but does not shy away from entertainment. In the friction between contradictions Curtis and gang have generated significant warmth, raising the social temperature, daring us to playfully disrupt our own bodily fictions.

March 31, 2010

Kirk Read performance at Too Much! (Jan 2010)

Chicken Shit (meditation is supposed to make you less crazy)

Performance by Kirk Read

Kirk Read walked on stage carrying two milk crates. He was wearing a short white shirt-dress or choir robe that read ceremonial. The robe was closed at the throat but open to the torso, revealing gold lame bikini pants. A voice over of Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield’s trance inducing monotone introduced us to some kind of meditation practice. A wall-sized video projection of someone, someone white, touched and then later licked a small brown-skinned doll. The effect of the close-up fondling was creepy but almost camp, especially in contrast with what we hear.

Kirk stood on the two crates and attached a carabiner to a cord extending from the ceiling, lengthening its reach to approximately 3 feet above the floor. A (frozen) chicken on a silver platter was passed through the audience. Kirk received the chicken, which had been prepared with some kind of wire harness, and suspended it from the cord.

The voice over and projection continued. Kirk’s mood was calm as he moved slowly and methodically to set the stage. Some of us knew what was going to happen, but we knew that not everyone knew. The audience mood was unsettled, caught between images (real and imagined) that were both ominous and absurd.

Kirk moved the crates, with platter on top, away from the chicken. He turned his back to us and flipped the robe over his head, revealing his back. He pulled his pants down, and backed up, straddling the crate, which was positioned diagonally between his legs. He leaned forward, reached back, pulled his butt cheeks wide. The audience started to squirm, giggle, moan, recoil, chat. The first sign of shit elicited both gasp and light applause. The applause returned louder when the first turd was pinched off and dropped to the plate. Then he pooped a bunch more. Some walked out. Some applauded. The rest of us tingled, stared, squirmed, squeezed our neighbor’s hand or thigh, commented, took pictures with cell phones, laughed.

Just getting to watch an asshole open and release, for most of the audience, was a once in a lifetime event. Read crafted the event in a fresh hybrid of shamanistic body art vaudeville that somehow made the taboo acceptable, watchable, even interesting. Read’s onstage pooping was simultaneously funny, magical, and formally precise. How did he do it? I can’t believe he’s doing it! I can’t believe I’m watching this! Wow, look how much is coming out.

Then it stopped. He pulled up his pants (without wiping), fixed his robe, and turned around. He brought the crates, with platter of shit, back to the chicken. As if performing a demonstration in home ec class, Read dressed and stuffed the chicken. He dressed it with a skirt of streamers and stuffed it with spoonfuls of his own poop. He took his time, making sure not to waste any.

Then he moved the crates out of the way, looked up at us and smiled. The smile was coy, suggesting possible danger, but we didn’t have time to imagine what he might do next. When he pushed the chicken towards the audience, it swung over the first row and folks jumped out of their seats to get out of the way. Swinging it more erratically, to challenge even more of the audience, we laughed and squealed and more folks scurried out of the way. Some took their chances and remained seated, ducking their heads as the poop-stuffed chicken came their way. The shock was tempered with the ridiculous.

Before the chicken swing had come to rest, Kirk stopped it with two hands. He unhooked it and placed it in one of the crates. There was intermittent applause as Read reached up to detach the carabiner and gathered his props. He returned to the unhurried state of executing simple tasks, closing the ritual as he had opened it.

Read walked out. The applause was strong. He left no visual trace but the smell now seemed overpowering. The door to the small theater was opened, several people left and the rest were engaged in animated chatter, while fanning their hands in front of their noses.

I questioned the video and wondered what would be gained or lost without it. I adored the creepy vibe and the licking shots were really strong - I mean evocative, suggestive, inappropriate - but what did the video bring to the larger gestalt of the work? It introduced a juxtaposition or tension with the live performance that wasn’t sustained. Insufficiently developed video projection is too frequent an occurrence in dance and live performance.

In brief discussion with Read I know that this work was inspired by both a meditation retreat and a book about the horrors of factory farmed chicken. These diverse sources both crack the denial of how we’ll eat shit – real and metaphoric - as long as we don’t know what we’re eating. Read’s Chicken Shit (meditation is supposed to make you less crazy) is a provocative yet nuanced meditation. It will be notorious as a poop performance, but the complex resonance of the work ripples in ever-widening concentric rings to disturb the social surfaces of our denial.

Chicken Shit was one of over 30 performances at
Too Much! a marathon of queered performance
Mama Calizo’s Voice Factory, Jan 10 2010
Produced by Zero Performance as part of Keith Hennessy’s A Queer 20th Anniversary

Dance Barter for Artist Breath - Yva Jung

Some days the life of an improviser is doubly charmed. Watch this video by Yva Jung who I happened to meet in 2008 in New York's Union Square where she was selling the breath of artists. Prices ranged from 22 cents to $121, with several 'breath samples' offered for barter (a good natured hug, a song, 32 oz Ketchup). I bartered for a 'really good dance.' Later that night I told the story while performing at a raw space in the Ambush festival (in the Brooklyn neighborhood, Bushwick) and tried to recreate the dance I had improvised in Union Square. By fluke, Yva heard about the performance, got a copy of the video from Treva Wurmfeld and created this work comparing the two events. In the audience that night were Yvonne Meier, Ishmael Houston-Jones (you can hear him laughing), Carla Peterson, a few ex-pats from San Francisco, and a bunch of artists/people from the neighborhood.

If the link doesn't work, try pasting this url into your browser.