San Francisco Letter 18

Manifesti-val: Dance Brigade’s Festival for Social Change
How to Die
Dance Mission Theater,
San Francisco, CA
November 12, 2006

by Rita Felciano
copyright 2006 by Rita Felciano

Keith Hennessey is not for the faint of heart. His work is raw, sexually explicit and violent. It’s also optimistic, romantic and naïve. Hennessey, or his theatrical persona, believes that shamanist practices, the ones that dig so deep that they scare us out of our complacency, can bring about social change. At the very least, he sure is going to try. If that means exposing himself — physically and emotionally — to a level of vulnerability that is painful to watch, so be it.

For an audience his work puts forth all kinds of challenges. Can you go over the top of theatrical conventions without becoming excessively hermetic? And where do you draw the line? Is the socially acceptable just a matter of an individual’s past experience and personal preference? Do we no longer have a concept of “the public?” Is an increasingly fragmented, “special interest” audience unavoidable? Desirable? We admire artists who take risks, yet is at what point, if there is one, becomes pushing the envelope self-defeating? Self-indulgent?

If Hennessey believed in churches, the theater would his. The question seems to be whether we, the audience, are there as spectators or witnesses, consumers or believers. There were moments in “How to Die” where it helped if you were a believer. Yet Hennessey shapes his controversial material with great care so that his work, quite separate from its content, commands even a skeptic’s respect. He creates dance theater that for the most part is convincingly shaped and makes its points—whatever they are — with integrity and passion.

In his two most recent pieces, “SDF USA” and “American Tweakers” he used the testimonial as a frame of reference. (SDF stands for “sans domicile fixe”, ie. homeless; tweakers are methamphetamines.) Under the rubric of How to Die, “SDF” paid tribute to the thousands of homeless — primarily — men who kill themselves every year. “Tweakers” honored disco diva Sylvester and the late seventies/early eighties, an era of unrivalled sexual abandon within the gay community. Both pieces heavily invested in the erotics of death. They were supported and premiered in France: the 2005 “SDF USA” by Les Subsistances in Lyon; the 2006 “American Tweakers” by Les Laboratoires d’AubervillierSFs.

Using material from “Severance,” a collection of short stories by Robert Olen Butler that imagines the last thoughts of people who were beheaded, Hennessey developed “SDF” with musician Jules Beckman. Though arising from a macabre premise, the work starts out conventionally in the manner of a memorial service. But gradually Hennessey tightens the screws and the episodes become more gruesome as the piece progresses.

Opening, Hennessey, nudged in the back by a shadowy figure (Beckman), talks about and passes pictures of the “deceased”, in this case photographs of homeless men huddled in doorways in Hennessey’s Mission neighborhood in San Francisco. Instead of a eulogy, he proceeds to reciting a litany of reasons for suicide. After stripping and a ritualistic washing, he pushes himself into a headstand, up to his neck in the bucket water. The first time I saw this “suicide,” in another of his pieces two years ago, the tension was a lot more acute than this time around. Just proves that certain gestures do not improve with repetition. After what still seemed like an unhealthy eternity, Hennessey emerges to heighten the ante.

He strings himself up on a length of nylon — threaded through his nose — so he looks like a piece laundry clipped to a clothes line. Trying to keep his balance, he precariously walks on his toes the length of the rope. In order to avoid getting cut, he has to continually wet the thread with his saliva. An image of self-mutilation and vulnerability, it’s almost unbearable to watch. Finally, Beckman cuts him down. Hennessey starts to weave and circle and finally collapses. I kept thinking of a headless corpse dancing.

If “SDF” was difficult to watch, “Tweakers” was even more so. In fabulously exotic gold and silver lame outfits, wigs, headgears and platform shoes to match, Seth Eisen becomes an icon of the 80’s club scenes. As a Sylvester figure — he sings some of his songs — he is at once sidelined and an inspiration. Eisen is quite touching, a kind of holy card of that specific moment when something seemed to bloom so fully and yet bore the seed of death inside itself. Parallel to Eisen’s performance, Hennessey engages in an increasingly desperate rant—physically illustrating some of it — about frantic attempts to keep sexually going with whatever mechanical and chemical devices were available. This is strong stuff but effective theater. At “Tweakers” pinnacle, Hennessey and Beckmann engage in a prolonged sequence of (pretend) anal intercourse. That was the point where I had to tune out. The scene was both ridiculous because it was so clearly fake and obscene because of the extreme violence, simulated as it was.

The next episode put Hennessey into a confessional mode, using a laptop like a mirror or an aide memoire. Passionately conflicting emotions pour out of him like torrents from an opened dam. It was a bravura performance, its maudlin elements not withstanding. Then cutting it off, as if with a razor blade, he announces that he wanted to create solidarity between the living and the dead. In a gesture from Kabuki, Eisen in all his glittery splendor, kneels center stage and starts pulling reams and reams of blood red ribbon from his groin. Hennessey, naked, hangs himself head down from a trapeze, arms slightly spread — an upside down crucifix. Beckman walks over to a tapestry made of shimmering strands of CD’s and quietly touches each one as he murmurs names. One after one after one. It was a fine finale for a convincing memorial that was also spectacular dance theater.

Photos from top, all by Angela Sterling:
Marisa Lopez and Steven Etienne in "Four Last Songs."
Igone de Jongh en Gaël Lambiotte in "Frank Bridge Variations."
Marisa Lopez and dancers of the Dutch National Ballet in "The Second Detail."

Volume 4, No. 41
November 20, 2006

copyright ©2006 Rita Felciano



©2006 DanceView