It’s a pleasure for me to introduce the Canadian-born, San Francisco-based artistic dynamo known as Keith Hennessy, since we’ve been close friends for 17 years. We met in 1991 at a retreat center in Northern California, where he co-facilitated a legendary workshop for gay male sexual healers with the Body Electric School’s Joseph Kramer. I’ve witnessed him in many capacities, both publicly and privately, as ringleader, teacher, ritual conductor, activist, provocateur, preacher, sex-positive mentor, and master of ceremonies. I’ll never forget the Festival of Archetypal Psychology celebrating the work of Jungian psychologist James Hillman at the University of Nortre Dame in 1992. When the proceedings got too heady, Keith corralled a bunch of us into getting naked, painting ourselves white, and manifesting unexpectedly onstage as silent Butoh dancers behind a panel discussion to assert the eloquence of the body in soul work.
Over the years I’ve seen his performance work in a variety of locations and contexts:
Sacred Boy (1992) at a Gay Spirit Visions conference in Toronto;
Mandala (1992), made with long-time collaborators Jess Curtis and Jules Beckman, at Highways in Santa Monica;
Heat (1993) in San Francisco at 848 Performance Space; the improvised touring show he did with Ishmael Houston-Jones and Patrick Scully called
Unsafe Unsuited (1996) at P.S. 122 in New York; a couple of the circus works he’s created in San Francisco, most notably Circo Zero’s
Sol Niger (2008). This year he made his solo debut in New York City with
Crotch (all the Joseph Beuys references in the world cannot heal the pain, confusion, regret, cruelty, betrayal or
trauma…), which played at Dance Theater Workshop April 2-4, 2009.
DS: Much of your work combines a lot of different elements: dance, improv, music, performance art, stand-up comedy, political rant, pagan ritual, and more I’m not naming. How did you empower yourself to incorporate such an array of ingredients?
KH: It’s true that I almost always do that. There are times when I think it’s a fault. When I’m working with students, or as a director I see that people are trying to get every aspect of their life into a piece, I say, “Look, you’ve got to cut back. You don’t have to do every one of your talents in every show.” Yet I don’t even think about it when I set out to make a piece like
Crotch, which, like a lot of my work, was made really quickly. It just so happened that the first five images I came up with each required a different genre of performance. Sometimes I am more intentional about it.
How did I empower myself to do that? I identify with being a dancer, and yet I’ve been such a talker from the very beginning. My report cards when I was four years old said, “Keith is a good student but talks too much in class.”
My brother turned me on to Buckminster Fuller. The biggest thing I took from Fuller was this insistence on interdisciplinarity, on not specializing, on the work that needs to be done in the area of systems, of connecting between fields. So I’ve had it as an organic trait. But I’ve also intentionally pursued it for a long time. The first time I heard the term performance art -- I hadn’t seen any yet, I was 19 or 20 years old -- I said, “That’s what I am. I’m a performance artist! I’m outside of genre!”
DS: Put me in the picture of how you started training as a dancer.
KH: In high school, I made most of my spare cash competing in social dance contests. I was really into jitterbug and then disco. Then I took a year off and moved to France, where I saw two concerts and one photograph that basically confirmed that I’d pursue dancing. I saw Jennifer Muller’s The Works, which was a New York company. Then I saw Nijinsky and Friends at the Paris Opera. Then I saw a photograph of Pilobolus. It was three men from the back, squatting, one on top of another. So you just see butt, back, butt, back, butt, back, head. When I saw that photo, I was completely captivated: “Whatever that is is what I’m going to do.”
Someone told me it was contact improvisation, which was not true. But I immediately went and took contact lessons when I went to school in Montreal, as well as taking modern dance. And I did that off campus, which was a really different world. McGill University was cloistered and English. The dance world was all French and happening and hip.
The other thing is that my neighbors in the building I lived in were leftists and also jugglers. We formed this four-person street-theater company. From the beginning we saw ourselves as entertainers in the popular theater tradition but also as artists and politically engaged people.
The woman in that company, Barbara, was a New Yorker who had come up to study with Mime Omnibus, the most important corporal-mime/physical-theater company on this continent. The two directors of Mime Omnibus had been long-term students and performers with Etienne Decroux in Paris. They really influenced me in terms of the whole category of image-theater. Experimental theater of the 20th century was basically developed by the people who work from the place of image as opposed to narrative. When I saw that kind of work at age 19 or 20, I immediately recognized it as the work I’m making.
DS: Tell me how you got from Montreal to San Francisco.
KH: I dropped out of business school in my last semester. I had a best friend, Gulko, who I had a bizarre, inarticulate crush on. I’d had a girlfriend in college. I hadn’t really dealt with my sexuality yet. Anyway, Gulko and I decided to hitchhike across the country to go to this big juggling gathering in Santa Barbara. Then we would hitchhike back to New York and move to Italy for a year to study commedia dell’arte. Halfway through that trip, we realized we weren’t that compatible as travel partners. We were having more and more petty fights. I realized part of it was because we weren’t dealing with the sexual attraction. When we got to Santa Barbara, I said, “What are you going to do?” He said, “I’m going to Italy to study commedia dell’arte,” which was always the plan. I said, “I was only going to Italy because you were. So if that’s off, I’m going to move to San Francisco and be a dancer.” I had no idea what that meant. I had never thought of San Francisco before. I wasn’t consciously thinking of it as the place for queer refugees. It was a bizarre intuitive leap.
That’s how I got to California. I looked for a dance teacher. I refused to study technique unless the teacher also taught improvisation. There was only one person who did that, Lucas Hoving, who was an original member of the Jose Limon company. I learned from him that you can have the life you want to live. He was a profound teacher. He allowed me to name myself a dancer without having to have the technical prowess that most people associate with a certain kind of ballet/modern image. He encouraged invention and a personal voice and he was very rigorous about what improvisation was. Basically, Lucas put me in the lineage and told me to go.
DS: How did you get from there to Contraband?
KH: In 1985, I was looking around for a person to work with or a show to be in. Sara Shelton Mann was in the process of building a new version of Contraband, a company she’d created in Canada, and she invited me in. We were young, in our twenties, and she was 40. Sara was a very technical modern dancer who worked with both Murray Louis and Alwin Nikolais in New York in the ‘60s. Then she fled to Nova Scotia and got involved in contact improv. By the time I met her she was already making hybrid work. She’s a dancer who makes movements that involve pointing toes and jumping. At the same time she was really process-based and coming out of a postmodern practice. She didn’t hesitate to have voice or song in the work if that’s what was coming out of the people she was working with. The first Contraband piece had physical theater images, dancing with choreographed movement, talking, singing, drag. (That was a phase of my life where I was wearing skirts over pants a lot. I was not interested in being in any piece that was going to reproduce any heteronormative gender or sexuality stuff.) Sara’s a very good director. She gives a very expansive permission.
DS: What came out of you from that?
KH: I got to bring all the crazy physical things that I had done as a diver or jitterbug dancer or the lifts I’d learned disco dancing, fused through contact improvisation. There was a sense of athletic trickster physicality that I got much more rigorous about. There was a kind of punk energy, especially from Nina Hart and I. We saw ourselves as political anarchists and socially engaged people.
DS: How did you start doing your own solo work?
KH: I was a chorus dancer in Karen Finley’s The Truth Is Hard to Swallow in 1988. Jennifer Monson choreographed a quintet of people doing bizarre line dances as breaks between the three acts. We performed one of the dances naked. For the other dance we all wore drag that Karen Finley would buy in each town and leave with the people. Watching Karen Finley five nights in a row, I said, “Oh, this is genius, I can do this.” I literally went home and wrote my first major solo work and made these DIY punk-rock-ish flyers. Six weeks later, I did Saliva.
I performed it under a freeway, illegally. It’s the piece where I invited the audience to spit into a bowl, and then I made body makeup out of it and painted myself naked as an improvised dance at the end of the work. It was very much an AIDS-era piece and a coming-out piece. It had all the ingredients we’ve talked about. That piece definitely had a whole vibratory influence on everything in my life. I decided that I needed some kind of mentorship, and I e-mailed people I didn’t even know and told them that I wanted connection with them. The California Men’s Gathering invited me to do Saliva, which is where I met my first boyfriend Nicholas. And I met people who were in the early men’s movement with Robert Bly and started going to the Mendocino men’s gatherings.
Around the same time I’d been tracking Joseph Kramer’s sexual healing work with the Body Electric School but had been hesitant to take part. From mid-‘85 to ‘89, I didn’t have sex with anybody. Part of that was just accidental -- I didn’t score. As time went on, it became an intentional celibacy. I started getting to know who I am sexually. I started to look at porn as research. I was living south of Market and exposed to the gay world in a way I hadn’t before. When I met Joseph Kramer and took his class at Body Electric, I was quite alienated from the gay scene, the Castro. It seemed mainstream middle-class compared to my anarchist/dreads/torn-pants-with-a-skirt-over-it aesthetic. I didn’t have any affinity with gay culture until ACT UP, AIDS activism, Queer Nation, the idea of queer. Getting involved with Joe Kramer’s sexual healing for gay men was all about: How can gay men get together and not reproduce a bathhouse experience but have some kind of fusion between a free sexual space with a conscious ritual space?
DS: In the early ‘90s you were also involved in creating 848 Community Space. Can you say a little about that?
KH: When I made Saliva, Tim Miller, who’s one of the greatest gifts to queer male performance historically, sought me out and said “You need to bring that piece down to Highways,” the space that he and Linda Burnham had just created. Tim had been a co-founder of P.S. 122, and Linda had co-founded the L.A. Women’s Building, also an important historic site for emerging art and activist issues. Seeing what they’d created in Santa Monica made me want to create a space like that in San Francisco. I asked them: “What was the biggest guidance you had to make this space?” They said, “Going to Alternate Roots conferences in the southeast.” I said, “OK, that’s what I’m doing.” In the summer of ‘91, I went to an Alternate Roots gathering at the site of the original Black Mountain College. I saw people who were fusing community-based art-making with social justice work, devising original works for the stage across genres, and having a very developed conversation on race that I wasn’t having in San Francisco.
That fall, we found this not very functional commercial space on Divisadero Street, and we started 848 Community Space. Very early on it became this kind of sex radical space, at the intersection of Body Electric work and Radical Faeries and the political bisexual scene, which organized safe-sex parties and safer-sex education from a pro-sex point of view. In the same venue, we hosted a weekly contact jam and constant performances that defied any kind of genre. I lived at 848 for 10 years, on and off, but mostly on. I lived in a windowless room in this collectively run art space. In the last five years I was there, 10,000 people a year came in to see performances in my slightly exaggerated empty living room.
DS: I want to find a way to segue into circus life, which is another whole big chunk of hybrid performance that you found yourself doing.
KH: There are seeds of it all the way through, once you start to look for it. I was a juggler. I’d been a gymnast and a competitive diver as an early teen, up to the age of 15. So I had a sort of tendency toward the spectacle. That always infused Contraband work and my own work. One of the last pieces Jess and Jules and I made before going to Europe was a dance piece on a moving car with no driver, called Ice/Car/Cage. Many people saw it as what happens if postmodern dancers try to make a circus work.
I’d maintained contact with Gulko for 20 years. He invited me to France to be in a circus. He said it was a two to four-year commitment. I said, “That’s too long for me to go by myself. I need to bring at least two people.” I invited Jules and Jess. He invited two people he knew in France. Those 6 people were the original company called Cahin-Caha. [That was from 1998 to 2002.] The first two years I was in France all the time. We made this show called Raw Dog. We toured it around Europe. It came to San Francisco. I got to see that there was a world of contemporary circus. We were the second or third generation since the 70s. In France there was a huge financial infrastructure to support circus.
Much as that was a fulfilling project, I didn’t find a home base for myself in Europe. There was a culture of mixing politics and art in the Bay Area that I missed in Europe. In 2001 I started to work on what was going to be my first American circus. And 9/11 happened. That completely colored the approach I took to the first piece. I ended up making it much more about questioning what an American identity could be.
DS: What made you decide to go back to school for an MFA? And what impact has it had on you?
KH: When I dropped out of school at the age of 21 or 22, I said that I would never go back except as a teacher. Schools and universities were part of a coercive, unjust system that only blah blah blah. When I was 30, because of Saliva, I was offered a job in a brand-new arts and social change program at New College of California. It was a very informal do-anything-you-want curriculum that I could create. I started teaching my idea of a college course in radical and queer and ritual urban performance.
Every now and then I would think, oh, I should go to school, this looks like so much fun. Online I came across a job posting for Goddard College. When I read the job description, I said, “That’s my work. They’re describing me.” I got a job teaching in their MFA program, and I worked there for two years, remotely. Again, it was, like, “Wait, I’m now working in a situation where I give people MFAs. I work on their final dissertation projects, but I’ve never written a dissertation. Some of the faculty are fascinating. I should do this.” A friend of mine went to UC Davis, and when I heard that she’d received some funding to do it and didn’t go into debt, I thought: why not? There are many reasons that I did it, and only one of them is to improve my hire-ability.
Since doing it, I feel like the actual art I make is better than what I made before. And my teaching is both more inspired and more coherent. Because doing my MFA was so invigorating, I thought, what the hell, I should just do the PhD. In the working world, I want to be seen not just as an artist but also as a theorist/idea-person/writer. I thought, the PhD will force me to write more, and I will become a better writer. Even though it’s a very painful growth curve, I think that it’s happening.
Movement Research Performance Journal #35, Fall 2009