Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Keith Hennessy: performing resistance, embodying reconstruction

Keith Hennessy: performing resistance, embodying reconstruction

by M. Soledad Sklate

Keith Hennessy

Keith Hennessy, the Canadian-born, San Francisco-based performance artist, dancer, choreographer, singer, juggler, teacher, queer dance pioneer, sex healer, ritual conductor, anarchist and activist knows what he performs for: to denounce “shit that seems wrong, fucked-up, oppressive, unjust, unnecessary, cruel, stupid, and expensive.” He also knows what stimulates his creative process. "Power, especially the asymmetrical power with its embedded violent hierarchies, is a kind of muse for me,” Hennessy says.

His activist performance style has resulted in praise for “breaking boundaries considerably more restraining than handcuffs, straightjackets or coffins,” (Movement Research Performance Journal #35, 2009) but also in multiple arrests. He estimates nine.

In spite of the distance that a virtual conversation imposes between us, Hennessy’s enthusiasm when talking about these experiences reveals that he takes pride in having been behind bars a few times. He considers them, in fact, important educational incursions into “the ugliness of power.”

Keith Hennessy
(photo courtesy of the artist)

Hennessy strongly rejects my attempts to dig for psychological explanations for his activism in his childhood or upbringing. This does not stop him, however, from extensively talking about his family background and how life was in the Canadian mining town of Sudbury (Ontario), where he was raised as one of five siblings of an Irish Catholic family.

His parents certainly did not encourage him to defy the forces of law and order. But he admits that “there was a really strong sense of justice that was handed to us by our family and some of that is connected to a kind of Catholic or Jesuit social justice. Be good to others. Don’t speak badly about others. Help others in the time of need.” While he was the only sibling who became an activist, he points out that one of his sisters embraced activist causes such as the feminist struggles of the 1970s and Quebec’s nationalist movement.

McGill University (Montreal), where he enrolled as a business student was, in the late 1970s and early ’80s, an ebullient place where ideas of social justice and activism were not only talked about but acted upon. Tuition increases, nationalist and labor politics, anti-apartheid initiatives and anti-nuclear movements mobilized the student body to protest, organize non-violent actions and political meetings, and to even shut down the school and the city center once.

Hennessy has an explanation for his unexpected choice of a traditional career. “Where I come from, there was no real imagination of what university was for, except to go to university in order to get a job. I didn’t have any other thoughts besides, ‘Am I doing pre-law?’ ‘Am I doing pre-med?’ or ‘Am I going into engineering?’ I thought I would be a lawyer and I would go to business school before that, so that was the trajectory.”

In spite of having an uncle who was an artist (but had a "real" job as well) and a mother who painted and collected art as a hobby, being an artist “was not an imagination that I could have,” Hennessy says. As for becoming a dancer or performer, “I didn’t even know that existed,” he adds.

At McGill, however, he complemented his business courses with dance classes and street performing. The jugglers, acrobats, and vaudevillian comedians he became involved with were at the center of politicized student and anarchist movements. Something quickly became apparent to him: “Clearly, I wasn’t going to follow through with business school,” Hennessy says.

While becoming a lawyer might have been more of a logical career choice to advance his activism, Hennessy did not stick to that plan either. He jokes about his potential in that profession. “I could have been a lawyer in a lot of ways, because I’m a talker,” he says and ironically adds, “I’m also a performer and I think I could have done well as a trial lawyer… you know, another form of performance.”

Then, I asked, why did he choose dance and performance?

“I didn't choose dance and performance until I was already dancing and performing. We can all work for justice or goodness where ever we are. So the ‘fate’ answer is that I work in dance because I am a dancer, and I work on social justice issues because I care,” he replies, his tone showing some annoyance about my question.

In 1982, on his last year of business school, Hennessy dropped out to join his friend on a hitchhiking trip from Montreal to San Francisco to attend a juggling convention there.

“We didn’t know where it was taking us, and where we set out is not where we ended up.” While his friend followed their original plan--go to Italy to study commedia dell'arte--Hennessy remained in San Francisco. “It just never made sense to go anywhere else or do anything else,” he says, noting that he considers this city “one of the really great leftist places to live.”

“When I moved to the Bay Area, there was a very strong anarchist network of households, of activities, of civil disobedience groups, of political engagement in a variety of issues, and I walked right into that sort of environment.” He found artists, performers and dancers intrinsically involved in these progressive movements, actively and openly engaged in shaping life and public discourse through their art and performance. He immediately joined those artists with a deep sense of social and political responsibility, and those are the values that permeate through his work since then.

An odd attitude that combines aloofness and keenness manifests in his recounting of his life. However, talking about his dance and performance work provokes a change in attitude by igniting his passion. A few questions I sent him over email in preparation for our virtual interview elicited something like a ‘manifesto for activist performance.’

“Much of my work, especially the group work, is motivated by political crises and movements,” he explains. For instance, Turbulence (a dance about the economy) (2012), one of his latest “collaborative failures” with Circo Zero, a performance action group he created in 2001, deals with questions of debt, value, exchange, union busting, precarity, financialization, war, torture--all issues connected to the economic collapse and political crisis of the last few years.

Turbulence (a dance about the economy)

In the director’s notes for Turbulence, Hennessy says that with this collaborative experimental creation (that incorporates contemporary dance, improvised happening, and political theater), the goal is “to inspire broader public engagement, discussion and action with regards to the economy, particularly its violence, corruption, and injustice.”

Turbulence is perfect example of Hennessy’s articulation of how dance and performance can participate in criticizing and challenging oppressive, exploitative and unjust systems and interest networks. Dance critic Cassie Peterson encapsulates this aspect of the piece in her Context Notes for its presentation at New York Arts Live in 2012 where she writes that “Turbulence is an exercise in brute force, coercion, and inexcusable excess. It is a picture of poverty and depletion. It is class warfare.”

As the performers vehemently confront the violence inherent to these corrupt power structures and lasting economic inequities, the audience also does. Through Turbulence, Hennessy provokes strong reactions from the public; he successfully stirs up anger and resentment against social, economic and political abuses and injustices. He pushes the spectator to the limit. “Hennessy is calling us to the crumble,” Peterson says.

“Resistance”, Hennessy explains, “suggests anti as in anti-capitalism, anti-precarity, anti-racist, anti-war, anti-systemic, anti-coercive, anti-sexist/homophobic, anti-normative, anti-hegemonic, anti-oppression, anti-colonialism/imperialism, anti-gentrification...” Hennessy’s call to resistance is certainly anti. But it does not stop at the opposition and annihilation of old structures.

For him, resistance is likewise pro, referring to “an aspect of service also alive in the practice.” Resistance is also about reconstruction and “creating alternatives, serving victims and survivors,” he clarifies.

That is why, after the urgent call to destruction in Turbulence, “We are also asked to find love inside of our anger and resistance,” Peterson adds.


Keith Hennessy works in and around dance and performance. Born in northern Ontario, he lives in San Francisco and tours internationally. His interdisciplinary research engages improvisation, ritual and social movement as tools for investigating political realities. Hennessy directs Circo Zero in queer and collaborative anti/spectacles. Recent projects include Turbulence (a dance about the economy) with major funding from the National Dance Project; the artist laboratory Performing Queer (Failure) presented in France, Vienna/Impulstanz and Helsinki/Side Step Festival; and Negotiate, a collaboration with dancers from Togo, DRCongo, and Senegal, presented at L'Institute Fran├žais, Dakar. Keith was a member of the collaborative performance companies Contraband, CORE, and Cahin-caha, and he co-founded the culture spaces 848 and CounterPULSE in San Francisco. Recent awards include the United States Artist (Kjenner) Fellow, a New York Dance and Performance Award (Bessie), a Bilinski Fellowship, and two Isadora Duncan Awards. Hennessy is a PhD candidate in Performance Studies at UC Davis.

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