From the Inside: An Interview with Keith Hennessy on “Delinquent”

By Jorge Rodolfo De Hoyos

November 1, 2008, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

At the time this interview was written, Keith Hennessy and a cast of young performers aged 16-24, myself included, had begun work on a new project called Delinquent based loosely around the juvenile justice system. We had been working for more than four weeks and were in the process of creating sketches during rehearsals. At the time, developing group work was stunted by the fact that we all came from different backgrounds and performance training—from high school students to college graduates, contortionists to spoken word artists, formerly incarcerated to not so much as a parking ticket.

Instead of setting choreography, we spent much of the time talking. At times I would think, “it’s been over an hour, shouldn’t we be creating?…or something?” But through these informal talks, we produced the prime material for our show—a space where we could share our histories, personalities and talents. From an insider’s perspective as a member of the cast as well as a staff member of Dancers’ Group, I talked with Keith about youth, incarceration and about creating a space for a multiplicity of voices.

Jorge: So Keith, Why did you decide to do a piece about Juvenile Incarceration?

Keith: So many sparks. Thinking of recreating Marat/Sade… the idea of inmates making a performance about some historical moment. I was invited by YBCA to make something new for the Bay Area Now show. When I asked if there were any youth or young people projects in the show, they said no, and I said that’s what I’ll do.

I have a life long interest and political commitment to combat what activists call the Prison Industrial Complex. Early on I learned the concept of a political prisoner—people who are prisoners not simply because they committed a crime but because of who they are and what they represent politically. I started to understand an expansion of the idea, basically anyone who is in prison because they’re poor, because they’re not white, because they couldn’t have expensive lawyers, because they’re in a system that tracks them towards prison and other people who do the same or worse are tracked away from prison. In many of my pieces I’ve had some component of the work confront this idea of prison and the injustice of our justice system, and it had been a while since I had done that.

Jorge: Why the title Delinquent?

Keith: The idea of calling it Delinquent was kind of a provocation to go into the word. Anytime we come up with a word to distance ourselves from people or to name the badness of others, there’s some level of transference or projection. This idea that young people are bad, or a bad young person is a delinquent, as opposed to adult culture going, “how have we been delinquent in our relationship to young people?”

I also thought it was funny. We watch West Side Story, and they’ve got a kind of dated sense of “Delinquent” coming out of the 1950s but that still applies today. To me there’s a sense of historical nostalgia as if the word could become almost campy.

Jorge: Do you have a personal history with juvy? Were you ever a juvenile delinquent?

Keith: I was an accomplished shoplifter but I was never caught. I also started a major fire, was seen running from it, and lied to the cops that I had been the one trying to put it out. My brother was less lucky with his exploits and I watched him briefly caught in the system. It was traumatizing.

Jorge: Have you worked with incarcerated youth before?

Keith: Yes. As a supervisor—not as an artist—In a juvenile jail in Kentucky, which was my actual direct introduction to systematic racism in the US. I had just moved to the States and although I had read about racism I’d had very limited experience. The lack of white youth in juvy, and the majority of black youth, despite contrary proportionate statistics in society in general helped me to wake up.

Jorge: You are one of the leading experimenters in contemporary performance in the Bay Area. How are you experimenting now? Are there any new challenges you are presenting yourself in creating this piece?

Keith: Yes. The diversity of art experiences among the cast is a challenge. What do they know and what are they willing to do that is outside of what they know?

This cast is two groups of young people who generally have nothing to do with each other: young people who still live at home and are in high school and people who do not live with their families, who are of college age living adult lives, but from the rest of society’s perspective are still young people.

I’ve never mixed those two cohorts together. Some people are coming out of a Spoken Word world which is really marked by the aesthetics and the politics of hip-hop, a kind of particular way of looking at race, power, society, unity, solidarity but then also a particular way of looking at art. With way more emphasis on, whether it’s dancing or speaking, to rhythm. And I’m this guy coming out of a world of postmodern dance and performance, which was really about the separation of dance and music. We have some people in the piece who have very little exposure to contemporary work, and other people who have very little contact with the political theme that I chose and others who have lived very intimately with it. So I feel like there’s a lot of little differences between everybody in the cast.

Jorge: Can you describe some of the talents of the cast? Why these people?

Keith: I wanted two out of the group to come from circus in some way, but at the same time I didn’t emphasize getting people who were completely “specialists” in a particular thing, which is what I usually do. The two circus people I chose I see as sort of hybrid artists. One of them is in and around the circus and vaudeville/burlesque world and goes to a fine arts school and is a visual artist and has more complex ideas than just circus school. The other circus artist happens to be an aerialist who has a lot of experience in contact improvisation and is in connection more with a kind of hippy youth culture around contact improvisation than the performance of it.

I wanted a majority of non-white, non-anglo, but I didn’t really want to have a perfect rainbow mix. I didn’t want to pretend like we needed an excellent photo of the cast like two of every racial minority represented. For a while I had no teens responding, and then for a while all the teens who responded were spoken word artists then some hip hop dancers. At first also, only Latinos responded in terms of non-white artists. Getting black youth into the project is a challenge. The city, the arts and dance communities, my life, are all so segregated that even reaching directly to African Americans who work with youth did not lead to many participants contacting me.

And then the question became, how do I find people who have more experience in the system? I contacted the Beat Within, which is a journal and a sort of social service agency that works with incarcerated youth throughout California and prints a weekly zine of writings by incarcerated youth. I went there and met Omar who was immediately interested. And then the focus became with Omar that I don’t even care what your talent is. You have a strong presence, you do some writing, and you’re a hip-hop/MC artist so let’s see if there’s a way for your talents to come into this project.

Jorge: Given the diversity of the cast, have you noticed anything that has surprised you or inspired you from working with this young group?

Keith: I’m not feeling very surprised by anything except my own excitement and my own nervousness.

I was hoping we would have made more material by now, but I have somehow found a deep trust of what we’re doing, that we’re going to have a show. The kind of training we’ve been doing seems almost like anti-training. We don’t even go in and do things I’ve done on my last project like warm up together and get into our bodies. We don’t do anything! It’s kinda crazy. LAUGHS…But I feel like something is actually happening.

Some of the nervousness is about how I’ve been changing as an artist. I’ve been spending more time in Europe and more time in the academic world and in both of those two contexts I feel there is a big challenge to the whole idea of representation—that a performance is supposed to recreate any sort of ideological identities or stances. And I see work in Europe where there is no dancing, the circus artists barely do anything. There’s a revisiting of time-based art or minimalism or the task-based movement of the 70s. Like, if you’re going to be doing anything it should be one thing done one thousand times not a whole bunch of abstract dance gestures that basically expose your training as either a modern dancer, hip-hop dancer, folkloric dancer—that it’s not your job to recreate some system and then replay it on stage.

So in a way I have the perfect cast for that because it would be impossible for us to make something where we’re all together—we won’t all become contact improvisers or contortionists or rhyming poets. So I’ve been surprised by how hesitant I am to set material. There’s this hesitancy. For a long time I waited for the right cast, then I accepted that we had the cast, and now I’m very hesitant to commit to any of the material even though good ideas come on a very regular basis. We could spend all day making five minutes of material from sketches we do in rehearsal, but I haven’t yet. It’s very exciting… NERVOUS LAUGH

Jorge: You described yourself as an Instigator and the work you do as creating a space that you would want to live in expecting that there are others who are needing and seeking that same space too. What type of space are you envisioning for the YBCA Forum?

Keith: Well that’s actually really helpful because if I turn that around I think: If the space that I’m in is really unsure, I don’t know where I stand, maybe we can have more intention about trying to create that for the audience. That if they come in they leave really not sure where they stand and really not sure what they think so they have to rethink their relationship to young people, to the prison industrial complex, to the juvenile justice system in specific. So that’s interesting. What is it to intentionally create a space that’s about destabilizing ideas and ideologies? I think that that’s something that I want—interrupting really square ideas about identity, about what youth is, about what a criminal is, who’s in jail, whether jails are good or not. I want to destabilize those ideas.

And as much as I would like to make a propagandisitc performance that pushes my values… Basically I’m an abolitionist with regards to the prison industrial complex. I stand with Angela Davis and the people of Critical Resistance—the sort of front-line activist struggle. But I don’t want everyone in the piece or the audience to adopt my own political viewpoint just because I said it. I want us to open a space of thinking where not only my viewpoint is adopted, but people are actually imagining new kinds of social relations, new kinds of material relations that could help us all think our way out of the situation we’re in.

Delinquent directed by Keith Hennessy performs Nov 13-15, 2008 at the Yerba Buena Forum. All performances are at 8pm. See Calendar for details.

This article appeared in the November 2008 issue of In Dance.