Quick and Clear, and Queer: An Interview with Keith Hennessy

By Maureen Walsh

December 1, 2009, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

Busy, busy—such is the life of an artist currently performing his own work both locally and in New York, simultaneously working on a PhD in Performance Studies, as well as preparing for a month-long 20th anniversary Home Season complete with performances, publications, and a 12-hour queer performance marathon. All of this is probably only half of what Keith Hennessy is actually up to these days, but somehow he also managed to squeeze in time to answer my questions. What follows are his quick witted, poignant and insightful answers, and what I hope proves to be just enough to tide you over before visiting the Dancers’ Group article archive for a full length view of this interview, and more importantly some of his many upcoming performances. I know I’ll be there.

This home season takes place in various San Francisco venues, and covers somewhat of a trajectory of your work. It seems there are many convergences of past experiences, performances, people, and ideas. What is this experience like?

Convergences galore! I made a couple of pieces under a particular freeway South of Market in 1988. In the past 20 years that neighborhood has been gentrified and rebuilt almost beyond recognition. Even my hidden parking lot was transformed, then a landfill site, and now, fortunately for me, it’s been repaved and looks like a fresher version of its old self, complete with homeless encampments. Talking to the people who helped to make or document that work inspires many memories of a vital time in my life. I was on fire, unpredictable, and unknown – even to myself. A lot of my group work, my directing projects are infused with queer issues and aesthetics, but they don’t speak directly to gay male experiences in the same way as most of the work I’ve chosen for this upcoming season. This thematic focus also provokes a series of convergences with spaces, people, issues, memories, and desires that swirl in and around my work.

There are many different types of events happening in the next three months: performances, a talk, plus the TOO MUCH! marathon. What are you most looking forward to throughout this season?

I don’t think I have favorites. The whole season is Too Much. I’m both thrilled and daunted. How are we going to pull this off with so little money and so little time? Will there be an audience for so many different events? Who will come to our 10-hour marathon and for how long? Is there anything new to say or to provoke with respect to queer performance today? How will people receive a performance that was daring 21 years ago, but today is presented in an entirely different context? How does age (an accumulation of experiences) influence dancing, performing, communicating? I think it’s this line of questioning that I most look forward to.

What sparked your decision to re-mount Saliva? Why now, after 20 years of art making?

Saliva got a lot of attention in 1989-90, and then was written about by David Gere in How To Make Dances In An Epidemic (2004). I’ve always found it odd that many more people have heard about it than have seen it. And I continue to meet people who remember the performance as a significant moment in their life, a marker of a particular time. So I’ve thought of restaging it several times, including at the 10-year anniversary but I’m always busy with new projects and teaching jobs and hesitate to look back. Now that I’m 50 and working part-time in academic contexts, I’m more aware than ever that history is a malleable situation, not a static text. Bay Area dance and performance histories, with a few exceptions, are mostly invisible, even to locals. Somehow 20 years was enough distance to reconsider the remounting. Julie Phelps, my keen and queer production manager, is more than 20 years younger. Her interest in queer and performance histories also sparked the decision to rediscover Saliva. Julie and Ryan Crowder are working with me to make a zine documenting and reconsidering the work. Pouring through the Saliva archives of personal letters and handmade flyers, we all found items of interest and curiosity. Translating these curiosities to a new generation inspires the project.

How has Saliva changed/not changed since your original conception? How have you changed/not changed?

My intention is to present the work as unchanged as possible. It’s me, my body, and the social contexts that have changed. Today when we looked at the photos I recalled that there was a fire spinning choreography. I immediately thought that today it would read as ‘Burning Man’ and I want to cut it or change it. Like the original, I don’t intend to rehearse very much. But it’s during the rehearsals that any changes will emerge. I know that there is a text where I state my age as 28 and I’m pretty sure that I will keep it as is, letting the audience negotiate the distance between the 28-year-old writer and the 50-year-old speaker.

Saliva has been described as a “reclamation of the queer male body.” Can you describe/elaborate on this?

That’s a pretty dramatic claim. I guess reclaiming means to take it back—to take it back from those who would name it illegal or dirty, evil or disgusting. Queer and male are almost contradictions in our social order. Male is not supposed to be queer. I was pretty involved in what I considered to be a spiritual project at that time. The project of self-determination, of working through a dancing body to both investigate and to reveal oneself, and then to name oneself. Queer was a new/old word in 1988. I had never felt comfortable with a gay identity. It seemed to link me both to the abject projection of the bad gay and to the Castro clone, neither of whom I wanted to be, or felt that I was. Queer became a more expansive space to live in, and a wilder space. Queer was a body willing to fight and I preferred the fight to any submissions imposed by a fearful, sexphobic, and homophobic society and state. We’re still working on all these issues.

This season seems very personal and autobiographical. How does Crotch (all the Joseph Beuys references in the world cannot heal the pain, confusion, regret, cruelty, betrayal or trauma…) fit into the season?

Most of my solo performance, especially the early work is directly personal. Crotch revisits the raw intimacy of these works. How to Die, on the other hand, is much less about me, and much more about us, both we and we the USA.

I have been a fan of German conceptual-visual-performance artist Joseph Beuys for many years. While in Germany, I went to a big retrospective of his work and I decided to recreate his work Fat Corner replacing architecture (structure) with my body. This led me to further research and remaking. During this time I was pretty sad about a divorce I was going through and I needed both to make art and to not confront the sadness directly. So I appropriated Beuys, as a kind of mediator between my public work and my emotional state, to create a performance salve called Crotch.

What keeps you making work? What keeps you inspired?

I just love dancing and performing and talking and figuring things out and explaining things and investigating. I like the audience experience, both as a performer and as a witness. Political injustice, social crises, individual inspiration, and collective struggle are my muses. There is always something to question, indict, and express. I just haven’t run out of ideas, passions, talents, colleagues, desires, or rage.

What current trends do you see in the Bay Area arts community?

For a few years I’ve been complaining about, more than praising Bay Area dance and performance, but recently I’ve been more inspired and charged by some of the newer artists, including: Error! Contact not defined., Laura Arrington, Philip Huang, Tina Butcher. Add these to some of my faves of recent years: Fauxnique aka Monique Jenkinson, Kirk Read, Twincest. I guess with all of these people I like the disobedience of genre and expectation. I like work that fully engages the body of the performer and sparks or inspires or moves the bodies of the audience. I like dancers who talk, writers who move, and anyone who viscerally explores the insides of the body (orifices, fluids, fears, desires).

Proust Questionnaire

What is your idea of perfect happiness?
I am so alienated from perfection and happiness, I don’t know how to respond. A good laugh with friends, the fall of a powerful figure or structure, a delightful orgasm, a smart debate make, me very happy.

What is your greatest extravagance?
Eating out instead of cooking. Although compared to hard-core Bay Area foodies, I barely spend a dime. My greatest extravagance is probably and most simply prioritizing reading, thinking, hanging out with interesting people, and making dances and performances. I try not to work at least two months per year, which is also crucial to the extravagance of being an artist.

What work do you wish you made/created/wrote/thought of first?
American Beauty, Hexentanz (Witch Dance), Holy Mountain, Howl, Scorpio Rising, Enter Achilles, Rite of Spring, Plague Mass, Interior Scroll

What is your favorite journey?
All night ritual, with or without mushrooms, ecstasy, peyote or ayahuasca.

What is your biggest triumph?
My most recent performance.

What is your biggest failure?
My most recent performance.

Who or what is the greatest love of your life?
Water, especially the ocean. Most especially the California coast from Big Sur to Crescent City.

What do you obsess over?
Way too much.

What is your favorite TV show?
In the late ’70s, Fernwood Tonight. And now, The Wire.

What is your favorite body part?

What is your idea of misery?
Loneliness and slavery.

What is it you most dislike?
The cruel super rich.

What is your greatest regret?
Fucking up relationships.

Which talent would you most like to have?
Piano (and reading music).

How would you like to die?
With 3-12 months advance warning and not too much immobility.

Best advice anyone gave you?

What is your current state of mind?
Anxious and grateful.

What’s your motto?
Keep moving.

If you were a professional in another field, what field would that be?
Writing. Film directing. Curator. Funder. Bathhouse owner. Architect.

On what occasion do you lie?

What do you most value in your friends?

What living person do you most despise?
People are so easy to hate. Cruelty and manipulation of the poor or ignorant are everywhere.

What do you consider the most overrated virtue?

Who are your heroes in real life?
Alice Walker, Jan Fabre, David & Rebecca Solnit, Isadora, The Gulabi Gang, The Zapatistas, Scarlot Harlot aka Carol Leigh, Michael Franti, Louise Lecavalier, Akira Kasai, Trinh T. Minh-ha. All the people who run small performance spaces.

If you were to die and come back as another person or being, what/who would it be?
Someone with more patience, more compassion for others, a more outrageous vision, and the will to manifest it.

A Queer 20th Anniversary includes the following events: “Sustain! A Benefit” Sun, Dec 6, 8pm; Saliva, Wed, Dec 9, 7:30pm and Sun, Dec 13, 8pm; Too Much! A Queer Marathon, Sun, Jan 10, 2pm-Midnight; How To Die, Fri-Sun, Jan 15-17, 8pm; Crotch (all the Joseph Beuys references in the world…), Fri-Sun, Jan 29-31, 8pm. circozero.org.

This article appeared in the December 2009 issue of In Dance.

Maureen Walsh lives in San Francisco and enjoys the city’s craziness and wonder. She spends her time dancing, playing, finding funny things on the internet, giggling, baking, working as a Social Media Strategist, learning to play the bass guitar, surfing, and adventuring.