THE LIVES OF A DANCE/DANCER: Keith Hennessy on his collaboration with Sara Shelton Mann

By Robert Avila


IN JANUARY, A REUNION took place at CounterPulse among eight former members of Contraband, the legendary radical dance troupe founded and directed by Sara Shelton Mann and active in San Francisco from 1985 to 1994. The occasion was a screening of rare Contraband performance clips, co-presented by FRESH Festival (and co-organized by me), after which those assembled, including Mann and many Contraband collaborators as well as original audience members, recollected stories, traced histories and mused in wonder at the power then—and the enduring influence today—of that work. Indeed, the evening might have been an exercise in nostalgia alone but for the fact, made obvious by looking around the room, that many former Contrabanders have nurtured serious dance careers of their own, and fed other younger ones too.

Among post-Contraband careers, those of Sara Shelton Mann and Keith Hennessy— each currently enjoying extremely fruitful periods—happen to be dovetailing once again, albeit in a new way, and the project is all about such histories, artistic lineages and relationships.

Hennessy is making an autobiographical solo on Mann called Sara (the smuggler) in collaboration with sound designer Norman Rutherford, another Contraband veteran with a formidable career of his own. Hennessy’s piece nods to Jerome Bel’s solos on dancers (especially 2004’s Veronique Doisneau), but the real inspiration here is Remy Charlip’s 1984 solo on Lucas Hoving, Growing Up in Public, a now classic San Francisco–born meta-theatrical work of autobiographical dance. Sara (the smuggler) borrows structurally from this earlier exploration of intergenerational artistic friendship, and it’s worth noting that the borrowing itself is complicated, as well as deeply rooted in San Francisco dance history, since Hennessy has also had serious artistic relationships with both Hoving and Charlip.

Hennessy met Hoving in San Francisco in 1982 and began what he calls his “direct initiation into the modern dance lineage,” taking Hoving’s classes for three years and dancing in Hoving pieces, before eventually joining Contraband in 1985. He recalls those classes and the community around them— including guest teacher Anna Halprin and fellow students, later fellow Contrabanders Jess Curtis and Brenda Munnell—as “the center of my life and the main thing keeping me in San Francisco.”

As for Charlip, who moved to San Francisco in 1989, Hennessy made his acquaintance through the auspices of this publication.

“[Remy] took an ad out in In Dance announcing his arrival and looking for new friends, colleagues, collaborators—and I was the only person to answer it. He was soon after adopted as a kind of Contraband uncle. Jules [Beckman] ended up living with him for years and becoming an adopted son.”

Charlip’s friendship proved vital for Hennessy too. “Remy supported all our projects even when he didn’t resonate with them,” he says, admitting, “He often thought my movement was too aggressive and potentially harmful.”

As for the enduring pull of Hoving and Mann, Hennessy says simply, “Lucas and Sara are the two most important dance teachers/influences in my life.”

The following conversation took place in early February. Hennessy spoke by Skype from Italy—a base of operations while his partner is in residence at the American Academy in Rome.

Robert Avila: Where are you at this moment in the development of Sara (the smuggler)?

Keith Hennessy: I did a series of interviews just before I left, so I’ll be working here on the interviews. I’m giving [Sara] homework, writing homework and, one of the things that she has to do while I’m away is learn five dances, sort of one per decade—although it’s going to turn out being more because I want her to learn a minute from several dance periods of her life starting in the 1960s. I’m not sure an entire minute will end up in the work or just a gesture.

RA: What are some dances you’re asking her to re-learn?

KH: I want her to re-learn two of the Contraband solos, at least, maybe three; to remember work that she did when she danced with Alwin Nikolais and Murray Louis in the ’60s. I’m hoping she can remember something from the creative movement class that she did with Francisca Boas, who is the person who turned her on to dance when she was in college, when she was nineteen or eighteen. Also, I want her to learn a couple of things she did after Contraband’s tenure, after 1995, basically in the last 20 years, which will include work with Guillermo Gomez Pena and other stuff she did on her own.

RA: You must have some sense already of those early influences, what she took from Nikolais, for example?

KH: I think Nikolais really turned her on to improvisation, or maybe the rigors of improvisation—because she comes into dance not through dance technique, not as the girl who went to dance class every day as a child. She’s really turned on to dance by this Renaissance woman and creative-movement person, Boas, with her famous dad [anthropologist Franz Boas] and her worldly view and all of that. I guess she was always turned on to dance as a personally creative act. She didn’t learn to be a dancer-interpreter for others and then become a choreographer. She learned that dance was a way to express herself. What she says is that she learned that, in a sense, she could have a public self without speaking; that you didn’t have to talk to people in order to exist. And that becomes quite profound, especially when you look at how important language becomes in her work. We were watching a video of stuff that she made before the first Contraband works that I was in, so in the early ’80s. She was already working in a kind of experimental dance-theater, a text-integrated event. And obviously there was speaking in every single Contraband piece. In the post-Contraband work is where she really starts to write. Working with Norman Rutherford and David Szlasa as sound designers, her text becomes both the environment in which she is dancing and then also the actual material of the piece.

RA: Her piece Zeropoint (2009/2011) would be an example, for instance.

KH: Exactly, where the text is both the research practice and the sound scape and the actual material of the performance. All of that’s going on.

RA: Can you speak more about the interview as a mode of production?

KH: I always said that I would start by adapting the questionnaire that Remy [Charlip] made for Lucas Hoving in 1984; that I would give that questionnaire to Sara live. Norman [Rutherford] suggested that we record everything from the very beginning in a recording studio, in case we want to use these texts also in the sound score. So that already happened. We went through Remy’s interview in the very first interview. It took an hour and a half to go through it with Sara. Hang on one second. I’m just going to go grab the text.

So, the journal Contact Quarterly printed a special issue, almost like a zine, of the making of Growing Up in Public. You know, [reading], “I was born in (where). On this date. My mother said I had a (description of body parts) and was (describe a way of moving). My first movement memory was (demonstrate). My father used to carry/swing/ throw me like this (demonstrate).” Remy’s text was a lot about trying to capture movement, starting at birth. I did some of that with Sara, but it was interesting because she doesn’t go into physical memory very much. If you ask her, “What were you doing physically in that moment?” she goes into narrative and story, and psychology, and the spiritual or esoteric reading of the moment, she goes into theory. She does everything except actually talk about what her body was doing!

Sara Shelton Mann watches two dancers on chairs
Photo by Robbie Sweeny

RA: Would you call Growing Up in Public the map for your own piece with Sara?

KH: I’m using this as a launching pad. I was working with Lucas Hoving in the mid-80s, when [Growing Up in Public] was made. It was performed on a program with dances by Lucas that I was in, so I watched the piece repeatedly. Every night we were performing, and that piece was performed, I saw it. So my memory of that piece, and this existing text, and the video of the piece are definitely the launching pad for the making of the work. And I have official permission from Remy’s estate, from his heirs, to make a work inspired by it. It’s not just that I’m quoting it. I’m actually borrowing structurally from it. But it’s different from making a piece that looks like it or sounds like it. It’s more that I want to use the process of the making of this piece to make a work.

But the other meta-level is that it’s also about two people of two different generations—making a work on a friend who’s also a colleague who’s a generation or two ahead of you. The structure of that friendship, of that social relationship, is also what I’m working with. [In Growing Up in Public] Lucas says, “Remy asked me about such and such.” He mentions the making of the work in the work. This is from the actual text of the performance [reading]: “For this solo Remy Charlip sent me a list of sentences with blank spaces I had to fill in. ‘My mother said as a child I was blank. In the games I played I was blank. In my dreams I was blank. I stopped dancing when I was blank. I am now blank.’ I never thought I’d perform again, but Remy convinced me to participate in this season at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of the festival of, if you can imagine it, the Next Wave.”

So, this conversation, where Sara will say, “Keith asked me to do this,” will get even bigger because Sara will say, “Keith asked me to do this because Remy asked Lucas to do this 30 years ago.”

Have you seen the Veronique Doisneau piece by Jerome Bel? The Veronique Doisneau piece is the first in the series [of solos Bel made on dancers to explore dance his- tory and lineage] and it’s from 2004. This is one of the problems, you know. [Veronique Doisneau] is going to be seen as a landmark piece, like no one ever did this. When actu- ally a very similar piece was made twenty years before [in San Francisco], and shown at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

This article appeared in the April 2015 issue of In Dance.

Robert Avila is a San Francisco-based arts writer who has covered theater, dance, film and performance for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, American Theatre, San Francisco Chronicle, and other publications. He also writes at Since 2016, he works as director of communications at GLIDE.