Bringing the body electric

  • by Paul Parish
  • Tuesday December 8, 2009
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Keith Hennessy's ego is almost as big as Martha Graham's, but the talent is big, too, and so is the sense of social responsibility. Most everyone agrees he's our finest Expressionist solo dancer, after Anna Halprin. Starting this week and running through January, he's showing a 20-year retrospective of his queer solos, and the only thing to do is to bundle up and go. You'll need good shoes and a down jacket for Saliva, which plays this Sunday, 8 p.m., outdoors under the freeway somewhere south of Market, location to be posted at This dance was created at the height of the AIDS era, when there was no effective treatment beyond prayer and massage, when every issue of this paper had two whole pages of obituaries, and when sharing bodily fluids, even saliva, or even touching a person with HIV brought on hysterical fears.

Many have died who saw the beginnings of his career, and many of the young have only heard of these dances, but they are legendary. I didn't see this one myself at the time, nor the one where he danced blindfolded on top of a bus, perilously near the edge – but I heard enough to know what I missed.

Hennessy is not just a soloist. He was a key player in the creation of 848 Community Space (it was his living room), which became Counterpulse and remains a home for transgressive performance of all kinds. He was also a founder of the stunning group Contraband, which distilled that Apocalyptic Zeitgeist. They danced in the dirt in the ruins of a burned-down Mission-district flophouse; it was an exorcism and a funeral for the winos who died there, and a healing for the neighborhood, and is perhaps the single greatest dance experience I've ever had. I recently asked Hennessy a few questions.

Paul Parish: When did you come here, and why?

Keith Hennessy: 1982. With my partner in street performing (anti-nuclear juggling, acrobatics, and vaudevillian comedy), I hitchhiked across the country for a juggling convention. I never left. Of course, later I would realize that SF is a brilliant refuge for politically-minded artists and queers of all kind.

Where from?

Sudbury, Ontario, a mining town northwest of Lake Huron, five hours' drive north of Toronto.

What did you bring with you?

Inarticulate desires, contact improvisation, some jitterbug & disco dance talents, a love of spectacle, a curiosity about art and the body, faith in dancing.

What did you want to leave behind?

My parents, an almost complete undergrad business degree, small-town-ness.

Was AIDS already on the horizon?

Yes and no. It wasn't yet on my horizon in 1982. I had female lovers until 1985, and was ambivalently bisexual until the late 80s or early 90s. I didn't identify as gay, which I conflated with Castro clones and apologists for middle-class values. Until ACT UP, I didn't participate in AIDS activism outside of the dance community, where I danced in early benefits. ACT UP and Queer Nation asserted a different kind of gay, a fierce queer, resistant to assimilation, disruptive of both mainstream and gay status quo, and in solidarity with a wide network of gender and sexual dissidents. This was finally a gay community I wanted to join.

In the fall of 1988, I did my first workshop with Joseph Kramer, who was working to develop a sexual-spiritual evolution of bathhouse sex where the risk of AIDS was minimized. Until the mid-90s I participated in a community of sexual healers in and around Kramer's pioneering work. These new, AIDS era, gay and queer organizations (which were more like movements and communities) had a big influence on my performance work, as well as my sexual life (both private and public).

Who else did you find common cause with?

I hung out with anarchists (where bisexuality was somewhat of a norm, even if also a posture) and lots of dancers and other artists. I could be seen at almost any left-leaning protest, against US interventions in Central America and other forms of US imperialism and militarism. I studied with Lucas Hoving for three years. Then, in 1985, I started dancing-performing with Sara Shelton Mann and the wonderful artists in and around Contraband. Our eclectic performance band helped to instigate new styles and approaches, an unlikely fusion of punk, ritual, activist, and experimental that marked Bay Area dance for over a decade.

How have things changed around you? What impact do you think you've had? Core, Contraband and 848 were very influential.

I don't know how to answer this. I'd rather read of my/our influence than write it.

I made Saliva within weeks of two significant events: performing Jennifer Monson's naked choreography in Karen Finley's A Suggestion of Madness for five consecutive nights at Life on the Water, and taking my first Body Electric workshop in gay sexual healing with Joe Kramer.

A performance project had been bubbling inside me, but I wasn't aware of it consciously. Watching Finley perform each night, I was so charged up, so inspired, and I felt compelled to respond with a full-evening solo performance of my own invention. Kramer's project inspired me to more fully speak to sexual desires and doings. My experience with Contraband instigated a broader field of possibility for what performance could be, affirming my tendencies towards non-linear collages of dance, speaking, singing, physical and visual images. While negotiating the making of Contraband's first piece, Evol, I insisted that the next work be outdoors and site-specific. Our second major project, Religare, was performed in the vacant sunken lot on the NE corner of 16th  & Valencia, the site of a landlord arson that resulted in several deaths. Directed by the esoteric and sharp Sara Shelton Mann, Religare anticipated Saliva 's radical site-specificity, hybrid styles, and ritual aspirations.


The Hennessy retrospective continues after the holidays with Too Much: A Queer Marathon (Jan. 10 at Counterpulse), How to Die (Jan. 15-17 at Dance Mission), and Crotch, inspired by Joseph Beuys (Jan. 29-31, Dance Mission).