That joke isn't funny anymore

  • by Paul Parish
  • Wednesday November 9, 2016
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Keith Hennessy and Scott Wells, and dancers             <br>hands from Scott Wells & Dancers. Photo: David Papas
Keith Hennessy and Scott Wells, and dancers
hands from Scott Wells & Dancers. Photo: David Papas

Touchy Subjects, the latest Dadaist political dance by Scott Wells and Keith Hennessy, played to an expectant full house at Dance Mission Theater last weekend. PR for the show said their starting-point was Keith's remark to Scott, "That gay joke in your last piece offended me," and Scott's reply, "Let's make a piece about that." It proposed to be a civilized, populist, thoughtful dance entertainment.

It was that, but a low-key affair. The notoriously provocative Hennessy was offstage a lot and was uncommonly charming when on. Wells also stayed mostly out of the way. There was no intermission. The event took place as a series of children's games, variants on "Scissors, Paper, Rock," "Twister," "20 Questions," "Let the Wild Rumpus Begin," and "Living Statues," infused with progressive political questions, with a heavenly-beautiful version of "Pile-on" as a finale, in which three female dancers (the Three Graces?) lay on the floor and rolled softly across each other as they kept reaching and trying to place their hands on top of each other's. This brought the evening to a peaceful close.

But the show had only intermittently held my attention. All the talk in the lobby beforehand had been about how crazy the election had been making us all. Throughout the performance, the impulse to check up on the political horserace (Are we losing Florida?) kept grabbing my mind. Perhaps it was the worst weekend for a show called Touchy Subjects to hope to cast a spell. Amidst acerbic talk ("What pronoun do you identify with?" "When you hired me, did you see me as a person of color?") and eclectic recorded soundscapes, many rich, lovely things happened. The show plays again this coming weekend, and I recommend it, but how its elements will combine in the climate of opinion prevailing after the election I can't imagine. It's hard to think right now.

Sebastian Grubb, Jose Abad and Shira Yaziv, from Scott Wells & Dancers. Photo: David Papas

For me, the best thing about the show was James Graham's world-class solos. He dances from so deep in his body. Next best, the opening game: performers came into the audience and invited us to play. There were three gestures: 1) a handshake, 2) a fist-bump, 3) a high-five. One of us was to say "Go!" and you'd make your gesture, as in "Scissors, Paper, Rock." I'd do fist bump, he'd do high-five. When we finally matched, we smiled, and he moved on. Onstage, dancers paired off into similar greeting rituals, asking, "Is this OK?" Two dancers came into the audience and began playing the game sitting on the stair. "Is this OK?" As it happened very close to me, when Megan Lowe did her high-five just above my shoulder, I offered my hand, asking, "Is this OK?" I got the answer, "Yes."

The decency of these intentions moved me. Since, to my mind, the most disruptive thing about the election was the caustic invasion of privacy, with Trump's crotch-grabbing and Wikileaks' dumping of private emails into the forum, conversations never meant to be public, I loved watching these inquiries play out. As this duet proceeded beside me, all the other dancers were doing something similar, to the soft sounds of, "Is this OK?" Very sweet indeed was the exchange of air-kisses between Hennessy and (I think) Sebastian Grubb, which seemed as if it could go on forever.

There was a delightful duet for Megan Lowe and Scott Wells in which she sat in a trapeze that he, holding its ropes, hoisted up and down as their conversation got friendlier or colder. Despite pithy moments like this, the show didn't gel, a danger when the material is crowd-sourced, as this was, with input from the dancers. The younger dancers voiced fears of being rented, exploited for their youth and skills, of being the flavor-of-the-month. Wells probably injected most of the anxiety about homelessness, since he's about to be evicted from the studio he's had for 25 years.

What were all those homeless-person blankets doing in the show? Initially, they increased the excitement of the wild rumpus section, when dancers flung themselves, as contact-improv performers will do, at each other in freaky lifts, wonderful tosses and catches, and wild skids made wilder by the blankets on the floor, which drastically increased the danger. As living statues, three or four leaned against each other to make a structure, which others covered with blankets as if they'd made a tent; whereupon the whole thing would collapse. It seemed a reference to the Millennial Tower " or to any home you build your hopes on. Perhaps it's a reference to the collapse of democracy in America. The episode was striking, but it went on too long.

Many of us in the audience remember when Hennessy was evicted 20 years ago from his performance space, which was resurrected as Counterpulse and is now relocated a second time to the Tenderloin; and Hennessy's staunch protest outside Dance Mission (the very theater where we were) when they were threatened with eviction a decade ago, which was only averted by the dot-com bust and the collapse of housing prices.

The fine dancers were Wells, Hennessy, Shira Yaziv, Miriam Wolodarski, Jose Abad, Kaitlin Guerin, Lowe, Grubb, and Graham.