Hennessy’s Turbulence: Sitting in Piss That Isn’t Ours

 Written by Kaitlin McCarthy
Emily Leap and Seattle Guest Artist Markeith Wiley in Turbulence
Photo by Tim Summers
Turbulence arrived at VelocityDanceCenterthis past weekend, September 21and 22, 2012, as well as a weeklong series of events, forums, and workshops surrounding the challenging work by Keith Hennessy/Circo Zero. Publicized as “A dance about the economy” an excited buzz spread through the Seattledance scene about what to expect. Hennessy has a reputation for the kind of avant-garde dance that can be divisive with dance lovers—leaving some deeply engaged, and others running for the hills. Either way, Turbulence is not a dance easily forgotten.

The piece is already happening when the audience arrives. The chaos is instantly evident. The room is a mess; pieces of cardboard are haphazardly taped to the walls and strewn about the floor. Dancers—dressed with no coordination or formality—tear up paper, ceremonially “fake heal” audience members lying on the floor, and play on a multi-tiered trapeze apparatus hanging from the rafters. At any given moment during the show there is too much going on to take it all in. One corner of the space is strewn with wires and sound mixing equipment from which the soundscore is improvised throughout the piece. As audience members file in and find a seat “in the round,” Hennessy himself comes to each audience member and casually explains that the earplugs provided at the door are just in case the sound becomes annoying, but not to use them unless they are needed. “It’s hard to know when to push, when limits need to be broken, but it’s not our intention to annoy you,” he says.

Keith Hennessy’s Turbulence
Photo by Robbie Sweeny
And such begins an evening of complete transparency. The piece is obviously a very loosely scored improvisation, and it can be hard not to see it as “just dancers messing around.” The performers converse on stage and make no attempt to hide or camouflage any of their actions, with Hennessy sometimes directing the dancers vocally from within the show. Toward the end he pulls out a torn piece of cardboard with a list on it and announces that they’ve done pretty much everything on the list, so he’s going to end the show soon. The transparency extends to making the audience part of the performance. There is no fourth wall. Audience members are asked to come help make a human pyramid, and then asked to be as naked as they are comfortable. The piece is obviously not about making the audience comfortable, but it is a unique experience to feel so included in the making of a performance.

The improvisation is messy, and feels intentionally so. Despite this, very strong images emerge. A body writhing under a giant piece of gold sequined fabric is fascinating enough to watch for hours. Hennessy borrows shirts from the audience to cover his face and then climbs the trapeze 12 feet in the air while breathing heavily into a microphone. Later he talks candidly about the piece while sitting in a puddle of urine, freshly produced by one of his performers. He speaks to the fact that when dancing about the economy one can’t just say political facts, because that could be written in a book, that it must be danced in metaphor that “we took the easy way out by being artists, but we risk feeling useless.” He describes the show as “throw up meets bitter medicine meets urine meets the possibility for healing,” and then adds, “I’m becoming more and more aware that I’m sitting in piss that isn’t mine…but I asked for it.”

Keith Hennessy’s Turbulence
Photo by Robbie Sweeny
After the cardboard list is completed, the performers ask the audience to come on stage for a dance party, which turns into a group of people (audience and performers mixed) escaping to a back room and singing a traditional song together, which then dissolves into everyone milling about and performers continuing at whatever odd task or dance they happen to be in. The show doesn’t so much end as it just continues without direction until the audience leaves.

How does one review a work that embraces its own failure and chaos? That acknowledges its own self-indulgence? That seeks not to present a message, but only to present more questions? Keith Hennessy’s Turbulence is not a typical dance piece and it does not succeed or fail on typical dance terms. Its shortcomings are intentional, metaphorical—its truths complex and unsatisfactory. Avant-garde art is often criticized for being too esoteric, but Hennessy’s humble approach to highbrow invites everyone to be included in the confusion.