Keith Hennessy and his performance company Circo Zero have a long, friendly history with Seattle and Velocity Dance Center. Hennessy has shown three separate works at Velocity since 2012: Turbulence, Bear/Skin, and most recently Sink.
Hennessy is unflinchingly committed to investigating socio-political forces through the mediums of dance and performance art. His shows have an informal quality that feels more connected to the creative process than any other choreographer’s work I’ve seen. Sink is no different. In one section, Hennessy previews a larger work that is still in process. He’s not afraid to show what’s behind the curtain. Like an organic structure, the work is in a constant state of becoming that starts before the audience enters the theater and continues long after we have left, it’s trajectory altered by our witnessing and participation. Sink is not just about interconnectedness and relationships, it is inherently relational.
The work begins before it begins as Hennessy walks around the crowded theater passing out paper cups of his ‘mother’s medicine’ a concoction of hot water, lemon, cayenne, honey and whiskey if you so desire it. He chats up the crowd. It seems as though there are many people in the audience he’d describe as friends. He smiles and laughs with them, gives hugs. These gestures foster a familial comfort in the group. It gets people talking, looking into each other’s eyes, making contact with one another.
Hennessy’s process-oriented nature extends to his land acknowledgement practice. Land acknowledgement is the act of naming the Indigenous peoples of the land which is currently being inhabited. Hennessy takes his time with his acknowledgement. He tells us that the land we are occupying belongs to the Coast Salish peoples, specifically the Duwamish. He also mentions his own Irish lineage and heritage. Finally, he speaks of the Ramaytush and Muwekma Ohlone people who are the rightful stewards of the land now called the San Francisco Bay, where Hennessy currently resides. He holds up signs with these tribal names so we can see them written out. He asks us to speak ‘Duwamish’ out loud.
Hennessy talks about the novelty of land acknowledgement and the importance of practicing it, which requires that we stumble and receive correction from Indigenous peoples themselves when possible. I wish he would speak more to possible actions beyond land acknowledgement, when an audience member raises their hand to tell the group about Real Rent Duwamish. Real Rent allows those living in Seattle to make monthly payments to the Duwamish Tribe, who are not currently acknowledged by federal, state, or local governments despite an 1855 treaty promising the Duwamish access to land and other resources. He finishes speaking, and then directs us to turn to the person beside us and begin our own conversation around the topic of land acknowledgement. It’s another commitment to involving the audience in the work rather than allowing us to be passive bystanders.
There is a constant give, take, and compromise happening in each moment of Sink. Audience members are asked to shift their orientation to the performers multiple times, a process eased by Hennessy’s charming directness. We’re asked to leave our seats and huddle together on the stage, then to scatter ourselves throughout the space. Hennessy and dancer Nathaniel Moore are casual in the way they interact with the audience, asking folks to help them with props, to clear things from the stage, and to participate in the performance at times.
One such moment occurs as Hennessy, donned in heels, a black and red beaded leotard, and a graphic tee shirt (featuring a venn diagram with ‘life’ and ‘death’ on each side and ‘dance’ in the middle), pulls a handful of audience members, some reluctant, some confident, out of the crowd and directs them to grab a bright orange life vest from the stage.
The life vests, collected off the island of Lesvos, Greece, along with the giant hanging tarp that separates the stage from the audience’s seats are symbols of the millions of refugees who have fled their homes since 2015. Hennessy directs the new performers to find a way to interact with their vest. Some wear them, some sit atop them. There’s a haunting quality to watching audience members interact with the vests that once protected groups of refugees crossing the Mediterranean. It’s an intimate link between us and them. The fact that these vests have travelled all the way from Lesvos to Velocity Dance Center is a testament to how closely connected we really are.
Once we’ve migrated onto the stage, Hennessy tells us he’s going to sing us a very long song. He asks us to get comfortable. Some stay huddled near the edges of the room, others find a space to sprawl out on their backs on the floor. Hennessy begins to sing and play an accordion-like instrument that repeats the same drawn out note. Slowly, his voice vibrating and deep in the air, he names a list of places in which violent gun massacres have occurred around the world. Some are familiar and fresh in the mind: Sandy Hook, Dallas, Las Vegas, others are unknown or seem far away, buffered in their intensity by the passing of time.
Sink reminds us of our connections to people and events happening around the globe. The room is saturated with the energy of the people and places Hennessy speaks, sings and moves about throughout the work. He successfully weaves layered narratives of current events into a cohesive whole that illuminates our interconnectedness and the reciprocity present in every action.