The first time I saw Keith Hennessy perform was about 20 years ago, as part of the dance company Contraband: in the performance, the dancers threw water balloons at the cement façade of an office building in San Francisco’s financial district, and as the balloons splattered onto the wall the dancers threw themselves at the building, seemingly attempting to climb even while falling. This image stands well as a metaphor for Keith’s work, which collapses the boundaries between public and private, personal and communal, and in the process creates something startling in the gaps between what we cannot imagine and what we must imagine anyway. Whether flying through the air while suspended by a crane in a dark parking lot, giving a speech about gentrification on a fire escape in a wedding dress, or dancing naked to Nirvana in a living room theater, Keith is never afraid to offend, to fuck up, or to fail, and so of course it makes sense that his latest piece, Turbulence, takes failure as a central subject.
Speaking of failure, let me tell you about what’s in my head. What’s not in my head. What I’m trying to write that was in my head, but now there’s just this. This this that’s there instead and I can’t get everything else out I mean it’s been replaced. And yes, this is the disastrousness of everyday exhaustion that’s been going on for me for at least the last 12 years no much longer but we won’t dwell there right now, okay? Because somehow at this moment I’ve come out of it.
I went on a walk, and then just when I had walked too far, I realized oh, I have to go look at something that’s further away and I shouldn’t really do it because I’m already so exhausted, but then I’m not going to be able to do anything when I get home anyway, so I might as well walk further. And then I ended up in the park, oh how my whole body shifts in the park, I mean it starts with the way my feet feel on the ground but also the air and the light this freshness and yes I’m still exhausted but suddenly I feel a clarity in my head and even my gestures.
Keith talks about queer as both survival strategy and political tactic, which strikes me as particularly gorgeous in this moment. I always say that identity needs to be a starting point, not an endpoint, and that’s the problem with assimilationist gay politics. You just add “gay” to anything that stands for the grossest aspects of straight conformity – marriage, for example – and then suddenly boom, presto, you’re in business. The business of cultural erasure.
And now the assimilationist tide has gone so far that “gay” often isn’t even included in pro-gay marriage propaganda—many of the signs in support of legalizing gay marriage here in Washington state (and even on Capitol Hill) now only declare: Business for Marriage.
Usually in Keith’s work, whether solo or collaborative or neither or both, there is some spectacular image that suddenly brings everything together. In this show, that moment is internal. I mean I feel it when I’m on stage and the subtitle, a dance about the economy, seems like, well, turbulence, because suddenly or not so suddenly actually — I mean, you can only use the word suddenly so many times, right? So suddenly, not so suddenly, there’s this internal feeling of spaciousness built into and around the bodies on the stage invited and uninvited. I mean that I’m one of those bodies: I was invited, and uninvited. Later I will ask Keith: was the important thing for you the audience participation, or that tension between whether people do or do not participate? And he will say: that tension.
I hate going to performances. I mean I love going to performances, but I hate the way sitting in those chairs breaks my body down. I don’t know when my body will stop breaking down, or when I will stop breaking down about this breaking down no when I will stop breaking down: when, I want to know. But I do know this: at that moment when I leap onto the stage in a dance move that I rarely do now for fear of hurting myself, adding to all this chronic pain overwhelm, at that moment I feel so resilient. And then with others on that stage, all of us now part of the performance and it feels so freeing. I don’t know what it’s like to be in that audience right now, but I do know that I can take my shoes off while I’m watching, that I can walk across the stage to get water or to go to the bathroom, and even those small things, even just those small things make a large difference.
A history: one of the performers onstage, the one who brings me on first, for a fake healing, a faith healing before I enter on my own, before the show has officially begun, we first met 20 years ago, in the welfare office in San Francisco, another dance about the economy. I grew up with money, but at that point when we met, when I was 19, I was searching for a way to support myself that was outside the workaday world, far from the Ivy League dreams and the violence of my parents that
I was trying to unlearn. I was looking for a way that I could live, and a world that I could live in, so in the welfare office I met Jupiter, and often when I meet a queen as crazy as myself it’s in ways that contrast, sometimes enliven and usually confound.
We were meeting across racialized boundaries both inside and outside the welfare office but on gender plateaus that intersected. We were both alienated for different reasons, but dreaming outside status quo normalcy because we had to, because we wanted to, because we didn’t want to, because we didn’t have any other choice, because we chose to, and because, well, because.
In San Francisco, structural racism means there are very few places black people can claim: the welfare office is one. Twenty years ago, Jupiter, as a black queen struggling with homelessness both literal and figurative, spent a lot of time in the welfare office. Dressing up and socializing, in a way, if responding to people who are screaming at you can be seen as a respite. And it can: I know this because I have to. Perhaps this shared knowledge was one of the ways we connected: Jupiter described me as her first white freak queen sister, and in the moments where our lives intersected I appreciated the sense of camaraderie. These intimacies that make ourselves, places where we find the ways of coming together and coming apart that may not always help but they will help. Until they don’t help any longer. In some ways, this is what Keith’s work is about, or what my work is about, or what I’m saying that our work is about right now.
Before Keith’s performance, he and I engaged in a public conversation titled The Art of Politics + The Politics of Queer, a title I did not choose and I’m not sure whether Keith chose it either but I do think it worked. It was a great conversation, and when I say great I mean that we were competing for space but also creating it; we were talking about similar things but in different styles; we were invoking one another, but not literally: internally, intrinsically, in some other word that starts.
At one point Keith said that he has learned not to believe in anyone or anything. I think that’s what he said. It’s recorded, so we can all watch it soon and see, but for now I will say that that’s what I remember. I don’t know if I believe in anyone or anything, but I want to, and so I do believe. And this is what hurts me, over and over again. Which is why, I imagine, Keith says that he doesn’t believe.
Let me tell you about the friend who will always be there, no matter what. We met when I was 19, and he was 25. We slept together, and we dreamed together: we held one another and we broke apart walls. Internally, externally, whatever else. It was one of those relationships where we tried to share everything about our lives, and then when we ran out of things to share we dug deeper. Those are the relationships I believe in. They are so hard to find.
Sixteen years is a long time, and I lost it all when I told this friend, Chris Hammett, that he was the most important person in my life. I told him that I felt totally confident about the longevity of our relationship, about our intimacy and our trust, but I never felt secure. I never felt secure because of that five-year period when he lied about everything, a five-year period of disastrous alcoholism that he had acknowledged and we believed he was moving past. But what had not changed was that I still thought he would become enraged about the tiniest thing, just like when he was a disastrous alcoholic. And then our relationship would be over. Chris kept telling me that he didn’t want me to hold everything in, that I didn’t need to anymore, that he could handle it. And so I spoke. Carefully. Intimately. Openly. And then he became enraged, and our relationship was over.
Safety in my body: once I felt it with no one, and then I felt it with several, but then there was only one left and that was Chris and now I’m on my own again. Safety is hard to find when as a kid you only learned that there would never be safety.
So when Keith said that he didn’t believe in anyone or anything, or at least when that’s what I remember, someone from the audience asked how do you go on, and Keith responded that there’s always a new generation of performers and he just wants to eat them up. I’m sure that the consumerism reference was deliberate. I was skeptical of this need to finish the night by saying something uplifting, but also aware that here Keith was in a room with many of the performers he had brought together to work on a show that I had not yet seen, this show about failure, some of them had worked together for two years on this failure and I must say that it was a success. For me: that internal feeling of flying.
For others perhaps it was just a failure, and that’s the point too.
I wanted to say something more, on that night of our conversation two days before the performance. I wanted to say how do we stay present in those times of failure — deep failure on personal and political and intimate and cultural levels, those times when everything we believe in fails us and we are left frightened and flattened. I don’t believe in failure as a goal, but I do believe that we need to acknowledge when it happens, to explore and explode. So that we can get somewhere else.
Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore (mattildabernsteinsycamore.com) is most recently the editor of Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots?: Flaming Challenges to Masculinity, Objectification, and the Desire to Conform and the author of So Many Ways to Sleep Badly. Do you like book groups? If so, feel free to join Mattilda at the Capitol Hill public library on Sunday, December 2 at 2:30 pm for a discussion of Why Are Faggots So Afraid of Faggots. Mattilda’s next book, The End of San Francisco, will be out in April 2013 — it might break your heart. Seattle is now Mattilda’s home, so please do say hi.