He is tall and gangly, maybe 50 years old. But he does what he does with the unselfconsciousness, the unpremeditated-ness, the unapologetic-ness, of a child. That quality you fear you’ve lost and will spend your whole adulthood trying to recover: He has it.
We are in the basement theater, the dungeon of the Abrons Arts Center. The bleak cement walls almost beg for messes to be made. His unlikely assortment of props—two big yellow foam cubes, some plexiglass boxes, a collection of dead branches, a gold sequin shawl, a couple of rubber masks with stringy hair and bulbous features, an unwieldy metal pipe, there might have been other things, too—contribute to his success in making us wonder, really wonder, what will happen next.
He is good at keeping us in that state of anticipation, allowing us to revel in the absence of a plan. He is not much more certain than we are of his next move. Like all improvisers, he makes decisions on the spot, but he goes about it with a special kind of candidness. He shifts seamlessly between absurdist exploits—a one-man postmodern circus—and enigmatic chitchat: Keith Hennessy the performer is inseparable from Keith Hennessy the person.
You could call his choices “random,” but you wouldn’t think to question them. A zany logic binds them. He runs over to the stairs, mounts the banister, slides laboriously down it. He sticks a mask on the end of a branch and thrusts it threateningly in our faces. He builds a looming tower out of the foam cubes. He runs toward it, tries to clamber to the top. The work’s title, Almost, comes to mind, as he slips, tries again, succeeds. He manages to stand up, the mass of infirm squishiness wobbling beneath him, his body, clad in nothing but patterned underpants and a flowy black shirt, trembling. Can he do it? Can he do it? He pulls the shirt up over his face, balancing in blindness. The screeching music (mixed live by his sound designer and longtime partner-in-crime, Jassem Hindi) puts us through our own test of endurance, as we—smiling and afraid—wait to see if he will fall.
I returned home that evening feeling invigorated, free of the why-does-this-matter skepticism that can easily arise during extended periods of looking at art. By the end of American Realness, the festival of contemporary performance that invaded the Abrons last month, such optimism had become unusually routine for me.
The festival coincided with the annual conference of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP), which, for voracious consumers of the performing arts, amounts to a theater-going marathon, complete with fatigue and the hopeless conviction that your brain has reached maximum capacity. The hashtag coined on Twitter to flag APAP-related commentary—“#apapsmear”—captured the sense of dutiful compliance that comes with seeing so much work in so little time: You don’t really want to, but you know you’ll be better off in the end.
And yet, there was nothing obligatory about dashing from show to show at American Realness, whose tireless producer and curator, Thomas Benjamin Snapp Pryor, masterfully programmed 46 performances of 20 productions into 10 days, as well as exhibitions, talks, and in-progress showings. Whether fascinating or frustrating (or both), whether blasting through ordinariness or committing whole-heartedly to the mundane, each performance only fueled my appetite for another. Together, they conversed with and complemented each other: a series of interconnected adventures.
One of the most memorable was Eleanor Bauer’s (Big Girls Do Big Things), a ravishingly stark piece in which the choreographer/performer embodied extremes: tragic and triumphant, aggressive and shy. Having donned and discarded a voluminous polar-bear suit and, Bauer switched into songstress mode, ascending a ladder while serenading us with the Patsy Cline ballad “Crazy” in progressively higher, more out-of-reach keys. When she gestured toward us on the line “crazy for loving you,” I had to wonder whether we, the audience, were at the center of her love-hate affair, a hunch reaffirmed by her brilliant monologue about the futility of, well, her entire performing career.
A different kind of crooning, by turns myopic and vitriolic, came from Ann Liv Young. In the title role of Sleeping Beauty Part I, she violently seduced a blow-up prince stationed in the front row of the audience, using the lyrics to Adele’s “Someone Like You” as ammunition. Notions of fairy-tale fantasy and pop-star celebrity collided in unsettling ways. Seated right beside the dummy—whom Young straddled, groped, licked, and otherwise accosted—I was privy to the details of her chillingly sincere performance: her longing eyes peering into his hollow ones, her lips pressing against his stenciled-on mouth. Later, for two dollars, audience members could have their picture taken with the strung-out, glitter-encrusted diva in her bedroom-meets-bathroom-meets-wintry-forest habitat. She made at least 30 bucks.
Yvonne Meier introduced us to a more obscure female archetype—or a new incarnation of a well-known one—in her marvelous Mad Heidi. The willfully haphazard work found the audacious Emily Wexler writhing in dirt, dancing naked with a broom, chucking forks at a dartboard, and accomplishing other wayward feats to the relentless beats of Swiss pop songs (think techno mixed with yodeling). This was not the cheerful girl of Alpine lore. Far from fluff, the piece still provided a much-needed release after Ishmael Houston-Jones’s Knife/Tape/Rope, a disturbing and subtly satirical portrait of a subject you wouldn’t think to satirize: a small-town teen murder.
More lighthearted—at first—was Jeremy Wade’s Fountain, in which I received an “energetic makeover” from a fellow audience member (and gave one in return), at Wade’s instruction. (This involved gently brushing and patting the other person, while saying things like “whoosh, whoosh!”) A persuasive leader, Wade guided us through a variety of similarly affectionate group rituals. Then, after having done so much to foster warmth and fuzziness, he veered in the other direction, entering the circle we had just created and transforming himself, through bodily and vocal contortions, into a deranged, disagreeable creature. This went on for a long time. My boredom came and went.
But what’s so bad about boredom? “In the future…boredom is revealed as a mystery and as an opportunity,” Jennifer Lacey said a few days later in Gattica, her meditation on what “the future of performance” will bring. The work offered few chances to test that prediction, quietly captivating as it was.
Captivating is par for the course for Lacey, who also appeared with Wally Cardona in Tool is Loot. With the help of Jonathan Bepler’s whimsical score, the piece unveiled the body’s poetic capabilities as both physical object and thinking, feeling, dreaming organism. Another couple—Jack Ferver and Michelle Mola—proved magnetic in Me, Michelle, a hilarious and poignant interpretation of Queen Cleopatra’s death. He was the Queen, and she was his servant; both were plagued with ennui. Leave it to Ferver to find the biting humor in suicide, without compromising its dark side.
Existential angst also asserted itself in Not About Everything, an arresting solo created and performed by Daniel Linehan. For about 30 minutes, the wiry dancer spun in place, chanting “this is not about everything.” The repetitive refrain gradually evolved into a list of everything the dance was “not about”: “therapy…endurance…climate change…Whirling Dervishes…language…form…function…what it means for something to be about something.” It was, of course, about all of those things, most pointedly the artist’s earnest, overwhelming search for purpose.
Which brings me back to Keith Hennessy, for whom “purpose” was almost a moot point. He concerned himself with little beyond aliveness, discovery, in the present moment. Whatever he did, it required minimal justification.
“I like dancing,” he attested happily.
“I like the game between tensing my body and then relaxing it.”
“I also really like dancing without making a plan in advance.”
What a relief to feel certain, totally certain, that this is reason enough.