Designed to Fail: Keith Hennessy’s Turbulence (a dance about the economy)

I saw and reviewed Keith Hennessy’s Turbulence (a dance about the economy) back in October of last year, but the review never ended up being published. Lucky for you, Turbulence is coming back to New York as part of the American Realness festival this Friday through Sunday, so I thought I’d share my reflections on it from the first time around. I’m sure your experience of Turbulence will be entirely different from the one I had in October, and that’s exactly why you should go.

Turbulence (a dance about the economy)Photo Credit: Ian Douglas

Turbulence (a dance about the economy)
Photo Credit: Ian Douglas

How can a dance be about the economy? Keith Hennessy’s Turbulence (a dance about the economy), presented in October at New York Live Arts, was described as “a bodily response to the economic crisis…engaging questions of debt, value, and exchange.” Embodiment is a dimension that often gets lost among numbers and policy in discussions of the economy, but how exactly does one embody complex financial issues? Hennessy, a San Francisco-based choreographer and performance artist, envisioned the piece as a “collaborative failure,” taking inspiration from Judith Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure, which suggests that we find alternatives to conventional understandings of success. Among the performance’s other noted references were: Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, “academic texts on neoliberal financialization,” and “activist tracts from Occupy blogs.” While this collection of sources (some of which were scattered onstage) may sound like a grad school syllabus, Turbulence was far from academic.

Entering the theatre on Thursday night felt like walking into a rehearsal that was on the verge of turning into a party. The stage area was expansive, with a large white marley floor laid askew and no curtains or backdrops obscuring the theatre’s brick walls and production equipment. Music was being played loudly by a man sitting onstage amidst a tangle of wires, and performers wandered throughout the seating area, offering whiskey in plastic cups and inviting audience members to come onstage for “fake healings.”

Already in progress when we entered, the performance had no clear beginning, but at various points featured (among other things) performers swinging from and falling down a triangle-shaped trapeze, a pregnant woman sauntering around with a cigarette in her mouth, and two men frantically gnawing, slapping, and kissing each other in the aisle. At any given moment, at least three or four such disparate scenes were taking place on the stage and in the aisles. Every now and then you would look over to notice that someone had climbed a pipe almost to the ceiling. The distinction between performers and audience members was so blurred that I was frequently unable to distinguish who was “actually” in the piece. This chaotic collage was intermittently interrupted by performers who would just stop and watch or begin chatting with the audience, prompting Empress Jupiter, our roving emcee in drag, to yell “Action! I want to see action!” Turbulence however, was indifferent to demands that a coherent artistic product (action!) be presented.

Largely improvisational, the performance’s only structure was a number of set elements devised by the cast, but even these could occur in any order. One of these elements was the creation of a human pyramid, composed of performers and audience members, their faces covered with gold-sequined hoods. The image was immediately evocative of the infamous photos from Abu Ghraib, the sequined hoods adding an ironic element of glamour as the participants visibly struggled to hold the position. Later, a naked Ishmael Houston-Jones was carried out of the theatre, as if in a funeral procession, to the sounds of a looped commercial voice-over: “the markets, the technology, the borderless economy, the world…” Images like these offered clear critiques of unstable structures and the human casualties of the globalized economy, and yet happened amidst sloppy, irreverent chaos.

Turbulence (a dance about the economy)Photo Credit: Ian Douglas

Turbulence (a dance about the economy)
Photo Credit: Ian Douglas

Ironically, Hennessy received more funding for this performance than for any other piece he has created. He used the majority of that funding to hire a huge cast (fourteen performers in its New York incarnation). One of them informed us that they were each receiving $700 a week: “The most I’ve ever been paid.” Later, Hennessy gave us a breakdown of the piece’s expenses and fees. Questions of value and exchange were made literal as the economic forces behind these performing bodies were revealed. Yet as I frantically scribbled down these details, his words became indiscernible, as his mic cut out: concrete economic connections and critiques were repeatedly undermined just as they began to crystallize.

So was this really “a dance about the economy”? By the time Hennessy stepped out of the fray to announce that “now we should go to debt and financialization,” (a remark met with a chorus of laughs), it was clear that attempts to see the performance as an uncomplicated metaphor for the economy were doomed to fail. An unstable structure itself, Turbulence repeatedly pointed out to us how verbal explanations of bodily responses were insufficient, cutting them off just as they began to make sense. Continually falling apart, changing direction, and critiquing itself, Turbulence invited its audience to witness and partake in a radical re-thinking of value on a number of levels.