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.

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zoe | juniper brings “A Crack in Everything” to NY Live Arts

zoe | juniper by Christopher Duggan

zoe | juniper performs "A Crack in Everything"
photo credit: Christopher Duggan

The company zoe | juniper, directed by choreographer Zoe Scofield and visual artist Juniper Shuey, brought “A Crack in Everything” to New York Live Arts last Wednesday night. The company strives to place the visual art and choreographic components of its pieces on equal footing, an aim evident from the moment the audience entered, when we were greeted by an almost-disorienting projection of fluttering leaves.

The piece’s title, “A Crack in Everything,” was evoked by a number of jarring breaks, including strobe-like flashes of light, blackouts, and/or abrupt stops in the music. These “cracks” however, most often did not invite connections, instead serving to cut off and isolate sections from each other.

The first two dancers to enter were strikingly clad in flesh-colored body stockings accented with gold designs, and dramatic mask-like eye makeup completed by gold wings at their temples. The dancers were soon joined by video images of themselves doing the same movements at a slight delay. These video projections recurred throughout the performance, at times in ways that made the audience question whether it was indeed a projection or was dancers behind a scrim. At other times, the projections were clearly of dancers other than those onstage, or were multiplied in impossible ways.

Beyond the video projections, there were a number of other devices multiplying the levels of remove through which we saw the dancers. The scrim–from the floor halfway up to the ceiling–was later revealed to be a clear plastic sheet behind a layer of fabric. The white floor, when lit in certain ways, doubled the dancers’ images like a reflecting pool.

In one rather bewildering scene, two of the dancers, one male and one female, were stripped of their outer layers by other dancers, and then removed their body stocking themselves. Sitting naked facing each other on two chairs, the dancers began barking at each other in an increasingly aggressive manner while another dancer continued, un-phased, with the alternately balletic and Gaga-like movements that characterized most of the piece’s movement.

In the program note, the directors describe their interest in “creating tangible artifacts from the performance within the installation and calcified memories within the photography.” Attempts to do so were evident throughout the piece, most obviously in the video projections, but also in a repeated motif when one or more dancers appeared with a red string between her teeth, held taut from an invisible point in the wings. In another scene, one of the dancers drew on the clear screen, moving across the stage with Gaga-like movements, while simultaneously drawing multiple, overlapping dancing figures in red. The outlines seemed to simply emerge in her wake, so gracefully was her drawing intertwined with her movement. These two images of red lines provided points of resonance across sections of the piece: both evoking the residue of the dancer’s physical presence in space. The drawing scene was to me one of the most touching moments. “A Crack in Everything” had a number of such engaging moments and arresting visual images, but lost coherence toward the end, as its cracks proved too numerous.