At CounterPulse, Keith Hennessy's 'Back' Is a Contemplative, 'Gentler' Work

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Keith Hennessy, an older white man, lays on his back in a theater nearly naked, wearing only a long pink vest, his right leg is lifted pointing to the sky and holding a hot pink hat with two bills. He lays on a sewn together quilt of reusable plastic shopping bags with a pile of sheepskins in the corner.
Keith Hennessy's new work meditates on themes of sex, nature, and hallucinatory states. (André Wulf)

In the contemporary dance world, a new solo by Keith Hennessy would normally open with some ballyhoo, and on a weekend evening, around 8pm. That’s not happening this time.

For all the forthrightness of its title, Back (all I wanna do is dance and fuck and swim with you) is presented modestly and almost furtively, over a cluster of six odd days (one purposefully not listed but only advertised by word-of-mouth), at off hours, and for a ticket price that starts at a judgment-free zero.

The audience that shows up, amid Back’s low-key promotion and off-kilter schedule, will huddle on the floor of the CounterPulse stage for an hour, in the semi-round, before the mostly naked, mostly silent sixty-something dancer-choreographer.

The near-silence will be the most conspicuous detail for admirers of Hennessy’s work, which frequently features dazzling torrents of words, whether as monologue, rhyme, lecture or screed. He is a master of the extended curtain speech, a form of audience ambuscade few besides Hennessy can really get away with. (This time, he says, he’s limiting himself to five minutes.)

Almost nothing about Hennessy’s new work is typical. Frantic, screaming, dizzying and doomy times like these, he seems to be suggesting, call for something altogether softer, subtler, and bare.


“I wanted it to be this thing that’s outside the grid a little bit,” he says.

Nature's Sensuality

The piece—created for Oslo’s LATERNA Festival, where it premiered in June—comes out of an exceptional set of circumstances, not least the pandemic. Covid upended or stalled everything on Hennessy’s professional calendar for 12 months. Hennessy channeled his energies accordingly.

“There were a whole bunch of [photo- and video-based] experiments I did of dancing naked outdoors during Covid,” he explains during a recent visit to his Mission District flat.

“First by myself, then with Nathaniel Moore, and one little project with Nathaniel and Brontez Purnell. Those pieces were, in a way, thinking through what it means to be outside because we can’t be inside. Being outside puts you into a relationship with nature and the urban environment, colliding realities that overlap.

“What’s touch? What’s the erotic body? There started to become almost an eco-sexual aspect to it, rolling in sand and being in the ocean, the sensuality of being outside, on the rocks of the Yuba River.”

Meanwhile, Hennessy says turning 60 spurred self-reflection and exploration, including an express re-acquaintance with his libido. Then Covid pushed him for the first time onto apps like SCRUFF and Grindr.

“It hadn’t been my thing,” he explains. “I meet people through my work, through my politics, through social life, and I’d been partnered for many years. All of a sudden I was single, horny, trying to pick up my sex life, and going online. I now entered this world of visual porn through the naked selfie that you share with other people.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, worlds started to merge.

Always Moving

Back represents the confluence of many rivers, the Yuba being the most literal. In the front room of his apartment, Hennessy lays out some of the costumes and properties for the show, explaining that most are intentionally recycled from past works.

There are, for instance, pieces from 2016’s Sara (the smuggler) and 2015’s Bear/Skin, and a costume of plastic shopping bags used just last year in his choreography for Latvian dancers at the Homo Novus festival in Riga.

There’s also an original piece by costumer and longtime collaborator Jack Davis that repurposes sections of the wedding dresses doused in pink house paint for The Pink Party (2001-2002), ingeniously weaving the salvaged pieces together to form a toreador jacket.

Back even includes repurposed music—a piece by Joel St. Julien that Hennessy danced to in Larry Arrington and Alexa Burrell’s w o w m o m.

That work, which capped dancer-choreographer Arrington’s residency at ODC in April, featured the normally kinetic Hennessy seated in a chair against a giant video projection and rivetingly moving sideways through a glacial Butohesque arc.

Arrington—who was an ensemble member in Hennessy’s monumental and continually self-destructing Turbulence (a dance about the economy), which shook the rafters at YBCA in 2012—has seen Back in rehearsal and registers a purity in it.

“I sometimes think dance can be really cynical,” she says, “especially if you think about nonprofits and funding and grants. It’s always about what ‘impact’ can dance make. Dance is always this method for something else. Keith is someone who believes that dance-ing is enough in a way.

“I think that’s part of what this piece is. In the midst of what feels like overwhelming crisis, he’s said, ‘Ok, so then I have to dance.’ A lot of people said, ‘I have to stop for a while,’ at least in the beginning of Covid. That’s not the case with him.”

At his core, Arrington sees Hennessy “as a dance person, a body person, a movement person. I think it’s extraordinarily difficult, especially under late-stage Covid-era capitalism,” she adds, “but Keith has never let alienation become a force that stops him from moving towards things.”

A Short, Guided Dance Trip

“In making a piece contemplative of the erotic body,” says Hennessy, there follows the question, “How do we think through the mental instability of the world? The increasing anxiety and depression that have one hundred percent intensified because of the neoliberal impact on the psyche as well as the psychological professions?”

Instead, Hennessy decided to make something without thinking. “I’ve ended up making this piece that’s gentler on my body, gentler on the mind. It’s not without its subtle provocations, but it’s a gentler work than I’ve made before.”

The music, Hennessy says, is “very ambient and dreamscape-y. There’s a bit more space to feel. Things aren’t just coming at you quickly.”

Amid the mayhem of the moment, Back is a short, guided dance trip, then, a measure of art medicine for a microdosing age. The gesture feels exactly right. The sense will be in the unfolding, for audience and artist alike.

“I didn’t make the piece to mean something,“ Hennessy makes clear. “I made the work, and now I’m learning what it means.”


‘Back (all I wanna do is dance and fuck and swim with you)’ runs Sept. 14–24 at CounterPulse in San Francisco. Details here.