“Turbulence” Remixed at the YBCA

Keith Hennessy’s Turbulence, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Photo by Tommy Lau.

As Turbulence rolls into New York Live Arts this week for its final stop on the fall tour, the performers will adopt a new architecture with a fresh set of ground rules for the staged collapse of Keith Hennessy’s dance. Those ground rules at the Imago Theater in Portland included no peeing on electrical instruments or on the trap door. At the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) in San Francisco no audience members could enter the upper catwalk grid.

For full disclosure, my perspective is that of a program staff member in Community Engagement at YBCA, which presented the work last week. I also attended a rehearsal and performance of Turbulence in Portland during PICA’s Time Based Art festival making me privy to certain details about the structure, process and venues.

By changing locations and three performers with each run, the work resists fixed or rehearsed outcomes. Extended engagement with the artists and the work revealed dynamic possibilities of the construction (and collapse), daring performances and presence, as well as the sometimes thoughtful, sometimes ranting conversations of the artists who considered any exchange–personal, monetary or otherwise–an economy and potential research for the work, which would be discussed in a circle at the start of rehearsal. Hennessy also shared a list written on cardboard during rehearsal of the ten things he insisted happen in the performance including the creation of a human pyramid, fake healing, “the party” and reading a quote about love by Peggy Phelan.

The mood during the rehearsal I observed felt fairly serious with critical discussion among the performers bookending many of the improvisational scores. Then in performance, particularly at the Imago Theater, much of the gravity surprisingly lifted to reveal chaotic moments of joie de vivre. The unrestricted actions included a naked slip-n-slide and patrons on the trapeze, lending a charge to the room. You really didn’t know what was going to happen or who might get hurt. (At the Portland performance, I held the eyeglasses of two audience members who had entered a mob of intensely physical leaning.)

During a performance in San Francisco, Hennessy advised the audience that when you don’t know what to do next, the best thing to do is watch what’s already happening, which he did keenly throughout the evening, shifting from the center of the action to the periphery, one moment delivering a speech into a microphone on a swinging trapeze as someone tugged at his pants, and another moment directing a floor light upward to illuminate a glimmering scene in the ceiling grid featuring Hana Erdman and Jesse Hewit lounging nude underneath golden fabric. They silenced the room with a gorgeous harmony, as did Gabriel Todd later in song.

During another moment Hennessy joined Ray Chung, closely mimicking his slow sensitive steps in close proximity, the two exhibiting total body organization and control within the madness. (Chung has worked with Steve Paxton and was a quiet and stunning asset to the cast in San Francisco.) On closing night at YBCA, Hennessy shared sips of whiskey from the bottle and spoke of the fancy pork eateries as indicators of gentrification in Portland and San Francisco, as well as his disgust surrounding the monstrosity that is the Oracle boat docked in the bay for the Americas Cup.

The performances of Turbulence become intensely personal with few theatrical cues to direct one’s gaze. The post-performance small group discussion I facilitate as part of YBCA’s Smart Night Out program made clear the diversity of responses and choices about how to watch and interact with Turbulence. Some people thrived on the energy in the room and others were stressed or annoyed by the environment. Several people conversed about the distinctions between failure and regret and the relationship between the two sentiments. When one of the attendees mentioned that no one wants to see her baby boomer body nude, a visiting Hennessy confirmed that’s one of the reasons they indeed show bodies in performance. Ok, New York. Now it’s your turn to get down with the chaos.

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