Keith Hennessy’s “Turbulence” at NYLA

Keith Hennessy’s Turbulence (a dance about the economy) arrived at NYLA a bit over a week ago for its concluding performance of the fall season, and it was as lively and unruly as promised. According to Culturebot’s Julie Potter (who saw an early rehearsal), Hennessy developed a list of ten things that must happen before the end of the performance, “including the creation of a human pyramid, fake healing, ‘the party’ and reading a quote about love by Peggy Phelan.” Myriad other things are allowed to happen improvisationally, including vague and expletive-peppered manifestos yelled into a microphone, ritualistic line dancing to live banjo music, tangled duets on a hanging trapeze, and an attempted lecture on financialization and debt that is interrupted by a riotous dance party.

The boundaries of the performance are blurry, beginning with a “soft opening” in the lobby in which two men engage in a tender wrestling match on the floor and gold-sequin-shrouded women stand in the elevator as the doors open and close in front of them. We are introduced to the flashy, mismatched clothing, concealed faces, and multiple simultaneous happenings that make up the primary visuals of the night.

Once in the theater, we are offered earplugs, candy, slurps of whiskey, and stickers that read, “you lied, you made a fucking killing, you got away with it, and then you got promoted.” Through a blend of intense physical theater, contemporary dance, improvised stunts, and an open-mic forum, Hennessy and Circo Zero attempt to take on the myth of capitalism as a means to freedom, extreme wealth disparity, the commoditization of debt, and a shared sense of disillusionment and rage. The performers tell us that we are witnessing a poetic, bodily response to economic crisis, which explains the starring role of body fluids: one performer douses another in sweat from his soaked t-shirt, and another urinates onto the stage after mentioning something about the processing of excess resources.

Our attention is basically undirected: we are left free to wander to whichever vignette is appealing at the moment. Minimal attempt is made to sculpt the scene in terms of balance or timing, so the environment oscillates between sparse and overwhelming. It becomes increasingly difficult to tell who is actually performing as audience members wander onto the stage, retreat back to their seats, and on a few occasions, walk out. The participatory aspect mostly fails this time: to quote a fellow onlooker, “We knew we could join in, we wanted to join in, but we didn’t know how.” A performer responds, “That she knew she could, that’s the whole piece!”

We are invited occasionally to sit onstage and join in the torture and revelry, but few people actually feel like it is a serious invitation. Much care is taken throughout to eliminate audience/performer separation, but we still feel like mere observers. On her site, performer Laura Arrington quotes Hennessy’s explanation of the use of political content and strategy in creating a political dance, and this attempt to equalize audience and performer reads as a symbolic erasing of the usual hierarchy of performance, making us responsible for our experience. We choose to be inactive, just as we have chosen to participate in our economic system. More explicit political imagery such as faux water boarding, protest, and human pyramids features heavily, and the overall lack of stable performance structures is meant to mirror the un-sustainability of our political and economic systems.

It seems to be central to the script that nothing is ever allowed to unfold fully: we are presented with the seeds of hundreds of ideas, but the thoughts are never completed before the performers disperse, regroup, and begin again with something new. Through all of the chaos, several memorably beautiful moments emerge. I found Mr. Hennessy himself to be the most engaging aspect of the performance, and his fluid, capable dancing brought a much-needed sense of rigor. His loose-limbed, joint-y phrases carve brazenly through the space, revealing a performer who is physically impressive and tuned in to the atmosphere he has created. The sequences of “recognizable dancing” turn out to be the most absorbing of the production, and the brief glimpses of quiet improvisation (like an intimate contact duet between a female aerialist and Empress Jupiter) are a welcome respite from the stunts and didacticism.

Turbulence is a piece that is intended to fail; its structure has been designed to collapse, and it doesn’t collapse elegantly. It is an earnest physical response to corruption and injustice, and a worthy investigation of new methods of generating political work. Hennessy’s attempt to “produce almost nothing coherent or clear” is a wild success.

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