Talk with collective action by Keith Hennessy (2013)



After Contemporary…

Talk with collective action by Keith Hennessy


Full Moon Festival, Pyhäjärvi Finland

23 July 2013


(We wandered the middle school, where the temporary festival office was located, looking for a space. Similarly to a recent performance/talk at the University of Music and Performing Art in Frankfurt, I decided on a nomadic event, beginning in a non-descript open space at the top of the first floor stairs. From this in-between space the talk ventured out to the parking lot and then back inside to conclude in the gym.


As we wait for people to arrive I invite people to begin the session with two minutes of either waiting or observing. Dancer and researcher Hilde Rustad tells a famous Norwegian poem by Tarjei Vesaas: Sometimes I sat thinking. Sometimes I just sat.)



Hello and thanks.


Most of this text was written for today, for you, but I’m also recycling parts of previous texts. I will give a written copy of this talk to festival director Liisa Penti who can make it available to any of you. Feel free to ask questions at any time. We can pause to make translations, to clarify or even to make things more complicated…


(I invited people to join me in raising heart rate, shifting physical state/consciousness. I am joined by several people in 1 min jumping and 1 min plank. When I start to read my breath is labored.)


This text is supported by five words that represent loosely-defined fields in contemporary art, dance and performance:

Fake, Indigenous, Queer, Post-colonial, Swamp

And maybe instead of fields we can imagine these words as swamps: messy, fertile regions between land and water, with borders that shift depending on the season and the weather, and hosting many species that migrate or can be found in multiple contexts or eco-systems…


So we have two different approaches to cultural production associated with spirituality, ritual, and experiences beyond language or knowing:



Two approaches to bodily politics:



And one approach to theory and practice:


Of course these categories can already be queered or swamped by recognizing that queer and post-colonial could be approaches to ritual or theory, and fake could be an approach to body politics and identity, etcetera…


When Liisa wrote to me about the theme for this festival, I was immediately attracted. I said that I could talk about a shift from questioning to observing, and about a re-engagement with indigenous or shamanic practices. But when I started to write I couldn’t focus on “after contemporary.” I felt compelled to name or identify, in fact to historicize the contemporary.


Of course, for this talk to be contemporary, it cannot be simply a talk but it has to be trans-disciplinary, interactive, aware of itself, and mildly disruptive of expectations.


The word “contemporary,” especially when used to describe dance, is intentionally vague, slippery, unstable. It suggests postmodern while avoiding the contradictions and debates evoked by that term. Simultaneously, contemporary refuses to commit to a clear relationship to Modernism or any other historically bound forms, traditions or philosophies. In one essay, dance scholar Andre Lepecki has shifted from saying “contemporary dance” to “recent dance” as a way to discuss dance works made in the past 20 years, without trying to locate them within a specific line of aesthetics or history.


Because the universe functions materially and energetically in fractals, in patterns of repetition of varying scale, patterns that are not identical but similar with endless and even chaotic variation…we are already after contemporary as well as contemporary, Modern, neo-classical, classical, traditional, and folk. Yes ballet is a European and white ethnic dance form, as first analyzed by Joanne Kealihohomoku in 1970, but ballet is or could be simultaneously avant-garde, romantic, experimental, traditional, Disney cartoon, totalitarian, militaristic, and contemporary…depending on the way it is made and the way it is experienced and the way it is imagined. So maybe the first sign of “after contemporary” is an awareness of multidimensionality in both space and time, a conceptual choreographic practice that experiences history and environment as multiplicities, as three-dimensional spirals, as fractals in the dancers’ body and the choreographers’ imagination…


Since the late 80s I have practiced ritual with neo-pagan, feminist witches; a community that transgresses false borders between politics and spirituality, body and mind, prehistory and contemporary. Rituals begin by casting a circle, a magical intention to leave ordinary time and space, and to go between the worlds. We say that what happens between the worlds touches or changes all the worlds. The idea is that future and past are simultaneously present within a ritual circle. This could be understood either as a poem/image or as a kind of super fractal rather than as an act of faith. People new to “older” or non-monotheistic or earth-based religions tend to impose an idea of monotheistic faith that is unnecessary to the poetic or “scientific” approaches to non-ordinary reality…


Let’s use the performance we saw last night[i] as a model of contemporary dance, as an archive of contemporary dance tactics, concepts, and practices. Here is a list of its contemporary dance moves (of course I could be talking about my work, or yours):

  • lipsynching, drag, sequins and other references to camp, queer performance and gay club culture
  • people doing things they were not professionally trained to do, especially singing
  • changing costumes on stage, as a task or score
  • meta-content in which the performance is about performance
  • soft boundaries between choreography, improvisation, individualized and synchronized movement
  • the dancers, whether credited or not, have originated much of the actual movement and phrasing, i.e., choreography (In this case they were credited.)
  • rather than a narrative the performance unfolds or is constructed as a series of events, what Anna Halprin first identified as parades and changes
  • “natural” or quotidian walking as both transition between events and as the event itself
  • the presentation of not dancing as dancing
  • use of computer-edited, concrete or abstract sound, which is the foundational music for contemporary dance
  • a musical pastiche (another foundational music score for contemporary dance.) Abstract digital sound meets global pop meets classical opera or symphony meets playful children’s song or simple ditty
  • improvised scores for shifting states of attention and perception, or consciousness
  • a microphone with a long cable that is sometimes an abstract or representational object and/or a kinetic sculpture as well as a tool for amplifying or distorting the dancer’s voice
  • a playful approach to proscenium that mostly obeys the rules but flirts with its social and visual margins


Had the work been following the cool or minimalist directions in contemporary dance, we would be able to add a few more recognizable tactics to this list: use of a single concept or coherent proposition, only white or off-white filtered light, highly aesthetic yet deceptively simple costumes in earthy colors, intensified states using precision repetition that might falter as performers push to near exhaustion, formal abstraction as reified spiritual labor (from Cunningham to de Keersmaker via Steve Reich and Philip Glass to many of the choreographers emerging from PARTS, SEED, France… who have been rewarded for making works that thoroughly explore a single idea.)


Considering these lists, how would a young, or old, choreographer make dances after contemporary? She could reject all of these now recognizable tactics in an effort to generate new processes, forms, economies, and tactics but that act of historical rejection would re-position her as Modernist. She could ignore all previous work in an effort closer to naïve or primitive art but again she would be walking down a well-paved Modernist road. Perhaps she could get hip to the latest trends in relational aesthetics, post-studio practice, ritualized state work and flirtations with alchemy, shamanism, and magic. Or, whether or not she is aware of Anna Halprin’s outdoor dance platform or Joseph Beuy’s planting of 7000 oaks, she could embody ecological processes through permaculture, green activism, or even eco-sexuality as proposed by Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens.


(Pause to climb a table, open the blinds and look outside, 2 min.)


Contemporary dance is a youtube video of Philippine prisoners forced to dance Michael Jackson’s Thriller as a practice of social control and exploitation. After contemporary, the prison is recognized as a model of structural racism and class warfare, and a street theater group is invited (and funded) to destroy the prison in a series of improvised explosions.




(Invite people to partner up and massage hands – 5 min per hand. Give a choice of almond oil or hand lotion.)


Trinh T. Minh-ha is a post-colonial feminist film maker and writer. Originally from Vietnam, she went to university in the US, and conducted years of research in West Africa. She writes:

“All clarity is ideological.”

All clarity is ideological.


… which of course includes the statement, all clarity is ideological… which does not mean that all messy and non-linear performances are de facto NOT ideological or ANTI ideological but that chaos, mess and complicated embodiment hold the possibility – precisely at the point when recognized as vague, noisy, messy, or abject, that they don’t fit a coherent ideological position or agenda and might, maybe, if we can stay in the mess, if we can stay in the swamp, in the un-named and un-recognized, for a moment, where a moment is a time-space marked outside or alongside normative time-space, we just might, maybe….


(PAUSE…massages continue in silence…1 min.)


Of course I can’t actually name, frame and contain the swampy noise moment with any language already owned by publishers advertisers academics political speech writers Hollywood screen writers…

Time Warner                       Disney          Bertelsmann                       Viacom

Gannett                              Comcast                                                   Liberty Media

Vivendi Universal               Berlusconi’s Mediaset                              Robert Murdoch’s News Corp

América Móvil (chaired by world’s wealthiest person Carlos Slim Helu)


What will no mainstream media discuss? Or lacks the language to discuss?

Let’s consider the ass, its hole, its interior, what comes out and what might go in.


Two asshole perspectives: Coming out, going in

One: Coming out.

We are familiar with the metaphor you are what you eat, meaning that what you eat in fact makes you, not only materially but culturally and economically. Our eating, in part, defines us, reveals us, makes us who we are. Our body and social identity is not the only trace from what and how we eat. Our shit is the waste, the refuse, the end of the line of our eating practices. What goes in our mouth is directly linked to what comes out of our asshole.

Two: Going in.

At some point, when considering the taboo of anal sex, especially male-male fucking, I realized that a kind of reverse statement might also be true, or at least useful. Consider that what goes in our asshole might be linked to what comes out of our mouth. That is, the pleasure, intimacy, terror, and adventure of taking a man’s dick up my ass has shifted how I speak and what I say. Butt fucking, in part, defines us, reveals us, makes us who we are (defines me, reveals me, makes me who I am.)


Butt fucking is queer and swampy and normative social structures which include corporate news and American art funding are afraid of the subversive and mysterious power of a queer swamp.


Are we surprised that so much feminist and queer performance betrays social taboos by con/fusing the imposed clarity between inside and outside, by challenging the alleged sanctity or purity of the body’s feminine and natural interior which out to be protected from the masculine outsides of culture and society?


And while I’m talking gender, isn’t dance gendered female in European and American imaginations precisely because it resists theory and language, that dancing is embarrassingly closer to our inside mysteries than to our outside naming?


Swamp and queer are proposed here as political reframings of abject…that which is considered monstrous or disgusting, not human, not civilized… (Repeat with time for translation.)


(Silence for the rest of the massage. Timer indicates when to switch hands, roles.)



(Invite participants to go outside for a circle dance – synchronized rhythmic step to the left.)


Idle No More is a recent grass roots political movement challenging Canadian government policies towards First Nation (indigenous) peoples and lands. To be idle is to be lazy or inactive. Idle No More is a call to action, to movement, for indigenous people and their allies. With heavy participation by socially networked indigenous youth, 50% of whom are unemployed, the Idle No More movement addresses many issues of indigenous rights from housing and education to environmental protections. A key tactic of the Idle No More movement is the public circle dance (like this one) as a non-violent social disruption. These circle dances have appeared as flash mobs in shopping malls and protests at government offices and in highly visible urban spaces. Spreading across Canada and the US, with solidarity protests around the world, the movement has been adopted by activists trying to stop the Keystone XL pipeline currently being built to connect the tar sands in Alberta Canada to the ports of New Orleans in the southern US. Besides public circle dances, with drumming, singing, and speeches, Idle No More action tactics include hunger strikes, ritualized long-distance protest marches lasting several weeks or longer, and occupations in front of government buildings.


The claim that we are all indigenous is both profoundly true and ridiculously useless. Let’s think about it for a minute. American Indian activist and poet John Trudell suggests that we all come from tribes. So maybe we aren’t all indigenous but we all were, or could be, or are related somehow to indigenous people… What happens when we consider ourselves descendents of religious and state genocidal efforts that imposed concepts of private property and monetary exchange, of monotheism and heterosexism? And when I say genocide I mean the attempt to destroy a culture, totally. What is possible now, in this post-colonial and post-modern moment that of course is deeply embedded in both colonial and modernist practices…? I’m thinking about dancing and performance and ritual but I’m also thinking about banking and debt, Greece and Germany and Iceland, austerity and precarity, investment, interest, and profit, I’m thinking about social sculpture and social movement, about who we are and who we used to be and who we might become…


Indigenous dance scholar Jacqueline Shea Murphy mentioned a debate within Native art and activism…should the focus be on negative reaction to oppression or on generating positive solutions? This recalls a tension within some approaches to contemporary art that reject shock and criticality as tired or alienating projects. This choice between critical protest and proactive solutions also recalls a tension or debate withing US Black Studies between Black Pessimism and Black Optimism.


Black Pessimism, theorized by Frank Wilderson, recognizes that African Americans are always and already a rupture in the system, never to be assimilated, because racism is fundamental to Western, European and American culture and history. Black Pessimism resonates with young choreographers’ emphasis on institutional critique and shock performances of bodily transgressions and extreme noise. By contrast, Black Optimism, as theorized by Fred Moten and others, recognizes that African Americans survive and thrive through improvisation and struggle, continually making alternative economies and relations within and beyond white dominated and capitalist motivated situations. Black Optimism resonates with contact improvisation, body mind centering, and no budget Do-It-Yourself modes of production…


As a close observer of contemporary indigenous dancing Murphy asserts that colonialism was only partially successful, which means therefore that colonial genocide was partially a failure. Can we observe this failure as inspiration for unpredictable creativity, resistance, survival? Is Idle No More a utopian project doomed to failure, a generative or resistant failure that cannot be exploited or explained by government or mainstream media? Is failure a useful frame for studying someone else’s tragedy?


(Stop circle dance.)


When I arrived here today, there was a duck on the roof. A duck… When I first saw it the duck was on the roof above this entrance, then (run 10 meters) it flew to this entrance, then (run 15 m) it landed on that box, what is it, a heating system? (Run around the corner out of view. Yell loud enough to be heard.) Then it flew past the building, over here… (Continue to run around the building, 2 min).




(Come back to the group, some waiting, some looking for me. Invite them back into the building, to the gym.)


I want to teach you another folk dance from my people.


(Music: Disco Inferno from Saturday Night Fever album.

Teach a simple version of the Hustle. Most participate. 6-7 min.

Most people, including me, are out of breath, smiling.)


Then I improvised a story around the following ideas:

When I think about the gay men in discos, where I spent a lot of time in the late 70s and early 80s, I imagine that 30-50% of them have died. This void or lost potential is neither personal nor restricted to the gay community. Our dance communities lost many people to AIDS and with them we lost dances, ideas, potential… I talked about dances as invocation of ancstors, about AIDS and historical/choreographic voids, about embodied history and memory…




Next week I will participate in a contemporary dance teacher training hosted at Impulstanz by France-based choreographers Jennifer Lacey and Alice Chauchat. Jennifer and Alice have proposed that we focus on a (potential) shift in contemporary art practice from “questioning” to “observing”, from critique to witness.


They wrote, “What if what we are doing is not “questioning” but observing…? (Because honestly, this word questioning, it needs to go.) What if the forms we practice still hold mystery?”


This shift from questioning to observing, from naming to mystery, resonates with my experiences of indigenous art practices, both traditional and contemporary. We change what we observe and we are changed by observing… How else might we connect contemporary with indigenous art practices? Perhaps by not considering them art or practices or work?


How do contemporary dances resonate with or embody or invoke more ancient ritual dances…?


Might we consider contemporary art and performance a temporary home (or temple) for the ghosts of previous cultures? An invocation or presence-ing of past ancestors or traditions or of future desires and visions…as implicated in the lives of seven generations before and after this moment…? History and ancestors are always and already embodied, embedded, in a dance, in anything we do and how we do it. Let’s consider these histories as presences, as ghosts, that haunt, not necessarily in a bad way, our daily life, and especially our heightened attention life in studios or theaters.


I then improvised an introduction to Michael Meade’s idea of a Greek theatrical circle, a reframing of the proscenium imagined as a circle with live audience on one half, completed by the ancestors or beings of the other world on the other half, between which the dancer-actor mediates between the living and the dead, between future and past, between the visible/material and the invisible/immaterial/other worlds.


Robert Steijn suggested that after contemporary might include revisiting the early Moderns – Isadora, Wigman, Josephine Baker, Nijinsky… There have been so many recreations of Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring during this 100th anniversary year. Did you know that 1913 was also the premier of Wigman’s Hexentanz / Witch Dance? Perhaps after contemporary might also include a re-engagement with indigenous and shamanic practices, influenced by a post-colonial sensibility that recognizes the problematics of appropriation and interpretation, disrespect and disappearance… We will probably continue to fuck up in our efforts at cultural hybridity and inspiration, but maybe we can learn something from Modernism’s problematic relationship to the cultural Other… This might include more critical and experiential studies of theosophie and yoga, of peyote and ayuahuasca, of shifting states of consciousness work like San Francisco choreographer Sara Shelton Mann or more recent improvised trance work by Meg Stuart, Robert Steijn, myself, and many others… of reconsidering indigenous folk dance as everything from contact improvisation to various forms of hip hop, street dance, urban dance, and dances for music video and youtube… of somatic training for children in public schools, where somatics is considered a deeply embodied and empowering encounter between materiality and energy, thought, and imagination…


And maybe this is where this potentially endless spiral talk(ing) can end, for now, at a recommendation for autonomous movement practices for children which echoes Isadora’s humanist speeches, delivered before every dance concert, insisting on better education for girl children and dance education for all children.



– About the role of anal sex in constructing identity, about gay male exceptionalism, and about sexual intercourse in general as something implicated in dance and art and worth further consideration…

– Are you afraid of your psyche, of getting lost, of going crazy from these experiments in “other” consciousness…? A conversation about non-ordinary consciousness continues…including comments about dance training as grounding practice for adventures in consciousness

Robert Steijn: thinking aloud about the difference between art and culture, quoting Terrence McKenna: celebrate art, fuck culture.

Hilde Rustad offers another tactic of contemporary dance: film references (e.g. Monty Python in Sissi) noting that both film technology and movie content influences live performance.



[i]                Liisa Pentti’s dance Sissi, Anno 2013: Stage Animals #2

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