KEITH HENNESSY/CIRCO ZERO
Performer/philosopher Keith Hennessy likes to flaunt rules. During his aptly titled “Turbulence (a dance about the economy),” the San Francisco-based artist declares in one of his impassioned declarations that his performers are “private contractors,” which freaks out the administration at New York Live Arts where they’re playing (October 4-6), because they’re supposed to be covered by workmen’s compensation and have proper deductions taken, etc.
Hennessy breaks down for us the budget of this work, for which he’s received more funding than for any other in his career. Most of the comparatively lavish funding, of course, went to airfares and hotel rooms, although the performers are getting paid a moderate fee. And he takes pains to point out that, no, the foreign performers are not working illegally in the U.S.; instead, they’re part of this “research project” that is “Turbulence.” Oh, and by the way, does NYLA have special insurance for the trapeze that hangs onstage from the grid and supports as many as three or four performers at a time during the show?
The décor comprises flattened cardboard boxes taped to the white floor and the rear wall into a “carpet” and “mural” of sorts. Hennessy and his fearless performers produce skillfully modulated chaos, determined by an improvisational structure that includes a certain number of events that must happen, though when and where are not determined.
The cast is in action as the audience enters the theater. Lanky Irishman Ruairi (Rory) leads various audience members to onstage seats, where they can watch the action up close and personal. He offers to share with us the whiskey he and others are tippling. We simply submerge in the multi-ring circus of exotic episodes, sampling bits like a buffet and marveling at the range of the performers’ imaginations. The start and finish of the performance are purposely vague, and the audience is encouraged to hang out with the performers – naked and clad – afterwards.
Jessem Hindi produces an ungodly racket with his computer and electronic toys, plopped on the floor amid a tangle of cables. (I’m glad I accepted the earplugs offered.) Seated at a table at the side, lighting designer Shelby Sonnenberg plays with the lights: a warm wash of light turns dark and shadowy; house lights go on and off willy-nilly; rolling instruments pick out individual actions to highlight.
Through the apparent chaos, charismatic Hennessy keeps referring us back to the notion of economic inequity. He channels his rage at the unfairness of the economic system into this intense theater experience, which – save its prescribed landmarks – is never the same twice. Between his own vigorous improvisation stints, he sits and chats with the audience before rejoining the fray. All his collaborators exude personality and presence, but you never miss Hennessy. Even his most inconsequential move captures attention.
Groups tussle in twos, threes, and more, climbing on and lifting, and carrying each other in good-natured bouts that are simultaneously combative, sensuous, and loving. Guest artist Ishmael Houston-Jones makes love to Hana Erdman’s feet, kissing, stroking, and rubbing them on his face. A swath of gold, sequined fabric sweeps through the action, perhaps symbolizing the filthy lucre of capitalism.
One of the required landmarks is a pyramid of kneeling women from the audience, whose heads are wrapped in triangles of the shimmering gold fabric. Another, presumably, is Houston-Jones’s stripping naked and having the cast swaddle him in pink chiffon and cover him with the golden “shroud” and Hana Erdman’s black platform high heels.
Later, the cast hefts Houston-Jones to their shoulders and struggles up the stairs, bearing him aloft in a ritual funeral – the golden calf, stripped naked and borne to its just reward.
Very pregnant, Canadian guest artist Dana Michel capers around, her belly seeming to grow with each new entrance. Portly Empress Jupiter, as flamboyant as his name, wears a series of lacey black sheaths over loud patterned clam digger pants and comments to the audience about the onstage happenings. Upstage, Jesse Hewit turns cartwheels and somersaults. Gabriel Todd disco dances down front in his skivvies in a remarkable show of stamina, as other cast and audience members join and leave him, endlessly doing his side-to-side “pony” step.
You watch whatever episodes of the non-stop action you like, and there’s plenty to take in. People shed clothing or don garments that others have discarded. Periodically, Hennessy clears the clothes off the floor, as if grooming his nest. And he shows some aerial skills on the trapeze, tangling upside down and every other which way with Julie Phelps and Emily Leap. Downtown diva Faye Driscoll, who happens to be in the audience, joins in some trapeze pulling and pony-ing in the Occupy spirit.
Hennessy’s iconoclastic work is metaphoric on myriad levels. Commentary from him and his cast refer us back to his theme of economic inequity, so the matrix of random action really lives up to the dance’s parenthetical subtitle. It “unearths the power in refusing the ve