“Turbulence (a dance about
Keith Hennessy / Circo Zero
New York Live Arts
October 6, 2012
by Kathleen O’Connell
copyright © 2012 by Kathleen O’Connell
Men peeing in their pants; a round of buck naked Slip ’n Slide; re-enacted torture and images lifted from Abu Ghraib—and still the most shocking thing about the final New York performance of Keith Hennessy’s shambolic “Turbulence” was how tedious it was. If Hennessy and his troupe had purposely set out to interrogate the hegemony of performance art cliché, it couldn’t have been done better. Earnest palaver about our process? Check! Grating soundscape? Check! Tired emblems of interpersonal violence? Metaphors so trite we can’t possibly mean them? Jejune reliance on audience disgust? Check! Check! and Check! Hennessy—pissed off by bank bailouts and offshore tax shelters, tanked up on Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine and Judith Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure—wants to provoke a communal response to the depredations of world capitalism. But if this is what the theater of revolution looks like, it’s no wonder the bankers are still lining their pockets.
The fourteen member cast—which, per its usual practice, included three local guest artists—improvised around an extensively workshopped but loose script. Every “Turbulence” show gets underway before the scheduled curtain with “fake healing” ceremonies in which cast members and audience volunteers re-enact therapeutic rituals. (Saturday’s performance featured a small circle of women billowing a length of red chiffon over a man lying prone in their center.) There must be the enactment of unstable, unsustainable structures. There must be aerial work on a jury-rigged, multi-level trapeze. Something must be done with a bolt of cloth covered with gold sequins. Six members of the audience must be recruited to build a human pyramid. Someone must recite a quote from Peggy Phelan about love. There’s an Occupy-style mike check. Hennessy must do a rant. And of course, someone must piss onstage. How and when the cast checks off the items on the list changes from performance to performance by design. If “Turbulence” were somehow to achieve cult status, you can imagine a run of midnight shows at which the audience marked the completion of each scripted event with a group toss of an appropriate prop, à la “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Toilet paper is an obvious choice, but the water pistols also have their appeal.
It sounds like it should have been a riotous eyeful, but it was pitifully inert. Saturday night’s performance capped off two years of international workshopping and a month-long, four city U.S. tour, and the cast looked like it was out of steam. The show went on for the better part of two hours, but contained only about 20 minutes of genuinely theatrical image-making. The troupe spent the rest of the time busying itself with performance art equivalent of desultory make-work: noodling with props, adding or subtracting items of clothing, grabbing a partner for some contact improvisation. And rarely did anything involve more than three people; the fact that the cast was scattered across the performance space by ones and twos further dissipated its energy. As an image of collective action, it was less than inspiring.
And what images there were were infuriatingly lazy and unfocussed. A member of the cast recruited six volunteers to don hoods made out of gold-sequined fabric and form a human pyramid in an obvious reference to Abu Ghraib. That’s just too easy. The systematic humiliation of the Abu Ghraib detainees is a stain on our nation’s honor and everyone knows it. The hard task, the painful one, is coming to grips with how such a thing could have happened and where our individual and communal complicity lies.
“Turbulence” did none of this hard work. The Abu Ghraib riff—which is used extensively in the publicity materials—grew out of nothing that preceded it and informed nothing that came after. Worse, it cheapened the detainees’ suffering by turning it into a facile sight gag. Ditto the simulated waterboarding of a man pinned under a pink cloth: that ended with a bout of competitive coughing between torturer and victim that was straight out of grade school. And what does any of this have to do with the economy? If it was the work’s intention to demonstrate some moral equivalence between the victims of torture and the victims of the 2008 finacial collapse, just shoot me now.
NYLA’s Bessie Schonberg Theater is a small space—only 184 seats—but it isn’t intimate. Its steeply raked stadium seating isolates most of the audience in the dark and away from the action; there’s no proscenium, but there might as well be. “Turbulence” looked like it was taking place in a galaxy far, far away and was all the worse for it: the work demands the kind of intimacy that fosters active audience engagement. Many of the main events—the pyramid, the waterboarding, and yes, the peeing—were tucked away in one of the stage’s corners and nearly out of the auditorium’s line of sight.
No one in the cast had Hennessey’s natural charisma and stage smarts: you’d happily listen to him carry on about LIBOR and the disinfectant properties of a puddle of cold piss for an hour. Nor did they have his affecting mix of true belief and utter unselfconsciousness. You could see them thinking, thinking, thinking about what to do next with painful self-awareness. Only Ishmael Houston-Jones—one of the New York guest artists and an old pro—and aerialist Emily Leap seemed to know how to lose themselves in performance. The Empress Jupiter’s demented brand of lo-fi thrift-shop fabulousness—which lit up the lobby like a Christmas tree—needed more heady oxygen to succeed on stage than “Turbulence” could supply.
It’s telling that “Turbulence” is more interesting to read about than to watch. The show feels like the manifestation of yet another performance art cliché: the belief that your process can be theater and theory can be your subject. Early on we had been given leave to walk out once we decided we were done with watching. An hour or so later, Hennessy grabbed a mike and asked us: “How many times will this performance fall apart before you go?” In interviews and on his website he’s openly acknowledged that “Turbulence” is messy and incoherent. He also makes much of his current interest in “the poetics of failure,” the notion that that “to perform well, or to perform successfully is to affirm hegemonic or mainstream and oppressive values, aesthetics, structures, ideas.”* Which means what, exactly?—that if you’re alienating your audience you’re sticking it to the Man?
Hennessy may be willing to bore his audience with theater that fails, but he’s otherwise a very solicitous host. Before the performance “began”—i.e., before the lights went down—some of the cast members wandered through the house offering us M&Ms and shots of whiskey, and were cheerfully respectful of our wishes if we said “no, thanks.” Hennessy himself came through proffering earplugs. “You don’t have to use them,” he said, “but it’s improvisation and we don’t know how loud it will get.” It was so damn endearing you were tempted to forgive him for all the self-indulgence.
* From a conversation between Liz Tenuto and Keith Hennessy published on the CounterPULSE website.
copyright © 2012 by Kathleen O’Connell
Photo by Ian Douglas
Emily Leap and members of Circo Zero in “Turbulence”