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Tuesday, March 21, 2023

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PerformanceStage ReviewKeith Hennessy set the pandemic to dance at CounterPulse...

Keith Hennessy set the pandemic to dance at CounterPulse with ‘Back’

The choreographer finds joy—and a fanciful stage wardrobe—in early COVID memories.

By coincidence, I visited CounterPulse the night after POTUS Joe Biden had the audacity to declare the pandemic “over” in the US during an interview with “60 Minutes.” It wasn’t lost on me that this happened nearly a full year after I saw Dear San Francisco, whose opening night performance was preceded by London Breed mocking her own safety protocols and similarly declaring the pandemic “over” here in SF. How’d that work out?

Needless to say, I was glad to have gotten my Omicron bivalent COVID booster before arriving to see Keith Hennessey’s Back (all I wanna do is dance and fuck and swim with you), which ran through Sun/25 at CounterPulse. The show is, after all, a meditative dance piece about living through this very-much-not-over pandemic. Upon entering the theatre—which requires a vax check and to be wearing a mask, except when actively drinking—one will first notice the unique set dressing and floor cushions for those choosing to forego chairs (as I did.)

But looking around, you’ll also notice that seating is in a round, and that the proper seats have been limited to the first two rows. Whether that’s for COVID safety or the low-key “advertising” of the show (which took place primarily through word-of-mouth), I can’t say for sure. What I can say is that I’m glad my Aranet4 never got higher than 681ppm amongst the patrons occupying nearly all the seats that were available.

This was my first Keith Hennessy show, and the fabled performer and choreographer appears onstage early on to inform us that he’s “known for talking a lot before a show”—but would limit tonight’s intro to five minutes. He explains the set pieces (a crudely-constructed “curtain” made of pieces of fabrics he’d used from previous shows, a pile of furs, and a sheer green sheet acting as the upstage “wall”), and the fact that as everyone else sheltered during the early days of the pandemic, he spent most of them “outside, naked, and dancing.” He also admits to “hook[ing] up like crazy.”

He ends his intro telling of an HIV+ senior who was being evicted from their longtime Castro home by “a young, gay techie” who “wanted to buy a piece of the Castro” for its legendary LGBTQ+ history, but was unable to grasp the fact that he was evicting someone who was a direct part of that history.

After stripping bare and putting on a black “onesie” that almost looks like a wingsuit, Hennessy begins a joyful dance to a Latin pop tune chosen by, as he says in the intro, his pre-teen niece whose mother died of COVID last year. Both the song and the dance he set to it were performed in such a way as to suggest a child with no real care other than their own immediate pleasure.

He switches into pink floral trench-like coat with pink trucker hats for the next movement. The choreography is yoga-like, yet somewhat religiously worshipful, particularly with the accompanying New Age soundscape. More infantile aspects stand out more when Hennessy rolls over the pile of furs (which I honestly thought had someone underneath them.)

The third movement begins with the voice of a Black man speaking about the necessity of self-awareness as Hennessey switches into a pink Speedo and a cropped pink-and-white leather Elvis jacket with sequins. He foregoes dancing here to vocalize a tone poem about anthropomorphizing and regarding that damage done as akin to abuse and (sexual) assault.

He returns to dancing for the final movement of the hour, in which he dons a gold-sequined luchador mask and wears his patchwork curtain as a dress, even adding a makeshift belt with the word “Gucci” placed on it. Between yoga-like movements, he frequently grasps and grips his curtain-dress as if were his favorite toy that he didn’t want taken away.

As I walked the streets of San Francisco after the hourlong show, I felt a bit irked by the way Hennessy’s intro didn’t differentiate between early and later days of the pandemic, nearly falling into the trap of referring to the pandemic in the past tense. I also ran through the events of the hour to compare and contrast them with my mental calendar of those early days: the perceived “freedom” we all thought we had from time off; the terror and fighting spirit revealed in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder; the way COVID spending and economic uncertainty is forcing us to choose what luxuries are worth keeping compared to necessities. We’ve all spent so much of these two-and-a-half years in our own heads that it’s rare for us to see what they look like from another’s.

Keith Hennessey presents an interesting look as to what went on in his head and body during that time. To his credit, I’m glad to see that it was something creative—actually catching COVID isn’t kind to the mind or body.

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Charles Lewis III
Charles Lewis III is a San Francisco-born journalist, theatre artist, and arts critic. You can find dodgy evidence of this at thethinkingmansidiot.wordpress.com

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