American Realness

My American Realness

My American Realness

by Keith Hennessy
Published on: January 19 , 2014

I have shown work three times at AR (Crotch 2011, Almost 2012, Turbulence 2013). I can’t remember if Ben P contacted me or I contacted him. Maybe my cousin Miguel Gutierrez was the connective tissue. Usually I’d recall this process because getting gigs is often so arduous and insulting. At AR I felt like a member of a community, however temporal or competitive or unfamiliar, and perhaps only linked as much by our tenacious work as by our tenuous friendships.

AR is unlike any other festival. It’s not a DIY queer thing in San Francisco or Berlin but it’s similar in that it’s too broke to pay artists and yet we still want to perform there. It’s not a booking conference but it is a barnacle on a booking conference, situated within that conference’s temporal and spatial orbit. That’s not quite right… AR is part of the conference’s counter narrative, both feeding off the main body’s excess resources and infusing it with new blood (tactics, models, art, bodies). Most festival’s have jam packed schedules that inspire a lot of running around but AR is spatially dense like a Vegas casino that entices us to never leave the building. Artists, from the festival, from NYC, from a lot of places, are crowded in tight with folks who really want to experience the work live. The art seems important but not precious, as does the audience.

The festival has grown. It now occupies more days and produces more performances than when it began. It made a big jump in visibility and notoriety after the first year or two and by year three the press and many presenters were treating it as a serious showcase of contemporary dance-performance. The omni presence in 2013 of a NYTimes writer with a reputation for being ignorant or hostile to “downtown” dance felt like a coming of age. The festival has also not changed. Many of the same artists are presented and most new artists to the festival are colleagues whose work already circulates in shared contexts. One of the only options for growing the festival is through off-site presentations and co-productions. This is already happening but not at a scale that destabilize’s Abrons as the physical (and metaphoric) heart of AR.

I think that AR has a particular aesthetic or set of aesthetics but I hesitate to name it. The frames and styles are still too vague or still in amniotic fluid so they resist any close attention or definition. A long-time performance viewer can see direct references or quiet traces of several NY lineages including minimalism, Cage/Cunningham, Jack Smith, Ridiculous, WOW, ACT-UP, Klein & Skinner, 80s performance at PS122, and the formalist branches of Judson. Continuing to read NYC performance histories we might say there’s more Wooster than Living, more downtown than Harlem, more Trio A than Grand Union, more academic postmodern than street or club hip hop. Of course recent Euro conceptualism, several phases of Anna Halprin’s influence, contact improvisation, new age ritual, the turn towards theory, contemplative somatic inquiry, and youtube can also be referenced or felt in a single weekend of AR.

I don’t make work for the aesthetic container of AR. Somehow my work, despite its hippy-punk west coast roots, already participates in the aesthetic games and inquiries that links (but does not unite) most of the artists featured at AR. The aesthetic links between AR artists are less important to the curation than a network of social relations: friendships, collaborations, parallel tracks, and shared histories that make us aware of and curious about each other. The core curatorial practice seems pretty basic: Ben has simply followed a very small number of NY-based or formerly NY-based dance artists (resonant with his own curiosities or politics) into a variety of national and international contexts where he can be introduced to a rhizomatic assemblage of artists and performances that might be invited to AR.

APAP, although never designed to hurt people, especially artists, has been called dreadful, a meat market, a waste of money, and irrelevant. The monster truck gathering of (mostly) US presenters has generated cattle call performance factories, called showcases, from which many of the AR artists have fled, if they were even invited. Paying to be “showcased” or “represented” at APAP has done nothing for me, except steal my money. Being presented in AR has been satisfying and empowering. I would do it again if I had to pay for everything, even though I think it’s biggest problem is a lack of money to pay artist fees, travel, and housing. Performing at AR has brought me gigs in major and minor venues in the US and Europe including TBA/Portland, City of Chicago, Kampnagel/Hamburg, Theater der Welt/Mannheim… Equally or perhaps more importantly AR keeps me in contact with artist friends in NYC, and with NY and Euro presenters who are less likely to come further West.

At mid-career (or am I past that?) AR has offered me a kind of spiritual inspiration that I don’t want to poop on by making it seem too deep but I despair easily so this inspiration is crucial to my continuance. Maybe it’s because I feel like I barely have an audience (and that includes funders, audience, presenters) in the US beyond a marginalized scene in SF for which I am almost too old. It’s stupid to talk like this because the past couple of years have been really great for me (gigs, one big grant, one big award) but I’m still begging for $1000 every time I want to do a project. I’ve been rejected for the last two grants I’ve written which then paralyzes me from writing any others for six months to a year. I haven’t had consistent admin help in two years. Right now I’m in the luxurious beauty of Djerassi, where I am dedicated to writing. Making the commitment to write and accepting this gift, I hesitated because it would mean missing AR. Being invited to write this piece arrived just in time to soften my FOMO and activate the resonant field where I’m a dancing fool and that is OK.

What do I really like about AR? I like wandering through the Bowery and wishing that I moved there 25 years ago. I like going to The Donut Plant every day. I like sitting on the floor in Abrons’ smaller spaces nervous with anticipation just before a performance begins. I like seeing friends (and their live art) from NY and Berlin and Paris and Lyon and New Orleans and Seattle and Vienna and San Francisco and Montreal. I like seeing my name in the New York Times even if they are war mongering apologists for CIA directives. I like how fierce I dance when I’m in NY, especially at AR. I hold back nothing and seem to access a relaxed insanity where I feel at home.

image: Ian Douglas