American Realness Festival
Abrons Art Center
Keith Hennessy, Bear Skin
So far, a mix of blow jobs, spray blood, DIY aesthetics, and self-referential institutional critique have defined this year’s performance festival American Realness (the two-week-long festival runs through January 18th at the Abrons Art Center.) Generally, that’s resulted in smart, raw performances, but also those that are in-progress or still being workshopped. Pretty much everyone I’ve spoken to has said this year’s festival is the best yet. (I have nothing to compare it to having only seen only one performance last year.) Whatever you encounter, I recommend the festival; it’s a welcome break from the celebrity-driven performance art that dominates art headlines these days.
On the messier fringes of these performances is Keith Hennessy’s Bear Skin, a 45-minute performance that the program guide promised to have “nothing to do with gay bears and everything to do with Rite of Spring, a teddy bears, the reconstruction of native/folk bear dances, action movies and virgin sacrifice etc.” What we got was a schizophrenic, single-person performance—half spoken word, half dance‚that seemed to reflect an array of scattered thoughts loosely unified by an interest in identity tropes. The result was a lot of confusion interspersed with a few great moments.
Those glimmers of insight started early on. In workout wear, Hennessy introduced the piece against a stage with two teepee-like towers made of foil—likely a tribal reference to scenes in the avant-garde ballet Rite of Spring. Apparently Bear Skin was inspired by the ballet’s appropriation of tribal rituals. That history occasionally, though not always, surfaced in Bear Skin with different themes like colonialism and activism. Other times, the comparisons seemed totally unrelated—like a section about action movies. Seemingly aware of these issues, Hennessy told us he’d made some last-minute changes in response to audience feedback. We were told to expect kinks.
All this was useful information, and it was nice to get it from a human being, as opposed to a professional director in a suit. I guess that’s “Realness.” And with that, we launched into the first scene wherein he rattled off, at the speed of an auctioneer, the sum of his obsessive action-film watching for the year:
I want to kill one hundred and fifty bad ass latino guys and a one man cell phone druglord secret jungle hire. I want to kill corrupt politicians and their security team by shooting their escape helicopter out of the sky, and I want to free my kidnapper and my sexually humiliated daughter as a copter explodes into a firey fire…I want to use my advanced killer training to teach my daughter to protect herself and to eventually kill her evil mother who works for the CIA or the cops and a bunch of financial institutions…I want to kill a bunch of nefarious dudes in front of her so so she knows she will never be safe without a gun in her hand.
The sheer speed at which those words were delivered was impressive (and reflective of the pace of an action movie), but that was just part of its success. We were actually given a better sense of basic action-movie tropes through these plainly spoken descriptions than we would have if we wasting an evening watching the flicks; these movies often don’t encourage reflection, so it needs to be imposed.
While that section of the performance was humorous and thoughtful, Hennessy’s vision lost clarity in other sections of the performance. As we transition to colonialist dance, we listen to Patti Smith’s “Helpless” while we watch Hennessy put on a bear costume. He is transformed into a geriatric bear and parades a sign that says “fuck”. He lays on his back. He circles the foil towers. It’s at this point that the performance became too abstract for me to follow, and it looked like Hennessy felt the same confusion. He removed his bear head and began to speak so slowly about suicide rates that he appeared unsure of what he was saying.
Unlike the auctioneer cry, this speed of speech didn’t fit with what he was doing: placing stickies on walls to identify the three main suicide communities (in the end there, were actually more stickies then he originally announced): young people who are queer and transgendered, old people, soldiers, and middle aged white men. Later, we hear about how Chelsea Manning was wronged, and rectal feeding is bad.
I can only assume that this was supposed to have some connection to Rite of Spring, but I’m not sure what. Are suffering communities supposed to be similar to the colonialist undertones in Rite of Spring? At one point, we’re told that bears mean spring, which is about the only reference to the ballet in the spoken word that I could discern. Mostly, it’s a testimony of what’s wrong in the world, with a little dance thrown in. The dance consistently favored stage right, a decision that seemed less deliberate than it did a product of an unfinished piece.
Finally, to transition to the concluding act, Hennessy gave the audience large foil sheets to place over our heads while he changed. The reasons for this seemed mostly kinesthetic, and before long we’re watching Hennessy, wearing a sash of credit cards and (briefly) blingy deer horns, perform a shamanistic-type dance to a Tori Amos piano remix. Disco lights spin around the room, until eventually Hennessy tires, and takes down his towers. “The performance is over” he tells the audience, which oddly enough was a needed announcement.