In times of social unrest our only recourse, however frivolous it may seem, is to re-ground ourselves in a rhetoric of intimacy. We are momentarily reassured by something tactile, concrete, or at least the knowledge that an affective process still exists. But, as Keith Hennessy, on his knees and dressed in a fuzzy bear suit, repeated “I love the way you feel” into a voice-distortion box onstage during his solo performance Bear/Skin, the words’ political promise seemed to dissolve as much as the resulting garbled feedback.
Bear/Skin, which premiered this January at the performance festival American Realness, investigates what it means to inhabit a skin that’s not your own, exploring the ways non-Western or non-white subjects have been framed as sites of catharsis. An experimental performer based in San Francisco, Hennessy, under the aegis of his studio, Circo Zero, confronts the material realities of economic and artistic crisis in admirably hybrid, if at times overly intellectualized, ways. Though the disparate components of Bear/Skin did not always smoothly cohere, at its best Hennessy’s cross-genre mix of poetry, dance and sound shed light on Western culture’s fetishistic versions of modern-day shamanism and attempts to self-heal. Hennessy, in street clothes, opened the show with a breathlessly rapid-fire reading of poetry inspired by action films—a clever litany of lines critiquing the machismo vengeance fantasies that all too easily fluctuate between fiction and reality. Then, an abrupt resignation to the melancholic state of things: as k.d. lang’s cover of Neil Young’s “Helpless” played on repeat, Hennessy donned the bear suit and dejectedly paraded a sign that on one side read “FUCK,” and on the other side “SHIT.”
At a critical point in the performance’s middle—following a brief excursus in which Hennessy described communities most at risk for committing suicide, including queer youth and middle-aged white men, he performed a segment of Vaslav Nijinsky’s original choreography for Le Sacre du printemps, the bear suit dangling from his neck like a pelt, as if embodying the weight of the ballet’s “primitive” conceit. Le Sacre, a glorification of the death drive through a climactic pagan ritual sacrifice, anchors Hennessy’s fascination with the primitivism that has steered the modernist imaginary. The dance’s resonances and wounds are not yet done being processed, as evidenced by the many contemporary choreographers who continue to parse it, Xavier Le Roy among them. However, the famous dance was a difficult act for Hennessy to follow; he sweated through the relevés of the sequence. Nevertheless, he reemerged afterward as his own shaman of the 21st century, with a delightful mélange of commodity fetishes that suggested reifications of spiritual self-actualization, including a sash made of credit cards and a bedazzled antler.
As Hennessy danced in the guise of his new age “primitive,” having preempted the image with numerous acknowledgments of his own white male body, the scenario called to mind the countless ways modern artists have conjured the “otherness” of non-Western cultures as a means of processing the inevitable: futurity. In a relentless late-capitalist acceleration, in a heightened pursuit of the “real,” where can we find respite, or rather, a space of unrest, an outlet for the escalating helplessness that ensues from a state of militarized, racialized infringement? Though the space of healing felt inchoate and fragmented, Bear/Skin made these questions feel urgent, and asked us to consider how we express love in our communities in difficult times.