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Keith Hennessy in Bear/Skin
Photograph: Robbie SweenyKeith Hennessy in Bear/Skin

Dancer Keith Hennessy takes on The Rite of Spring: 'Am I a teddy bear, or am I a person in a bear outfit?'

In Bear/Skin, choreographer Keith Hennessy takes on paganism and The Rite of Spring


Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring is to choreographers what Hamlet is to actors. After Nijinsky's original take on the genius score, countless others, including Pina Bausch, Martha Graham, Bill T. Jones, Molissa Fenley and Xavier Le Roy have added their stamp. In Bear/Skin, which plays at Abrons Arts Center as part of American Realness 2015, Keith Hennessy puts his spin on the music and original choreography; for one, he'll be in a giant bear suit.

Why did you become interested in The Rite of Spring?
I think I was just always interested in it. It’s got this driving music that I didn’t understand even how to like when I first heard it as a young person. I knew the dance was important, I knew the music was important, and I had to almost acquire the taste to understand it. I think there’s something about both the pagan ritual and the embodied queerness of Nijinsky, that really caught my attention when I was in my twenties. And for many choreographers, doing your version of Rite of Spring is like a rite of passage, it’s kind of an arriving thing, and I’ve just never been from those sectors of the dance world that re-created things in general. The thing is that if you look at it from a contemporary point of view, of course it’s one of the key moments in modernism, right? Now when I teach dance history, which is one of my many identities, I try to unsettle an American nationalist history of modern dance. One of the things that I learned working so often in Europe even starting in the ’80s when I was with Contraband and my work was very distant from ballet, was that the word for “dance” was a ballet. And then you realize, Oh, ballet to them does not equal classical [ballet] like it does in the U.S. Modern dance is a break from ballet, but in Europe, modernism is an approach to dancing. You could be a postmodern choreographer and use ballet, which we now know in New York also, but it’s like in the history of dance how it’s taught—if you take a modern-dance history class, you won’t be shown any ballet unless your teacher’s super hip and maybe shows a [William] Forsythe piece and is like, “Here’s modern ballet” or something like that.

And in Europe?

It’s like, of course Rite of Spring is a key modernist work. The music is by Stravinsky: What more can you imagine? They’re doing drastic shifts to classical narratives, to classical embodiment. It’s obviously a work of modern art. I see it as a key moment. For years, I thought that someday I would redo it with a percussive tribal score and a crazy pagan dance, and I was always interested in what it would mean to revisit it as paganism as opposed to a representation of a falsified pagan story of a virgin sacrifice. Nijinsky—and Stravinsky—worked with a folklorist who was a specialist in the rural mountains or that in-between area between Russia and Eastern Europe, so there was a sense of authenticity in some of the costumes, and the people dressed as stags or bears wandering in circles in the dance. But the idea that it’s a virgin sacrifice is a fantastical fiction if we look at the remakes and the restructurings and the fantasias of pagan ritual in the hands of men without a feminist consciousness. It’s like, right: why not? A female sacrifice where she dances until death, and that, in fact, becomes a story of dance itself. One of the things I look at historically is the decline of the male dancer in Europe after 1850, 1860, so when Nijinsky gets to Paris one of the reasons he’s accepted and that the whole Ballets Russes project is accepted is because the Russians appear wilder, as non-Europeans bringing this kind of pagan sensibility. Nijinsky gets away with being wild and pagan and therefore we accept this man dancing. It’s a new moment that we’re going to watch men in tights as opposed to women in tights playing the male roles in the ballets of the period. There are several angles that interested me.
What else is driving you?

I’m a Californian—really I’m Canadian, but in terms of my adult life, a lot of my politics and spirituality and aesthetics came of age in the context of political feminists interested in both feminist spirituality and anarchist direct-action politics. To me, it’s like, Oh it’s pagan, and that’s what I am. Plus it’s ballet, plus it’s queer, plus it’s modernism. In the last few years, I’ve been really looking at issues of racialized segregation of the dance world and how dance forms get marked as white or not. I’ve been continually revisiting the 1970 essay of ballet as an ethnic dance and going, Okay, if the contemporary dance world that I’m in is marked as white, despite what it thinks of itself, despite that there are contemporary dance movements on the continent of Africa, in Southeast Asia that I’ve been linked to even, but if the work is continually marked as both middle-class and white, then what does it mean to participate in it? And if we want a different world, maybe we need to challenge some of the ways that postmodernism is just another version of modernism. All of these things led me to want to take it on, but I have to say that as usual with my work I thought about it for a long time and didn’t do it. Then one day, for a performance in a tiny venue, I thought, I’ll just learn the climax section, and simultaneously I saw an enormous teddy bear in a Salvation Army. I thought, That is so big, I could get in it. It would be a shift in how I treat the teddy bear. No longer carry it, no longer torture it, no longer make love to it. Get inside the thing and become the teddy bear. And simultaneously for the last several years I’ve been watching the revitalization of Native American bear dances in California. When I decided to put myself into the bear suit, I was like, Am I a teddy bear, or am I a person in a bear outfit, which is a shamanic act? And then, what is a teddy-bear shaman? I started paying more attention to native-bear dancing and to do actual research and realized, Wow, bear dance is actually in a state of resurgence and being restructured and restaged all over the world. All over Europe, in Japan, in Scandinavia, in Italy. And I’d already been watching the local native groups in the Bay Area. Their group identity is Ohlone, and the Ohlone in the Bay Area have restructured or restaged a bear dance, which is part ancestral knowledge, part knowledge from relatives, but also part knowledge from anthropologists and remaining artifacts. So there are levels of real and fiction and restaging in the native practices that are going on in many places in the world.

Why do you think there’s such a resurgence?
I think the resurgence is happening for a number of reasons. One of the ways that people can survive anything, and whether it’s the original genocidal moment of colonialism or whether it’s the current globalization version of neo-liberalism as a kind of colonialism, one of the responses you can have is a retreat into a hyper-local identity. Europeans are figuring out that there actually was life before Christianity. The Japanese are seeing there was life before the modern era. And I have been thinking a lot about how almost every modern artist that is important to me was involved, in one way or another, with cultural appropriation or what we would now read as that. Of endangered peoples, colonized peoples, victims of genocide. Whether it’s [Jerzy] Grotowski going to India or Antonin Artaud doing peyote in northern Mexico, whether it’s Isadora [Duncan] and her pagan Greeks or Ruth St. Denis and her fantasia of South Asia and India, whether it’s Ted Shawn and Martha Graham with Shakers or Indians, there’s this sense that the industrial era has destroyed roots and cultures. By paying attention to them and through a combination of honoring and imitation, we can retrigger, in a sense, white soul. Now that we’re in this more complex, fractured-identity postmodern moment, where do people look for some sense of identity and self and community? One of the things they’re going to find in Europe is that as much as it’s beautiful to refind your pagan roots, you’re going to find that there’s an anti-immigrant angle to that and a pure-identity thing. In the U.S., the backlash against everyone twerking—black culture has been so minstrelled and appropriated for the last 150 years in the U.S. There have been written critiques of it from the get-go. But there’s definitely a critical mass happening now where so many Pop artists were validated in their basically profiting off black culture and right now it’s hitting a point of consciousness. So, in my own way, I’m looking at how modernism continually restages a kind of whiteness that is exclusive, and where is that true and where is that not true? And what is our relationship to appropriation? Is it possible for me to take The Rite of Spring and actually do a pagan ritual to it? Or can we only just deconstruct it? Is a moment of magic possible using this set of activities? So I’m thinking about all of those things while putting on a teddy-bear suit.

What are your other influences?
There are two characters in the piece. One of them is the bear, a.k.a, a person in a bear outfit and the second one is what I’m calling a fake shaman. And that costume is based on a book by Charles Fréger, who’s a French photographer. The book is called Wilder Mann, and it’s a Frenchman who just traveled to folkloric and pagan ceremonies across Europe, from Bulgaria to Italy. He photographs people in bear suits. I decided to use that book as a basis for making the costume. It’s got, for me, fetish objects in it. I wear a blanket that was handed to me through my family as a skirt. It’s a very simple plaid blanket, but it’s like a family heirloom in a way. And the tights I wear were Remy Charlip’s that I inherited when he died. So I’m mixing what would be my own personal fetish or power objects with, I’m wearing a sheepskin, yes, but it’s the $25 sheepskin I bought at Ikea, and I’m holding a deer antler in my hand, but it’s actually a fake deer antler carved in wood from Pier 1 that I painted gold and glued mirrors on. So everyone’s convinced that it’s a real antler, but actually it’s just a carving from an import store. And I didn’t know why I was collecting them, but I’ve actually been collecting credit cards for 15 years always thinking that I would do something with them.

How do they figure in?

I made a huge sash out of credit cards. On principle, I don’t ever operate in debt. I spent the last three or four years working on a piece about the economy [Turbulence (a dance about the economy)] and I realized that debt is an amazing resource. It’s actually a commodity that some people use to gain wealth, but if you’re poor, debt is what takes you down. I took this collection of credit cards that I’ve barely ever used—I have 60 or 70 of them. Some of them have expired, but they’re all real credit cards with my name on them. What happens is that I get the credit card and buy one thing and then I pay it off immediately. Within a few months, people send you requests for more credit cards. So I’ve made this outfit of this as a fake shaman, but with all these real fetish objects and power symbols from my inherited family and my economic power symbols and I’ve mixed them with kitsch and the fake and the commercial and then I’m trying to make magic in the theater, which I’ve always thought of as a magical place. And unabashedly. I’ve never been too cool for school—even though I can work in high concept, I’ve never been a high formalist. I’ve always somehow come back to entertainment with the possibility of magic.

Have you been performing early versions in California? How has that informed the piece?

I did a sort of study showing in September, and I didtwo street actions, one with each character. Those videos are online. I took each character to the street for an hour each to just live in the city with them, and the fake shaman does healings for people. It turns out that most homeless people actually love the guy. Whereas the bear, no one talks to; I also took them to different areas of the city. Coincidentally, tomorrow I’m going to take the bear out in Rome with a filmmaker.

Will you show that footage in New York?
I think this is like a parallel project. I’m kind of anti-projections in performance unless I’ve got a really good reason and I’m collaborating with a video artist, which I’m not. So I think these are another life for the piece. The piece is going to operate in three fields. One of them is the live performance, another is these street actions that get documented and the third is that I think I’m making a zine, which goes a little bit more into the politics behind the work that makes maps and things of cultural appropriation and early modernism. Also because my core audience does not really know dance history, when I showed it in September, two thirds of the audience did not know—they recognized the music of Rite of Spring, but they didn’t really know anything about the dance, they didn’t know that there’s a virgin sacrifice at the center of it. I have a whole text, which opens the piece on action movies and the role of the female victim in action movies.

That’s so true.

And these movies that are one after another where the wife or the daughter get kidnapped and the man has to kill an extraordinary amount of people to save her. It’s a genre onto itself. People didn’t make the connection between that text and Rite of Spring. That was something I learned in September, so I’m going to be a bit more obvious about that. I think it will also come up in the zine.
What is it like to dance the dance? 
It’s been a trip because I’m kind of old to be doing 72 jumps in four and a half minutes. [Laughs] In rapid succession. To tell you the truth, I don’t know if I am the girl or if I am me—at the end of the dance when I’m almost dead from being out of breath, on me it becomes like body art in a sense. Like, Oh, this guy’s exhausting himself, he’s gonna die. The dance is also really hard to learn and when you look at the videotape of the 1987 reconstruction, which is the most academic best-made reconstruction…

The Millicent Hodson?
Yes. It’s like even then you see, Oh she’s off or she’s exhausted. And then that exhaustion becomes part of the dance even though it was made in 1913, and we hadn’t discovered “exhausting dance” yet. Or we hadn’t highlighted the idea of a shifting state of consciousness of the dancer and that presence actually coming through the movement. When the virgin is dancing in the center, there’s a circle dance that slowly happens around her. That is the townsfolk, but there are also animals or animal shamans. So there’s a bear and there’s a stag at least. So I’ve recentered it to where it’s the bear doing the sacrifice. I’m okay right now that I don’t fully understand what I’ve made. I know that it’s easy for people who have a political-ecological sense to read that into the bear. And there’s a kind of loneliness of, I’m the last surviving bear; I’m a bear alone onstage. There is no group ritual, there is no circle. I find it kind of a thrill to have relearned the dance. I’m not very good at it, just to say.

But what is good?
Yeah. Well, I’m doing every jump. I’m doing every one of the 72 jumps. And if I get behind in the music, I just push through. I don’t cut. And what else is there beside jumping and breathing and dying and hitting these shapes? The vocabulary takes me back to my very early dance classes. I studied with Lucas Hoving, who’s an original member of the Limón company, for three years in the early ’80s. I do have this early modern warm spot in my heart. Very simple vocabulary, theme and variation, which is what the piece is. There are three kinds of jumps done on different sets of counts built into a rhythm that creates crescendo. It’s formally easy to read in that way; you don’t need to know anything. You can see that there’s clearly a crescendo, there’s clearly a crisis, there’s clearly a collapse. But it’s my work so, of course, there are too many topics, and too many genres of performance in a one-hour period and these other kinds of devices that I think are useful for both taking apart and putting back together the stage. It’s still a piece for the stage. It’s choreography, it’s a dance concert. There’s an artist and an audience. It’s not an installation.

Did you always envision this as a solo?
You know, I didn’t. Two years ago, Meg Stuart and I started to scheme [about a Rite of Spring]. It would be a huge group work, a one-time-only outdoor piece in the courtyard of this new institution of studios that had been built in Berlin just for contemporary dance. It’s kind of an ugly environment, and I thought, We should do The Rite of Spring here that ends with jackhammering the center of the courtyard and planting a garden and actually doing a real pagan ritual. Then Meg’s idea was, we’ll do it for 24 hours, all night long. We haven’t done it, but I always imagined I would do it as a group thing, but as I said one day someone asked for a 10-minute piece for a benefit, and I thought, Maybe I should just start working on it now and I learned the first part of the choreography, and everyone was like, there’s a real piece in here. Then I started to just dovetail with the information that was coming through in my academic work around critical race studies and I started thinking, I’m going to do this, I’m going to do this as a solo, I’m going to make this happen. So maybe there’s a group Rite of Spring in my future, maybe it’s a one-time-only thing with Meg Stuart, maybe there are drummers, maybe we dig a garden in the end, I don’t know. For now, The Rite of Spring is basically a doorway into a whole bunch of other materials I get to work with.

It seems to be the beginning of something enormous.
Well, it’s like working on Turbulence for the last two years. That has shifted my looking at dance as an economic project for the rest of my life. After 9/11 certain things happened to my work that there’s no going back on. I think that’s true also with the economic crisis. Right now, the way I’m looking at race and the way my studies in racism and whiteness are also dovetailing a national movement of how we’re re-looking at the colonial project and the slavery project. It’s like, this is forever. This project will change me and change the way that I make things. It’s that kind of a project. But, yes, for now it’s a solo, and it’s only going to happen in small rooms. When I originally proposed it to presenters and people, I was like, yeah, I’m thinking 60 to 70 people max; when people actually now want to book it, I’m like 120. I think of it as a small-room event. Partly so that the audience will feel like they’re in this combustible heated context where there’s no escape. They can see one another; we’re all in it.

Does that have something to do with the pulse of music as well?

Probably so. I always imagined the original being on a proscenium with a lot of remove from the audience, but at the same time the music is driving.

That’s right.
Once the beats hit, which is immediate, where are you going to go? The counting is not obvious at all, and I think that there’s no counting for entire sections. I didn’t study the notation section of it, but it’s not like, Oh, I went to a really good dance school and now I can just learn anything and you tell me what to do on the five and what to do on the seven and what to do on the two. It’s not that at all. The music is going and she’s going, and they’re actually more in an energetic alignment; the formal alignment is happening, but it’s not a mathematical project at all. I first thought that it was and that I just wasn’t very good at it; people were like, No. Watch that dance. I think when you see the Pina Bausch version, she’s very much in a rhythmic relationship and the longer it goes, the more it’s like you just survive. The music is driving and she’s going.

I’m so looking forward to this.
It’s a weird thing. It’s like a huge project and in another way, it’s like, it’s just a ballet in a room with a person who’s going to jump and dance and talk to you. I don’t want to get too worked up about it. I saw the Bill T. Jones/SITI Company Rite of Spring [A Rite], and it’s a very grand work. Mine is a lot more intimate. The first solo that I saw was by Molissa Fenley. She did it in the ’80s and at the same time she was also working out; she was such a fit specimen of a human that you didn’t get the sense of dancing till you die. I think she was doing a feminist flip on it. When I look back at it, she’s not a female victim of the community. She does it just wearing a pair of black tights and no top. There’s a kind of masculinity/Amazonian-ness of it. It’s also her own choreography, it’s not a restaging. She had this way of doing simultaneous jumps, like two or three leaps in a row; as young dancers, we would leave and be in the parking lot outside the theater trying to jump like Molissa Fenley and being so impressed by how strong and athletic she was, whereas when you watch the Pina Bausch or the Nijinsky, you don’t get that sense. You get the sense that the collapse is coming. In the Bill T. Jones version, everyone does the sacrifice dance. They open with the climax. So it’s the opening dance and all 10 or 12 of them are jumping, and it’s more of a stylistic referencing of the Nijinsky choreography. You can recognize it, but they have rechoreographed it. I’m in a bear suit. I do everything I can to succeed given a set of conditions that will make it fail, including my age and gender.

How old are you?
I’m 55. I’m not a 25-year-old peak dancer. Although I out-endurance my students all the time, because they’re all healthy, release-technique people. They’ve forgotten what the role of punk rock is.

Keith Hennessy is at Abrons Arts Center/Henry Street Settlement Jan 8–11.
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