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Dancing in the Imaginal Realm

An Interview with Keith Hennessey

RQ: When did you start dancing?

I have been dancing my whole life. I was born and raised in a small mining town in northern Ontario, in a world that didn’t accept me on many levels. That includes who queer people are, who dancers are, who boys that don’t play team sports are, who people that have mystical pursuits are.

It was a place where boys didn’t dance. In high school, I did social dancing, fifties dancing, dance contests. In the late 70s, that moved into disco dancing.

Basically, I was waiting till the day I could leave town. I couldn’t imagine leaving Canada, so I moved to our biggest and most cosmopolitian city, Montreal.

I started studying dance the day I got to Montreal. I started with contact improvisation and creative movement. I also studied modern dance, technical dance, for several years.

After three years in Montreal, I hitchhiked across the States doing street theatre, clowning, juggling, acrobatics and dance in support of student political campaigns (apartheid, anti-government cutbacks and tuition hikes) and the anti-nuclear movement. I came to California in 1982 like millions of others, batiqued clothing, backpack, no money — and have been here ever since. I studied dance intensively, sort of pre-professional training, from 1982 to 1985 with master teacher Lucas Hoving.

In 1985, we started Contraband under the direction of Sara Shelton Mann. Since that time, my main teacher has been my community. Contraband became a training lab for us and for anyone who came near us. Sara had more experience in dance than the other people. Lauren Elder was a master visual artist. We got a lot from them. But really we created a community combustion of training. That’s the same way contact improvisation is learned. You can take classes, and that helps, but you really learn by jamming. It’s a community form.

I feel that in most of my study — intellectual and political study, Pagan study, dance study — the real teacher is the community, that wisdom that constellates among a group of dedicated people.

RQ: Sexuality is a key theme of your art. What is the connection?

On a pure creative level, my artistic blossoming did not happen until a certain level of sexual liberation had happened, in my own mind, body and spirit. Whether it’s conscious or not, one of the primary results of sexual repression is that people close down their creative faculties. I’m a Wilhelm Reich devotee on this topic.

One of the core manifestations of sexual energy is the creative impulse. On a basic level, what it is to create sperm and egg, and to bring them together to create a child. This is one of the prime dynamics of the universe, not just biological, but energetic. When you bring together difference, you create new life. If you have a block in your sexual creativity, it will affect everything. I think that the free flow of erotic energy in the body is direct related to how healthy we are.

Any liberation movement has to have a component of sexual and gender liberation. One of the key ways that sex is repressed is by limiting the expression of gender.

If I were going to give a criticism of Reclaiming as a pro-feminist spirituality, it is that people get overly deterministic about women representing that which is female, feminine and Goddess. We need to infuse the whole culture with these elements that have been repressed. If there’s anything a liberation movement should do, it’s give support for people’s gender and sexual expression. Part of accessing your personal power is accessing your sexual power.

This is connected to how I see myself politically and spiritually, and to all the different ways that I come into my own voice, come into my own personal power, and co-create the world with other people.

RQ: What was the vision behind Contraband?

We didn’t start with a vision. Sara initially invited a few people to work with her. Sara’s spiritual studies fuel all her work. It’s incredibly esoteric to work with her. She was working with a spiritual teacher. So she would bring questions and exercises from that teacher to us and we would translate them into movement. We were translating esoteric research into dance and performance. We ended up making our first piece about love, called “Evol.”

I was interested in the street, in the public. The deal was, if the first piece was Sara’s dream, the second piece would come from others in the company. Lauren Elder and I had a history of doing street theatre and political work. Nina Hart and I were part of the anarchist scene. We had both done creative things in the empty pit at the corner of 16th and Valencia (in the Mission district of San Francisco, site of a fatal arson fire and a neighborhood eyesore for years).

So for the second piece, in 1986, we decided to work outdoors, not pay for space to rehearse or perform. We spent hundreds of hours cleaning the space. People painted on the site, changing billboards and painting huge murals. We broke the lock on the gate and replaced it with our own. We wouldn’t have done that if it weren’t for anarchists — experienced in non-violent yet creative direct action — who were involved in the project.

It was a six-month process to create the piece “Religare.” It’s a Latin word, the root word of “religion,” and means “to bind together.” The piece was based on the question, “Can we all sit in the same circle?”

“Religare” put us on the map as a spiritual and political company. All of the pieces after that continued to reflect these kinds of concerns. The group continued to alternate indoor and outdoor work. When we taught our summer workshop, we did trainings outdoors as well as indoors.

The work was always collaborative. Sara didn’t want to call the company a collective. I think that was due to some bad experiences in the 70s. I said, as long as we agreed that we worked collectively, I don’t care what we call it. As long as it worked in that spirit, I stayed with the group.

After about nine years, there were too many other things I wanted to do, and we split up.

RQ: Why public art? What are you trying to achieve by working outside traditional theaters?

Something like two percent of the population actually pays money and enters a theater in a given year. That figure is higher in a place like San Francisco, but it’s still very low.

It’s about people’s art, public art, free art.

The root of dancing, performing, is about playing a role in the imaginal realm of the entire population, not just in a tiny group. Dance and theater are not by nature elitist. But art gets told, “you only have value to the extent you can be sold.” The way to reverse that is to do things for free or for optional payment in public spaces.

In San Francisco, a huge amount of activity happens in public spaces — street fairs, murals, public rituals. There’s an excellent political community that hits the streets when it’s needed. The life of a city is about what happens in the streets, in public spaces. Artists can play a huge role in animating those public spaces with poetry and images.

I’m interested in expanding the political vocabulary. The language of a march or a political struggle is usually very limited. Artists can expand on that. Artists can ask questions. If you’re in a political protest, you don’t usually ask questions, you make a statement. Artists — and I use this in the widest possible sense, because I don’t distinguish my art activity from my spiritual practice — their job is to ask questions. The whole notion of “Question authority,” or “Question everything” — artists take that seriously. We question all kinds of things.

The imagination needs to be fed, like the stomach. I look for malnourishment and try to respond to it.

RQ: Not all public art is progressive. A church or patriotic procession, or professional sports, might serve reactionary ends. What is it that makes art progressive?

Once a year, in Marseilles, they take out this primitive sculpture of the Black Madonna. They dress her up in fabulous gilt clothing and a crown and carry her in the streets. Even though that’s the Catholic Church — the enemy of sexual and gender liberation all over the world — it is still a positive event. Whether it’s progressive, I don’t know. But it gets people out of the churches and into the street. In terms of diversity of cultures, I’ve got room for a procession like that.

It’s not that all public art is progressive. But if artists are already aligning themselves around political and social causes, they might as well get out in the street and reach more people. Public events that are open to all people have a different power and integrity than private events.

People are constantly looking for how to create new events that are not corporate. They are the events people really feel they can participate in. Above a certain scale, people lose the feeling that they can participate or impact an event. And if it’s big at all, corporations see its propaganda potential and want to buy it.

RQ: It seems like there is an implicit theory behind public art, that social change is going to come by changing the public’s consciousness, not by influencing elected leaders. How will your work affect the world?

In terms of creating new structures for how we cooperate and survive and thrive together, that can only come from working together. That is never going to be legislated.

I learned (via elected student government) that I was not meant to work within a political structure. It’s too limiting. Politicians at all levels become the red herring which distracts us from the rigid structures that they and we cannot impact by the current “democratic” system.

I’ve come to understand on a deeper level what anarchy could be, and what kind of organizational structures we could make where no one was out of control of what was important to them, and which were more participatory.

An important goal is to increase the level of participation in art and in civic life. The more people get involved in creative activities, the more they will want to create more than a dance or a painting or a ritual. Once people taste personal power, they want more. And that’s a beautiful thing.

There’s an important place for participatory events where the leadership is invisible. The Mud People actions which we staged for nearly 10 years in downtown San Francisco do that. So did Homohex public naked sex rituals that I created with Jack Davis and Jules Beckman every Halloween and Gay Day for six years. Over the years, hundreds of people participated by taking their clothes off and doing erotic energy ritual in the midst of thousands.

RQ: You’ve been to Witchcamp, done invocations at the Spiral Dance. Where do art and spirituality come together for you?

One of the ways that my art practice deepened by studying ritual was seeing that the history of art and ritual practices intertwined from the beginning of time — they are the same thing, they are central to each other. I’d had a similar opening as a political activist. There have always been artists who sided with the people’s struggles, revolution, who have seen art as a political tool. It has been a central practice throughout history, to create events that bring people together in solidarity, making community. That is an amazing art.

I spend a lot of time improvising, and I think that improvising is a deep practice, especially if you know what it is to do trance and to channel energy and information from the other worlds. In improvisation it becomes clear that I am not really the creator, that it’s about opening to a flow of communication and cellular-collective, super-unconscious, historic and personal memories.

I like to look at all performances I do as ritual. I consider the basic structures as I’ve learned them: how do you make invocations, how do you cast a circle, ground, or cleanse, how do you close the event.

What it is to stand on a stage and perform with integrity and with that intention is to momentarily inhabit the center, where all things happen in all time. Some people feel that a proscenium (stage) performance is not a real circle. Michael Meade has helped me to see that when a person is teaching or performing in front of an audience, the ancestors are present, and that they complete the circle. It extends into history. If you pay respect to the history of the form the ancestors will show up to bless the event.

Creating art as a spiritual practice is a lot about ancestor work, and in a way, about paying your dues. Sometimes that has to do with quality. Robert Bly had this amazing way of saying “I’m going to stand up for the craft (of poetry), even if that means I harshly criticize you, and you find that insulting.”

RQ: What is the role of the performer, the “expert”?

(Public sporting events and other spectacles) set up specific rules about how everything should be consumed, how there should only be experts who do, and everyone else should watch. It’s not an empowered audience, or an intentional community audience. It’s not a power-with situation (for the audience). It’s tricky. I want to find ways to honor expertise and genius. Yet I think we have to break down specialization, and pull the curtains aside on what expertise and genius are.

The new organization we want to create, Counterpulse — the first line of our value statement is that we are here to cultivate the genius in everyone. It’s something that we all have. It’s the root of “genuine.”

For more information on Counterpulse and on current events at 848 Community Space, contact, (415) 922-2385, or visit

Keith Hennessy has danced and performed at Bay Area political and cultural events for almost 20 years. He co-founded and danced with the acclaimed Contraband company from 1985-1994, with CORE from 1994-1998. He currently performs with Cie. Cahin-Caha, cirque bâtard, a hybrid circus based in France. He has also created numerous solo and ensemble performances for all kinds of venues including street protests, high schools, community art spaces and international gay and lesbian festivals.

He presently co-directs 848 Community Space, a vibrant dance and performance space in central San Francisco, and is collaborating with local activists on a new vision of an independent radical cultural space: “Counterpulse — a San Francisco Center for Cultural Experimentation.”

Keith has been involved in Reclaiming and the San Francisco anarchist community since the mid-1980s. RQ caught up with him between meetings and rehearsals at 848 Space to talk about art, magic and activism.