Reflecting a Life in Dance: An Interview with Keith Hennessy and Sara Shelton Mann | By Marie Tollon

Two years ago, several iconic figures of the Bay Area’s dance community were invited to talk about the inner makings of their craft, lineage and legacy during a panel discussion entitled Carried in the Body: Dance Legacies Lost and Found, curated by choreographer Amara Tabor-Smith. Among the panelists was Sara Shelton Mann, founder and director of Contraband, who shared stories about her early training in New York, the creation of Contraband and the practices involved in her work.

Sara Shelton Mann Photo by Robbie Sweeny

Sara Shelton Mann
Photo by Robbie Sweeny

Sara (the smuggler), performed at CounterPulse this week, gives Mann another opportunity to activate memory and revisit the stories that live within her body, this time through movements and spoken words, in a solo directed by Keith Hennessy. Hennessy and Mann share a long history of collaboration and friendship: Hennessy was part of Contraband from 1985 to 1994 and credits Mann as a continuing influence on his work.

Sara (the smuggler) represents the first time Mann has ever been directed, and is inspired by Growing Up in Public, choreographed by Remy Charlip for Lucas Hoving in 1984. Based on a series of interviews that Charlip did with Hoving and performed by the latter when he was 73, Growing Up in Public interweaves text and movements, and juxtaposes the personal and the public. Another interview-based autobiographical solo, Jérôme Bel’s Véronique Doisneau (2004), also served as a source of inspiration for Sara (the smuggler).

I sat down last week with Hennessy and Mann to talk about history, lineage and the making of Sara (the smuggler).

Marie Tollon: You borrowed choreographic structures from Growing Up In Public and Véronique Doisneau. How did you use these structures in your process?

Keith Hennessy: With Growing Up in Public it’s very specific. I took the initial interview that Remy Charlip made for Lucas Hoving and I adapted that interview specifically to Sara. Forty to fifty percent of the text of the performance is going to come directly from that first interview. Also, we have a really intimate relationship with that piece: not just with Lucas who is my former teacher and Remy who collaborated with each of us, but we also have permission from Remy’s heirs to use the piece.

In rehearsal, we don’t ever work with the structure of Véronique Doisneau but it’s a piece that I carry with me as a big influence. What I found interesting about it was the way that Jérôme tried to take the stories that we’ve sort of forgotten or that are not so visible and bring those to the front. Also [there is] the notion of how to reflect a life in dance through an autobiographical interview-based solo. That’s where there are mutual resonances with all these pieces. In that way it echoes Growing Up in Public, but instead of taking the central figure, it’s taking the invisible figure. I feel that telling a dance history from the West Coast is that we are always playing with these visible and very invisible kinds of character.

MT: Keith, you performed with Contraband from 1985 to 1994. What elements were revealed from reversing the dancer-to-choreographer relationship between Sara and yourself in this piece?

Sara Shelton Mann (right)  and Keith Hennessy (center) in Contraband's Mira Cycle I (1990)

Sara Shelton Mann (right)
and Keith Hennessy (center) in
Contraband’s Mira Cycle I (1990)

KH: From the very beginning [in Contraband], we didn’t have a traditional choreographer/dancer relationship. We definitely had a big difference in age and experience, and even confidence about what was possible. At the same time, we just brought really different material to the table and worked shoulder-to-shoulder and eye-to-eye from the very beginning, within the dance company structure of Sara as the choreographer. It was true of everyone collaborating with Sara. Often we called ourselves the “prime members of the company,” or the “key collaborators:” we were always trying to find the right language to say that we weren’t the “dancers” of a piece. But for sure there is a big role reversal because there is a mixture of playwriting and structure building and I’m definitely the person doing it. Sara has a lot of input, but there’s no competition between us, and Sara is not trying to structure the piece.

SSM: And I’m not trying to have a big ego about it, or look really great or prove a point. It’s really beautiful. I’m very touched and very grateful. And I get a chance to play!

MT: Sara (the smuggler) is a piece with a multitude of references and histories. There’s your relationship to Sara but also to Hoving and Charlip, in addition to Sara’s own lineage. How do you navigate these different threads?

KH: I’m thinking about how history is made and what lineage is in a very complex way, not just in a single line. That came up today in the piece: “Should we tell the story chronologically?” And Norman [Rutherford], who is composing, was recognizing that in general the texts are chronological. But I was pointing out to him how I am putting dances and images in, from other works, in non-chronological ways; also in ways that almost cheat history: you think I am talking about this era but it’s actually coming from that other era. So I’m working both with linear time and another type of time that is non-linear. Sometimes I think of the spiral as a structure of time. There are some themes that we are finding: Sara’s relationship to emptiness versus chaos for example. That becomes a theme that cycles through personal life and professional life multiple times. That’s just one way I am thinking about history not as a linear project but as a continual revisiting or recycling of.

Otherwise it’s not that complicated because time did really unfold: Sara really did dance in New York in the 60s, here and there in the 70s and in the 80s we started this company. So things have a chronology. And I also had a series of teachers and experiences in my life. Our timelines are also playing with each other in the making of the piece. Sometimes, I will go: “this is what Sara would do if she was making this piece.” And other times I’m using devices that I would use on myself. What I’m doing is based on my last piece but that didn’t come from nowhere. That came from what I did with Sara, and before that with Lucas, and before that something else.

MT: You said that working with Sara and Contraband was a “radical experience that continues to influence your work.” How so?

KH: Today what was coming up was asking Sara about Contraband and her saying that one of the things that happened was not just to realize but to even prove that your body, your intuition and your story could have a place in the world. And that a group of people coming together, with their most essential truths, alive in space, dedicated to a precise moment, could create some kind of resonance that would ripple in the world. That’s a paraphrase of Sara. And I think that we’ve all had a version of that experience in Contraband. And I think many of us have, since Contraband, done things to either revisit that moment or to critique that moment, both to tear it apart and to rebuild it. But I have definitely done some work that thinks about community and the tribe in a way that is reminiscent of Contraband.

Another piece to that was that with Sara there was always a permission not to be defined by genre or discipline, and I already had that tendency in my early twenties but Contraband just fully asserted that. I’ve always assumed that the artist could do whatever they want and I continue to do that.

SSM: I work with the premise that the person is the transformative agent. You transform yourself in a space in a situation. You have that power and you have that responsibility. In that way we were very interdisciplinary. I had a relationship with every single person and we all had a relationship to the work and the work was a prayer, it was the seed. How that seeds sprouts and grows and turns into a flower or a tree or a garden depends on people’s skills, what they water, what they pay attention to.

But I want to come back to something, because I work with titles, they are a prayer to me and they have meaning. It is something that I haven’t addressed directly with Keith so it occurs to me that Sara (the smuggler) being the title, I wonder how these parts come together. What are the secrets that are being told, and those that are not being told? Because I used to say that my job was to smuggle human essence into the theater, to make a house for the divine. The more you do a piece, its energetic structure starts to appear and you can step into it because all the work of improvisation is never lost. All that information is sitting up in space.

MT: This work exposes the body as a living archive, which somehow operates as a counterforce to the ephemerality of dance as an art form. This piece also seems all the more poignant at this particular moment in the history of San Francisco because of the drastic changes the city has undergone in the last few years. Could you speak about that?

KH: What we are doing as a performance is staging the remembrance, staging the memory. Yes, if you were there for some of the performances that I mention, you will have some of your own triggers. If you weren’t, you won’t be getting the piece, what you will be getting is watching someone remembering them, both in the body and in language.

In terms of how to talk about the city, I think what’s going on is horrifying. It’s painful and it’s also unnecessary, which makes it all the more violent. The idea that certain changes must come, I don’t accept that. At the same time, I’m in my fifties, Sara is in her early seventies. We would be remembering our thirties as a different era anyway. No one can go back to being 25, 35, or 45 again. And any city that you lived 20 years ago is not the same city. There is that layer about just remembering.

But it’s clear that San Francisco had something in the 80s and early 90s. There really was a kind of moment. I think many things contributed to that. Economics of the situation would be one. It’s also important to remember that the people who were here in the 70s felt that they had already lost what they had, by the election of Reagan as president in 1981, and after the death of Harvey Milk and George Moscone in 1978. There was something happening in the 70s where rents were really cheap and there were many social programs for artists that didn’t continue onto the 80s. Many of the collectives that were part of a nation-wide phenomenon of dance collectives had disbanded within the first couple years of the 80s. The moment that we talk about as the sort of golden era of Contraband, from 1985 to 1995, is definitely a very special moment in the city. For some of us, that’s a moment that is also heavily marked by the AIDS crisis because protease inhibitors don’t get developed until mid-1995, early 1996. The politics of dance were very much caught up in what was happening in both feminist and gay cultures, and how those overlapped with dance.

There is a city that we had that we no longer have and some of that change is just that we got older, and some of it is just voracious, predatory, vampiric capitalism that has conspired with the government to change the city.

MT: Sara, is there anything else you would like to add?

SSM: I have an image, this big blue ribbon. That’s the figure 8, the infinity symbol, it’s a weaving and a return of a promise, and a prayer, and for me it’s a gift. It’s bringing together so many pieces, so many people, and so many relationships into a kind of balance in a certain way. And Keith is the only who could have done it… and he is the only I would let do it!

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