Limited Edition Call and Response: Keith Hennessy + Pelican

by Keith Hennessy, January 2018

Archival footage of Robert Rauschenberg in a performance of Pelican, which was first carried out in Washington, DC, on May 9, 1963. Pelican features original choreography and original music by the artist himself.

Editors Note

On the occasion of the exhibition Robert Rauschenberg: Erasing the Rules, and the performance program Limited Edition, Projects + Perspectives and Open Space invited artists Alex Escalante, Keith Hennessy, and Leyya Tawil to offer their thoughts on three iconic dance works included in the Rauschenberg show — and to link these works to three contemporary pieces. On P+P you’ll find Merce Cunningham’s Antic Meet, Trisha Brown’s Glacial Decoy, and Robert Rauschenberg’s Pelican, and on Open Space you’ll find robbinschilds’ Sonya and Layla Go Camping, Skywatchers’ I Got a Truth to Tell, and a collaboration between Mohamad Bayoumi, Michael Ibrahim, and Mohannad Ghawanmeh.

by Keith Hennessey

Pelican. A dance featuring Robert Rauschenberg, Carolyn Brown, and Per Olof Ultvedt. Two men wearing roller skates. A woman wearing toe shoes. The men in pants. The woman in leotard and tights. On the men’s backs, a large circular wing. Evoking arte povera, steampunk, Bauhaus, and Bucky Fuller, the wings intentionally reference the Wright brothers and indeed they appear to take flight. The skaters circling, a pas de trois with woman at center. Her body, and presence, the anchor. After she folds herself to the floor, the men skate off, curving playfully. Hillman might read a narrative of puers,1 of Peter Pan inventors tethered to the earth by the dancer, a woman who despite stereotypes and bound feet is the only one of the three actually trained to fly. My eyes are closed as I type in bed at 5 a.m. after rewatching Tom Cruise in _______, circling around a woman he doesn’t understand, continually underestimating. She saves his life anyway, repeatedly. Like other iconic and canonized dance-performances from the Black Mountain2 and Judson3 heydays, Pelican is experienced only partially, via digitized copies of short films or early video formats. I watch on my personalized screen, first in my office, later at the dining room table, and finally in bed. The sound score by Rauschenberg that accompanies these partial documents is likely to be an imprecise archive. Simultaneously the work erodes and reforms over time. The monetization of dances and dancers has never kept pace with the visual art market so it’s curious to follow not only the names and social networks from which a work emerges and is re-membered but the money and the fame it produces. Someone(s) in the Judson dance gang had an idea to stage an experimental dance concert in a DC roller skating rink. Pelican was Bob’s response. He had already been working with or alongside Carolyn in the company of Merce (and John) for ten years. The Judson moment — a shifting collective of people, tactics, and choreographies — would soon pass and yet somehow never die.


  1. James Hillman, Jungian, and archetypal psychologist, author of the essay “Senex and Puer,” and editor of Puer Papers (both 1979). Puer, as in puer aeternus, the eternal boy, a mythological figure and a psychological archetype for Hillman and other Jungians. Hillman’s reading of the puer is more complicated and ambivalent than the pop psychological reading of Peter Pan Syndrome, referring to men who refuse to “grow up” and generally depend on women to hold their kite string.
  2. Black Mountain College: an experimental college founded near Asheville in 1933, recognized for pioneering interdisciplinary art experiments by Josef & Anni Albers, John Cage & Merce Cunningham, Robert Rauschenberg, Elaine de Kooning, and Buckminster Fuller, among many others.
  3. Judson Dance Theater: a loose collective of “post-modern” dance and performance makers who staged a series of concerts in New York, 1962-64, initially inspired by the composition practices of Robert Dunn and John Cage among other cross-disciplinary influences of the early ’60s (experimental theater, happenings, installation, dance by non-dancers, antiwar activism, feminism…).