The Seldoms: Power Goes
October 20, 2014 • 5 minute read
by Carrie Hanson, Artistic Director of The Seldoms From the outset, the prospect of making a new piece of dance theater drawing upon the figure of Lyndon Baines Johnson – and what we learn from him about power and its operations – was daunting to the artistic team and perhaps puzzling to the presenters we approached. Fortunately we had a history with the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago’s (MCA) performance team, having premiered Marchland there in 2010. We built upon that existing relationship and record of work as we described our inquiry and inspiration, and invited them to support and present Power Goes. The project was The Seldoms’ first collaboration with a playwright, Stuart Flack, as well as his first devised project and effort outside of a more traditional theater scene, thus it came with some new challenges and risks. The large group of collaborators included both veterans and new voices in our midst; that too meant navigating a robust, extensive, and sometimes uneven, conversation about the central thrust of Power Goes and how we would get there. In the MCA’s performance team, Peter Taub and Yolanda Cesta Cursach, we have two very knowledgeable, invested and accessible presenters/guides. They have partnered with us at every stage of development of Power Goes — as responders to work-in-progress, as provocateurs posing critical questions, as partners in seeking and securing funding support, including acting as lead commissioner for a Creation Fund and guiding us through our first NPN award and, later, the Forth Fund opportunity of a design residency. We recently concluded our Forth Fund-supported design residency at the MCA Chicago. At eight days long, it was the single most productive and illuminating period in Power Goes’ extended two-year process. The experience of being in the theater without the urgency or weight of a premiere at week’s end is too rare in the dance world, and yet essential in the creation of multidisciplinary work. Power Goes, as a piece that references the 1950s-60s and the LBJ presidency, relies heavily on historic photos and audio recordings to situate the physical and spoken material; the whole of video and sound design plays an essential role. (Johnson’s imposing physicality and one-on-one arm-twisting phone conversations were instruments of power in his arsenal, and thus are key players in our exposition of power.) In addition to video projection, the scenography features an immense installation — a rigged structure of 75 chairs on the stage’s back wall, a metaphor for the body politic, the citizenry or alternately, the U.S. Congress. The whole visual and sonic environment of Power Goes is dense and operates as a sort of space/time capsule that contextualizes action occurring within it — an envelope for the various encounters, shows of force, acts of persuasion between players. The Forth Fund residency afforded an important opportunity to both define the technical aspects of this visually complex show, and understand the various meanings and readings of the images and installation. In residency, the entire team of designers — choreography, performance, sound, video, lighting, text — was watching, responding and modifying in the room with one another, in the moment. The contribution of each artist was layered upon the others, sometimes in successful interplay, at other times working against each other, and often needing subtle tuning and refining. Within the mix, new meanings emerged, and new openings and opportunities became apparent. We saw where we needed to supplement, or pare away and simplify, or go a different course altogether. And importantly, for a 75-minute work, we began to feel the arc of Power Goes. A design residency affords two crucial opportunities: the venue and technology to test interaction of body, voice, visual and audio content, and shared space and time for artists to witness immediately and directly the whole of what is being made, well in advance of a premiere. During our week at the MCA, the process of building Power Goes was elevated, and the process of deepening the work began. For the collaborating artists, that intense, sustained time together also solidified our mode of working together, which as mentioned above, has been a robust space and practice of multiple voices. Our design residency concluded with an open public showing of Power Goes excerpts, followed by an artist/audience conversation. We had a terrific audience of over 100 people, and it was perhaps the best talk-back experience that The Seldoms has had in twelve years. Within the thoughtful, generous audience comments, there was evidence of strong engagement with the topic, with our material, and the continued development of Power Goes. The session helped to focus our attention back to some of our earliest intentions for the piece, which needed to be recovered. The Forth Fund, in tandem with the tremendous support of the Creation Fund award, has advanced the full multidisciplinary expression of Power Goes. These kinds of resources and opportunities fuel performance work that — benefiting from extensive planning, sufficient funding, the partnership of presenter and artist, access to venue and technology — surpasses the artists’ own expectations as a platform is set to go beyond initial visions for a work, and to experiment, make and remake, question, assess and re-assemble. The entire team of Power Goes artists, numbering sixteen, understood what a unique opportunity we enjoyed during the week on the MCA Stage, and we pressed the edges of each day’s schedule to work as much material as possible and maximize our gains from our NPN-supported residency. A last word about the “power” of the Creation Fund and companion Forth Fund awards, as they have expanded both the creation and profile of this project: In making our final application for National Dance Project (NDP) funding (which we ultimately were awarded for our first time), we were able to name the National Performance Network support as a strength of the Power Goes project. That we were able to cite this evidence of recognition and momentum in our appeal to NDP certainly played in favor of Power Goes as a viable artistic project worthy of that prestigious national award. For more about Power Goes: http://theseldoms.org/events/ photos courtesy of The Seldoms The Creation Fund is supported by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, Ford Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. The Forth Fund is made possible by Mellon Foundation.