how the seldoms turn lbj into multimedia dance theater: power goes @ mca chicago, 20-29 march 2015.
Yesterday is not ours to recover, but tomorrow is ours to win or to lose.
—Lyndon Johnson, Thanksgiving 1963
I was trained as a historian, so one of the pleasures of serving as dramaturg for The Seldoms and their talented collaborators is to witness how they draw upon historical source material to create total environment, multimedia dance theater that addresses pressing social issues of today.
The ensemble’s new work, Power Goes, uses Lyndon Baines Johnson and his tumultuous time as president in the 1960s as a starting point to explore the relationship between power and social change. Gestures, movements, stances, and abstracted postures from the past inform Artistic Director Carrie Hanson’s choreography, which is at the core of the piece. This method also extends as well to costumes created by Jeff Hancock, the artwork of Sarah Krepp, and the lighting designs of Julie Ballard, but it is most apparent in the multimedia accompaniment created by video designers Bob Faust and his animation and technology partner Liviu Pasare, sound designer Mikhail Fiksel, and playwright Stuart Flack.
Faust and Pasare, Fiksel, and Flack begin, respectively, with photographs, audio recordings, and texts of speeches from Johnson’s time. These become springboards for setting the tone and context that surround the central dance elements of Power Goes.
Taking a closer look at (and giving a closer listen to) the ways the collaborators moved from historical artifacts to theatrical creations reveals how collaborative dance theater develops through interactions among different artists, each adopting a similar approach to a topic, but using different forms of expression to do so. They bring past and present into heightened interaction, unloosening history from sepia-tinged nostalgia and, simultaneously, reminding us that we act today under the influence of what has come before us. It is in this way, among others, that power goes in Power Goes.
The Johnson Treatment
Bob Faust works as a multifaceted designer for both commercial enterprises, museums, and artists. His videography for Power Goes, created in collaboration with Liviu Pasare, begins with iconic photographs of Johnson, a famously fierce politician, at his most fearsome.
Drawing upon the oozing styles of 1960s psychedelic light shows, Faust and Pasare turned these photos into animated assemblages.
The Johnson Treatment appears near the beginning of Power Goes. It features longtime member of The Seldoms Christina Gonzalez-Gillett merging gestures from Johnson with a rather surreal dialogue about haircuts. The projection is shown against a backdrop of chairs that figure importantly later in the work. It makes for a strange, disorienting display of power: all at once she holds the spotlight but is overwhelmed by the media surrounding her. She throws her fist down and points to the sky. She sizes the crowd up before her, but in turn stands exposed before them. To my eyes, there is a kind of tug of war between dancer in the present and almost-ghostly photographs from the past. She seizes history and wields power, but there are moments too when history and power seem to wield her as their instrument.
If Faust and Pasare bring out the public persona of Johnson as pugnacious politician, then one example of the sound design for Power Goes by Mikhail Fiksel demonstrates the softer dimensions of how a figure such as LBJ wielded power: as a master storyteller.
Fiksel, who works both in theater and as a DJ, blends together archival recordings of Johnson telling tales—a more informal but essential dimension of how power works—into a sonic evocation of the power of the voice of LBJ as a narrator. His focus is less on the content of Johnson’s stories than the way in which Johnson disarmed listeners through the quality of his speaking, how he performed stories in service of wielding power. Listening to Fiskel’s treatments of LBJ’s storytelling recordings, we begin to understand that the President was not only the brusque, crude, intimidating leader, but also a caster of spells, a speaker who could exert control over audiences through enchantment.
Using the “raw” historical material of audio recordings that document Johnson telling stories, Fiksel produces a tone poem that is less about the content of Johnson’s storytelling than the mesmerizing timing and rhythm of his pacing, the skillful ways he uses timbre, intonation, volume, and pitch, the ways in which he is able to seize control and overwhelm at a sensorial rather than a semantic level.
Inspired by composers such as Steve Reich, he quite literally turned the cadence of Johnson’s voice into melodic guitar lines. An original Johnson recording
Here are other examples of voice
Overall, the combination of sound design and dance movement conveys how power works through whispers as well as screams. The Johnson Treatment, it turns out, was about far more than just aggressive bullying; it could work at more soothing, charming, and bewitching frequencies as well.
The Presidential Past and Present in Dialogue
Playwright Stuart Flack contributes original dialogue spoken by the dancers in Power Goes. At key moments, he also collages historical materials of spoken word from the past into scripted accompaniment to the dance movement on stage. One of the most startlingly scenes in which he does this is a dialogue between Johnson and Barack Obama taken entirely from speeches made by the two presidents: Johnson’s famous 1965 “We Shall Overcome” speech (sometimes called “The American Promise” speech) in the aftermath of the civil rights march on Selma, Alabama, and Obama’s 2008 “More Perfect Union” address on race that he delivered in the aftermath of the publicity over his former pastor Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s controversial remarks.
LBJ’s speech is by a sitting president. He is responding to the grassroots pressure of civil rights protesters and the violent backlash against them. Obama’s is by a presidential candidate. He transforms a seeming scandal and liability into enormous political capital. Both are about the role of race in American life, both historically and in the moment the addresses were delivered. Flack skillfully uses collage to bring out where the two speeches—and the men who delivered them—converge and diverge, how they share certain kinds of charismatic forces as public speakers and also, crucially, where they wield power differently.
Here is Flack’s script:
Mikhail Fiksel then created a sound design from the speech excerpts that Flack compiled, chopped up, and rearranged into a new sequence.
Then, Fiksel refined the sound design, tweaking the volume levels, timing, and pacing. The interplay of spoken word and music and other sound elements becomes a structure within which history and the present intersect.
Finally, Bob Faust added a typographically driven video treatment for the section, highlighting the key words in the speeches by giving them a large visual presence. The letters join the dance too.
“Tomorrow Is Ours To Win Or To Lose”
In Power Goes, The Seldoms and their collaborators use the past to reorient us to the present, in service of the future. They move history from the archives to the stage, from static source materials to something new. The transmogrification of historical artifacts into live theatrical action creates an ardency and an immediacy. It brings history to a boil. It generates an immersive space where bodies and media dance with each other, in time. Something is happening here. Or as Johnson himself put it in 1963, speaking as the leader of a nation shocked by the assassination of John F. Kennedy, “Yesterday is not ours to recover, but tomorrow is ours to win or to lose.”
X-posted from MCA DNA, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago’s blog.
- How To Get Power: program notes—the seldoms dance with lbj, civil rights, the 60s, and now @ mca chicago, 20-29 March 2015
- Dance and Intellectual History: considering the body of thought—on the seldoms, power goes @ mca chicago, 20-29 March 2015
- Contemporary Dance as Public History: the seldoms bring lbj and the 1960s into the present in their investigation of how Power Goes