The Seldoms are no strangers to political themes: Stupormarket (2011) explored the nation’s economic crisis, Exit Disclaimer (2012) focused on the debate surrounding climate change, and Monument, a 2008 work revived in 2013, took on consumerism and the environment. What’s different this time around is the contemporary dance company’s specificity. Instead of tackling a broad subject, with Power Goes artistic director Carrie Hanson and her company zero in on one political target—Lyndon B. Johnson.
After reading Robert Caro’s multivolume biography of LBJ, Hanson decided to use this evening-length piece to explore how he wielded his power to advance his landmark legislation, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Social Security Act of 1965, which established Medicare. But Power Goes also uses our 36th president as a lens for examining the ways all people exert—or in some cases forfeit—their strength. And while it employs video, audio clips, and a dangerously stacked tower of chairs, all this seems unnecessary once the group starts dancing. How better to represent a power struggle than to physically embody one?
Just this point is made in a simple opening number that, straying briefly from the world of politics, follows two girls talking about what we gals are supposedly always gabbing about—hair. “I love your hair,” the first girl says, circling the second, and what starts as a friendly conversation with the two dancing in unison quickly devolves into a show of dominance. “I love your hair,” the first girl says again, this time through gritted teeth as she grabs the second girl’s long ponytail and uses it to lead her in a violent dance. The physical struggle between the two is a jarring and effective metaphor for power, expertly executed.
The show is a huge collaborative endeavor: playwright Stuart Flack helped create the work along with Hanson and her dancers, and visual artist Sarah Krepp and designer Bob Faust, among others, are behind the stunning multimedia presentation. But the Seldoms’ strength is such that, all the flashy layers notwithstanding, I still walked away remembering the dancers’ quietest moments.
Later on in the performance the set is empty except for a single dancer wearing a blazer backward. She’s as trapped by it as she would be by a straitjacket, and as she struggles to put the suit coat the right way around, forcefully throwing herself across the stage, her frantic efforts can be read as showing one caught up in a power trip—or as representing the desperation of the powerless.
There are plenty of direct references to LBJ; in one scene, dancers quote him while leaning in close to one another and pointing sharply. There’s even a recording of him having an intimate conversation with his tailor, played as the group dances while adjusting their pants to his dictates. In another scene, audio clips from Johnson’s speeches alternate with clips from Barack Obama’s, revealing a slightly surprising number of similarities between the two presidents, from their views of civil rights to their visions of the country’s future.
Johnson’s the sole and central character, yet moments that didn’t directly involve him were often the ones I found most compelling. The Seldoms’ ambition, emotional dedication, and creatively tackled subject matter contribute to making them one of the most interesting and important dance troupes in the city. But a big part of the group’s charm remains the personalities of the individual dancers—and the dancing itself.