A line of four dancers leaning on each other to the left. They are in pink and purple tops and wearing light-colored trousers or presenting bare legs. The background is a lacy wall with rectangular cutouts.
The Seldoms Credit: Andrew Glatt

On September 24, Toolbox @ Twenty opens at the Hyde Park Art Center (HPAC) to celebrate the Seldoms’ 20th anniversary with an exhibition and performances in a large-scale experiment in collaboration among dancers, visual artists, and the alternative visual arts exhibition space. Curated by the Seldoms’ founding artistic/executive director Carrie Hanson in collaboration with HPAC director of exhibitions and residency Allison Peters Quinn, Toolbox @ Twenty pairs Hanson with multidisciplinary artist Edra Soto, Damon Green with sound artist Sadie Woods, Maggie Vannucci with painter Jackie Kazarian, and Sarah Gonsiorowski with fiber artist Jacqueline Surdell to create new works. Over the course of six weeks, the Seldoms will offer six free live performances, followed by conversations with the artists. 

Toolbox @ Twenty
9/24-11/13: Mon-Thu 10 AM-7 PM, Fri 10 AM-4:30 PM, Sat 10 AM-4 PM, Sun 10 AM-1:30 PM; performances Sat 9/24 1:30 and 3 PM, Thu 10/6, 10/20, and 11/3 6 PM, Sat 10/15 1 PM, Hyde Park Art Center, 5020 S. Cornell, 773-324-5520, hydeparkart.org, theseldoms.org, free

The Seldoms was founded in 2001 by Hanson, choreographer Susan Hoffman, and visual and performance artist Doug Stapleton. “The Seldoms name, we found it in a book of photography about bodies,” recalls Hanson. “The original Seldoms did tableau vivant-style performance in the 1800s in London—we just liked the name.” Under Hanson’s direction after the first two years, the Seldoms has retained an interdisciplinary focus, occasionally still in collaboration with Stapleton, who helped facilitate the first Toolbox, which launched in Glasgow in 2017

Visual art is “in the DNA of what we do,” says Hanson. “It’s not usually the starting point, but we’ve always paid attention to set design and to the extension of the idea through video and animation. One of my favorite projects, Marchland [2010], came out of working with artist Fraser Taylor. He’s in Glasgow now, but taught at SAIC. He collaborated with a video artist and made marks directly onto film. I responded to Fraser’s piece and his practice of markmaking. Bob Faust has worked with us on just about every project since Power Goes [2014]. For Rockcitizen [2016], my piece about the 1960s, I was thinking I wanted something psychedelic that changes form and shape-shifts. He started thinking about stretchy materials, and he was like, ‘What about bras?’ So we had somebody sew together 208 bras to create what he called ‘the brascape!’”

Hanson turned to Toolbox as a means to reinvigorate her own creative process. “I’d already been choreographing a long time, feeling stale and knowing that I work with a formula,” she says. “So what can we do to disrupt that?” She developed a method that starts with a conversation about process with a visual artist. Together, they decide on a single word, usually a verb, to describe the process. Using this word as a “tool” or prompt, the dancemaker then creates new movement. 

“The outcome is less important than the dialogue,” says Hanson, who has taught the method in her composition courses at Columbia College and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where the students expanded the process to include any kind of practitioner. “One of my students interviewed a PhD student in ethnomusicology who was in Mongolia working with sheepherders. The sheepherders sing to their sheep. So this got translated into something the dancers could do together: people are paired up, one is vocalizing or generating sound, knocking your fist against the floor, snapping, rubbing your hand on your knee or whatever, and the person listening is improvising and moving. It gets you thinking in a different way.”

While primarily used to spark new ways of devising movement, the tools they have found sometimes find their way into finished choreography for the Seldoms. “We’ve used ‘lift’ quite often,” says Hanson. “‘Lift’ came from Fraser Taylor. He does prints: he paints a surface, then puts down a piece of paper and presses it, then lifts it off the plate. You can do multiple prints, and the paint becomes lighter and lighter. A lift—in our translation—you have to do two things: you have to reverse it (if the ‘plate’ starts on the right side of the body, you do it on the left side), and you do it repeated times—and every time you do it, it diminishes a little bit. In a way, some of these tools have quite strict rules to them! 

“When we first started this in Glasgow with five artists, trying to translate, it was very heady. I was not only wanting to invigorate my practice but also thinking about evidence. I’m guilty about it like anyone else. But when the choreographer says, ‘This dance is about this,’ and you’re looking at it, like, ‘I don’t see that. I see you’ve given it a title, a costume, some sound elements, all these supporting things that tell me more that it’s about the topic, but I don’t see it in the movement.’ I want to push movement to be as explicit and carry as much content as it can, so the choreographers aren’t always relying on spoken word or set or surrounding environment to give the movement meaning.”

For Toolbox @ Twenty, Hanson worked with Quinn to select the four visual artists, three of whom have collaborated with the Seldoms in the past and all of whom have exhibited work at HPAC. “I had been to the first collaboration with Fraser Taylor, an artist we showed in the past,” says Quinn. “I remember being blown away that the dancers integrated the artist’s work into their movements. I was interested in how that process worked. It felt like a new way to think about creative collaboration where both people have agency. [In Toolbox], the dancers are not responding directly to the work you’re seeing; they’re responding to the gestures and process of the artist. The first time dancers will see the work is next week when they do a rehearsal in the space for the performance. It’s crazy but so exciting!”

Toolbox has also created an opportunity for HPAC to reconceive curation, their exhibition space, and the parameters of collaboration. “With this project we’ve made it so there’s a generous amount of room in the gallery to make room for bodies and to make distinct shifts between the pieces,” says Quinn. “This is not a group show where we’re talking about a theme or something consistent in everybody’s work—everybody’s work is so different!”

Looking back on 20 years of the Seldoms, Hanson says, “I feel both fortunate and responsible for this house that I’ve built, where people can come in and assemble, and we invite different people in at different times to spend some time. I like that our creative processes are a year or two years. I feel good that the ensemble members, even those who have left, have been like a family. I feel loyal when I find collaborators that I want to work with. I feel this combination of fortune, responsibility, and gratitude. It really is about collaboration. It’s about these other artists I’ve been lucky to work with.”

2022 Fall Theater & Arts Preview

A fall edition

A note from the Reader’s culture editor who focuses on film, media, food, and drink on our Fall Theater & Arts Preview issue.