December 23, 2015
By Laura Molzahn
Politics and dance make strange bedfellows. Issue-oriented dance is generally either too oblique, burying the politics, or too overt, becoming preachy and unconvincing, except to the choir.
Balancing these two extremes, choreographer Carrie Hanson makes politically oriented pieces so passionate yet nuanced it can be difficult to say what her views are. Besides, her views aren’t the point. Instead, she takes hard-hitting looks at charged issues from as many perspectives as possible — and in the process creates some of the liveliest, most entertaining dance theater around.
“I don’t set out to make political works,” Hanson says, though she adds with her usual precision, “I have
come to that. I don’t call myself an activist, but I certainly want to activate people, maybe clarify their thinking.”
A fixture on Chicago’s scene for more than two decades, Hanson, 47, is an inventive, celebrated mover and choreographer who in 2001 founded her well-regarded company, The Seldoms. Brawny, brainy movement drives her work. But a few years ago, she says she began using dance “to chase after knowledge” regarding hot-button issues: the economy in “Stupormarket” (2011), the environment in “Exit Disclaimer” (2012), political muscle in the award-winning “Power Goes” (2015), which focused on former President Lyndon B. Johnson.
These days, Hanson is thinking about the relationship between dance and democracy: Both must be embodied over and over again. “Dance disappears as soon as it’s happening,” she says, and democracy also demands “constant reactivation by participants who are engaged, informed, educated — giving voice, embodiment, to it.”
Hanson notes that our “increasingly volatile” political moment permeates our lives — even the classes she offers at the Dance Center of Columbia College. Teaching its diverse student population the morning after the Laquan McDonald video was released, Hanson abandoned her usual “hardcore” technique exercises, she says, in favor of a simple, contact-based experiment. The students paired up, and while one lay facedown on the floor, the other rolled up and down that person’s body.
“You have to fully give that other person your weight,” Hanson says. “So it’s very intimate. It was so quiet in the room and I just felt everyone appreciated it. It seemed important to say that the work we’re doing, that they’re doing, of cultivating an increased awareness of body — of both the uniqueness of each person’s body and also the essential thing of all our bodies — that that’s an important counter to the violence.”
While touring “Power Goes” at universities and colleges nationally, The Seldoms have given workshops to students (who also perform in the piece) from widely different socioeconomic backgrounds. And in each place, Hanson says, “we asked them to talk about how they define patriotism, whether they feel patriotic, what it means to be a citizen.”
“RockCitizen,” set to debut in May at the Storefront Theater, ponders those questions and, like “Power Goes,” looks to the past to illuminate the present. Employing the same creative team as “Power Goes” — playwright Stuart Flack, dramaturg Michael J. Kramer, set designer Bob Faust, composer Mikhail Fiksel and lighting designer Julie Ballard — this new evening-length piece was inspired by Kramer’s 2013 book on ’60s counterculture, “The Republic of Rock.”
Hanson describes “RockCitizen” as “an octopus I’m trying to wrap my arms around. We’re talking about everything from Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters to Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies to women’s lib to
the LGBT movement to the Black Panthers to rock music. But we’re thinking more about the verb ‘rock’: to agitate or upset. Of course, rock music was a key platform for dissent, but we’re more interested in the citizen who opposes or resists.”
Given the rock music slant, it’s not surprising Hanson has asked her dancers to sing — in particular, to attempt Janis Joplin’s take on “Me and Bobby McGee.” Then she wanted to hear them do Tom Jones’ “What’s New Pussycat?” as well as “Underdog” by Sly & the Family Stone. They’ve been “belting out a pretty powerful version” of that, she says, though not all the dancers are happy about singing — and Hanson admits she wouldn’t be either.
Singing is just one of the challenges she has given her performers. Another involves bras and breast-feeding. Without going into detail, the impetus was Hanson’s wish to include a specific incident: Nixon’s 1972 veto of the Comprehensive Child Development Bill, approved by Congress and intended to establish a national day- care system. It’s part of what Hanson calls the “women’s lib content” of “RockCitizen,” whose main scenic element is a net of 216 brassieres sewn together, nicknamed “the Brascape.”
But never fear: Hanson doesn’t let images or ideas become cliched. Instead she elaborates them in ways suggesting a wacky sense of humor, though she insists The Seldoms never set out to be funny. “We point up absurdity, the extreme side of particular arguments. That can become funny, but it feels political; there’s an element of satire.”
Ultimately, Hanson says, “I want to challenge the assumption that dance is primarily entertainment. It can be a medium through which to understand some difficult subjects. That’s running underneath all this work.”