“With fist jabs and shifting smiles, ‘Power Goes’ is politics of LBJ”
by Laura Molzahn, Chicago Tribune
Herding cats: Now there’s a skill politicians could use today. Lyndon Baines Johnson, our folksy dictator-president of the ’60s, had it by the ton, alternately muscling and charming his victim-cohorts into obedience, passing the legislation he wanted, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Dance and politics sometimes make for a clumsy mix, but the Seldoms’ Carrie Hanson has proved a discerning political observer, addressing environmental issues in “Monument” (2008), the economy in “Stupormarket” (2011) and our tangled environmental debates in “Exit Disclaimer” (2012). With the concise yet massive “Power Goes,” through March 29 at the MCA, she dissects LBJ’s achievement of political power, and glances at its current implications.
Like LBJ, “Power Goes” is larger than life. On Friday, this multimedia dance-theater work dropped viewers into the midst of a great storm, as if we were Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz” but with fragments of U.S. history whirling around us instead of witches and dogs, the mundane juxtaposed with the grand. Hanson invited Stuart Flack to collaborate as playwright, and Michael J. Kramer as the dramaturg; spoken texts and recorded archival texts are augmented by video projections, an installation of hanging chairs by Bob Faust, Mikhail Fiksel’s subtle sound design, and Julie E. Ballard’s expert lighting.
“Power Goes” has no narrative, no characters — except LBJ himself, incarnated by all six dancers, separately or as a group. It does have a rough chronological arc, proceeding from LBJ’s early civil-rights triumphs to his downfall over Vietnam to a more current coda, a long, random series of spoken texts touching on Harry Truman, the Kennedys and the passage of health-care reform. Barack Obama is a running thread, a visible result of LBJ’s civil-rights initiative and a contrast to his methods.
Always sensitive to body language, Hanson pays careful attention to its role in LBJ’s success; her dancers mine the famous “Johnson treatment,” pointing, jabbing, leaning into others’ personal space. Hanson also significantly ups the ante on physical intimidation; one dancer grabs another’s ponytail and leads her around like a dog, an action tied to a ludicrously trivial yet emblematic running joke about one woman browbeating another to influence her hairdresser.
LBJ used humor to charm and persuade, and so does “Power Goes” — but it’s a double-edged sword, ridiculous and terrifying. A political underdog’s insincere smile turns into a snarl, then barking: aggression made simultaneously more trivial and more primal. A section on LBJ’s pants, accompanied by an absurdly detailed recorded conversation with his tailor and the dancers’ fidgety adjustments to their trousers, calls attention to the body’s seat of power, at least male power. The next section asserts that the way to get things done is to achieve an almost incestuous closeness. Ick.
Taking her usual nuanced view, Hanson seems ambivalent about power, an ambivalence crystallized in a solo toward the end when a woman dons a suit coat backward, like a straitjacket: She takes it off, puts it back on, looking lost and doleful.
That a choreographer should address political power is ironic yet right. As the National Endowment for the Arts reported in 2011, of all the arts, dance statistically employs the greatest numbers of the historically powerless: women and racial and ethnic minorities. Significantly, the most common posture in “Power Goes” is the dancer collapsed, perhaps kneeling, jamming a fist into the floor, expressing both a will to power — and defeat.
The proliferating ideas and artistic elements of “Power Goes” sometimes dilute its impact. But the monumental group section at its heart — adding a corps of 14 young dancers and apparently depicting a united Congress — offers a welcome sense of purpose. See this richly layered, even overwhelming work; see it more than once.