Amanda McAlister Howard and Damon Green explore the theme of persuasion.
I wouldn’t have predicted sold-out audiences for a contemporary dance company’s evening-length work about Lyndon Baines Johnson. But that’s exactly what happened for the Seldoms’ two performances of Power Goes at Wisconsin Union Theater’s Fredric March Play Circle, Jan. 27-28.
Company director and choreographer Carrie Hanson was inspired to explore the give-and-take of power after reading Robert Caro’s multi-volume biography of our 36th president. The Chicago-based dance troupe digests LBJ’s complicated legacy, which includes championing civil rights legislation and advancing social programs like Medicare/Medicaid as well as pushing for the escalation of the Vietnam War. The folksy Texan had a knack for both storytelling and browbeating. He used his intimidating physical presence to his advantage so often that a term was coined for it: the Johnson Treatment.
Power Goes uses many visual and audio elements, including actual speeches and historical photos; many dancers from the Madison area performed with the group as well.
Early on, we hear Johnson describing his goals as president, repeating the phrase “I want to be the president who educated young children...helped the poor...helped end hatred...helped end the war....” Later we see a portion of this phrase literally turned on its side projected on the screen, but now it is cut to just “I want to be the president,” which changes things completely.
Other segments of the performance explore the idea of power in more metaphorical ways. In an affecting sequence, one dancer (Christina Gonzalez-Gillett) compliments another woman (Amanda McAlister Howard) on her new haircut. This seemingly banal conversation leads to an unsettling struggle as Gonzalez-Gillett pulls Howard’s hair up into a ponytail, grabs it and leads her around like a dog (all the while chattering about haircuts).
To the backdrop of an infamous recording of LBJ discussing his trouser specifications with a tailor, the dancers tug at their crotches and deal with an array of bodily functions, such as waving away farts, nose picking, armpit smelling and sweat wiping.
Throughout the evening, the six excellent dancers from the Seldoms manipulate each other’s bodies, employing gestures that may seem mundane when used sparingly in everyday life — pointing a finger, waving someone over, cupping an ear to hear more clearly, or hitching up their pants. But the movements are imbued with new power when repeated, underscoring how movement shapes both storytelling and displays of dominance.
The Seldoms take a creative look back at history, which provides insights for us today. It will be interesting to see how our current president shapes art in the future.