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“How To Get Power: The Seldoms Dance with Lyndon Baines Johnson” (an essay by dramaturg Michael J. Kramer)

“How To Get Power: The Seldoms Dance with Lyndon Baines Johnson” (an essay by dramaturg Michael J. Kramer)

August 6th, 2014 — By Michael J. Kramer

What I believe is always true about power is that power always reveals.

— Robert Caro, Johnson biographer

Lyndon Baines Johnson, thirty-sixth president of the United States, was an imposing man. Six foot four, from the destitute Hill Country region of Texas, he had a lust for domination and control that was legendary. His main ambition sometimes seems to have been accruing power for its own sake. Yet, when he assumed the power of the United States Presidency, upon the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, he set to work vigorously pushing through Congress a panoply of civil rights legislation and social welfare initiatives. Far more tragically, he also escalated American involvement in the Vietnam War, a national trauma so damaging to Johnson that he chose not to run for reelection in 1968 despite winning the Presidency in one of the most lopsided victories ever in 1964. Having gained enormous power, he largely exhausted all of it by the time he stepped away from public life in 1968.

LBJ was not alone in his interest both in power itself and the ends to which it could be put. To his political left, civil rights protesters and, soon thereafter, a wide range of liberation movements all sought to give, as they often chanted in the 1960s, “power to the people!” Antiwar activists met the legal and bureaucratic coercions of the wartime draft with their own ferocious moral, and sometimes violent, opposition. Meanwhile, a new kind of conservative movement was also slowly gathering steam on the right, full of all sorts of new ideas about what power was and how it worked. The operations and functions, hidden dimensions and tumultuous energies, triumphs and travesties of power as a political force were very much on display during the presidential reign of Lyndon Baines Johnson in the 1960s.

We learn much about Johnson from Robert Caro’s celebrated, four-volumes-and-counting biography, which The Seldoms’s artistic director, Carrie Hanson, began reading during the summer of 2012. It was an election year in America, of course, so politics were on Hanson’s mind. For many in the United States, it was also a time of increased frustration with politics as usual. The debt ceiling crisis, bitter struggles over national health care legislation, gay rights, immigration policy reform, and other stalemates between Republicans and Democrats seemed to stymie any progress whatsoever.

Hanson, whose research-driven multimedia dance theater works have, in recent years, probed social issues ranging from consumption (Monument, 2008) to economic crisis (Thrift, 2009, and Stupormarket, 2011) to public space (Marchland, 2010) to the debate over climate change (Exit Disclaimer, 2012), began to wonder how Johnson would have dealt with the current political deadlock? This led to a larger overarching question: what did Johnson’s legacy and historical context tell us about political power in general? What is this thing we call power, anyway? How do we describe it? How does it function? How is it acquired, taken, or blocked? Who wields it and to what ends? How have they done so for ill or good? Most of all, for Hanson, what could dance and the body, staged theatrically, tell us, teach us, impress upon us—in Robert Caro’s words, reveal to us—about power.

Turning to Robert Caro’s study of LBJ to consider the issue of power was wise. Caro himself remarked in a 2012 interview about the latest installment of The Years of Lyndon Johnson, “I don’t think of my books as being biographies…. My interest is in power. How power works.” For Caro, “What I believe is always true about power is that power always reveals.” But Power Goes, which has its Chicago premiere at the MCA in the spring of 2015, is not merely a dramatization of Caro’s masterful storytelling. Taking its title from a Johnson quotation, “Power is where power goes,” the piece does just that: it goes, pursuing the use and effects of power far and wide.

Johnson becomes a kind of ghost, spirit, phantom, a shape shifter in this piece: a symbol of power, he looms over the dance, inspires it, drives it, gives it (what else but) power. But this is no celebration of LBJ, nor is it a condemnation. Many other people and things appear as well: historical figures such as civil rights protesters drive the piece as well through representations of their collective action, endurance, and dignity; we witness Vietnam War soldiers and antiwar activists caught up in the national debate and trauma over a tragic military conflict, trying to make sense of it, feeling helpless and empowered in a terrifying, hellish mix.

We also glimpse—and here is what makes The Seldoms’s form of multimedia dance performance so fascinating—power manifesting itself in far stranger, more unexpected, and quotidian spaces, such as two women arguing over access to a hair stylist. And we oscillate—sometimes rapidly, sometimes more slowly—between different kinds of power: aggression, quiet beauty, distance, immediacy, frustration, success, failure, poised balance, and hesitation. We see how power both constrains and produces, controls and unleashes, blocks and flows, throws us off-kilter and balances us, diffuses and consolidates, spirals and reorients itself. We glimpse how power both suffuses and saturates our lives: sometimes we get to play LBJ, wielding power, but just as often power plays us, bending us to its will, forcing our hands.

It may seem unlikely at first to explore the topic of power by bringing dance and LBJ together in one piece, but it is fitting. Johnson’s mastery of political power was fundamentally linked to his physical presence. Most famously, he employed what became known in Washington, DC as the Johnson Treatment, in which (see image) he would lean his body into other politicians when seeking to intimidate and control or cajole them so as to extract the political support he required. Johnson also knew how to stay still: when he first arrived in the Senate, according to Caro, he sat silently in the chambers for long periods of time, taking in legislative protocol and rules. And he was a master of the tactile, whether it be in the cloakrooms of Washington insider politics or the campaign trail. In his life, he placed his hands firmly on many people, he clutched them and controlled them and wielded his power over them accordingly. Incidentally, he also loved to dance.

Using LBJ as a point of entrance and a means of inquiry into a far wider range of historical and contemporary questions about power, The Seldoms are joined in this piece by a group of talented collaborators: playwright Stuart Flack, graphic designer Bob Faust, visual artist Sarah Krepp, sound artist Mikhail Fiksel, costume designer Jeff Hancock, and lighting director Julie Ballard. They take us into a rich, multifaceted exploration of the topic. In Power Goes, power in all its guises, from where it starts to how it ends, emerges through the interplay of dance with other forms: spoken word, a startling set, suggestive costuming, evocative video projection, and a dynamic soundtrack. But most of all, the endlessly fascinating topic of power arrives through Hanson and her dancers’s signature solo and ensemble work, which combines gestural precision with humor, athleticism, and sheer force and energy to remind us how much bodies can impart to us about how power goes. As protesters of the 1960s insisted, often in service of opposing the policies of LBJ himself, put your body on the line! The Seldoms do just this, reminding us that the individual body and the social body continue to dance on the line where history, giving us the Johnson Treatment, looms over our own uncertain times.

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