Blog: MCA DNA

Moving History

By Michael J. Kramer

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Performance view, The Seldoms, Power Goes Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago

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As The Seldoms return to MCA Stage on Thursday for their final four performances of Power Goes, Michael Kramer, dramaturg for The Seldoms, Visiting Assistant Professor of History and American Studies at Northwestern University, and editor for the MCA, goes behind-the-scenes about the ideas, choices, and history that drive the company’s sound and visual design for Power Goes.

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Yesterday is not ours to recover, but tomorrow is ours to win or to lose.

—Lyndon Johnson, Thanksgiving 1963

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I was trained as a historian, so one of the pleasures of serving as dramaturg for The Seldoms and their talented collaborators is to witness how they draw upon historical source material to create total environment, multimedia dance theater that addresses pressing social issues of today.

The ensemble’s new work, Power Goes, uses Lyndon Baines Johnson and his tumultuous time as president in the 1960s as a starting point to explore the relationship between power and social change. Gestures, movements, stances, and abstracted postures from the past inform Artistic Director Carrie Hanson’s choreography, which is at the core of the piece. This method also extends as well to costumes created by Jeff Hancock, the artwork of Sarah Krepp, and the lighting designs of Julie Ballard, but it is most apparent in the multimedia accompaniment created by video designers Bob Faust and his animation and technology partner Liviu Pasare, sound designer Mikhail Fiksel, and playwright Stuart Flack.

Faust and Pasare, Fiksel, and Flack begin, respectively, with photographs, audio recordings, and texts of speeches from Johnson’s time. These become springboards for setting the tone and context that surround the central dance elements of Power Goes.

Taking a closer look at (and giving a closer listen to) the ways the collaborators moved from historical artifacts to theatrical creations reveals how collaborative dance theater develops through interactions among different artists, each adopting a similar approach to a topic, but using different forms of expression to do so. They bring past and present into heightened interaction, unloosening history from sepia-tinged nostalgia and, simultaneously, reminding us that we act today under the influence of what has come before us. It is in this way, among others, that power goes in Power Goes.

The Johnson Treatment

Bob Faust works as a multifaceted designer for both commercial enterprises, museums, and artists. His videography for Power Goes, created in collaboration with Liviu Pasare, begins with iconic photographs of Johnson, a famously fierce politician, at his most fearsome.

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Drawing upon the oozing styles of 1960s psychedelic light shows, Faust and Pasare turned these photos into animated assemblages.

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But rather than present them in woozy, acid-rock Technicolor, they chose to stay in a stark palette of black and white, which to my eyes intensifies the angry edge of Johnson’s bulldog persona.

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The spreading seepage of the ink-like video is richly suggestive of how power itself sometimes works: it sneaks up on you; you are not quite sure what you are experiencing; it threatens to envelop you and it might just bleed off the screen to push you around; then it crystallizes into a strong figure of intimidating leadership (or as other sections of Power Goes probe, collective action).

The Johnson Treatment appears near the beginning of Power Goes. It features longtime member of The Seldoms Christina Gonzalez-Gillett merging gestures from Johnson with a rather surreal dialogue about haircuts. The projection is shown against a backdrop of chairs that figure importantly later in the work. It makes for a strange, disorienting display of power: all at once she holds the spotlight but is overwhelmed by the media surrounding her. She throws her fist down and points to the sky. She sizes the crowd up before her, but in turn stands exposed before them. To my eyes, there is a kind of tug of war between dancer in the present and almost-ghostly photographs from the past. She seizes history and wields power, but there are moments too when history and power seem to wield her as their instrument.

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Powerful Stories

If Faust and Pasare bring out the public persona of Johnson as pugnacious politician, then one example of the sound design for Power Goes by Mikhail Fiksel demonstrates the softer dimensions of how a figure such as LBJ wielded power: as a master storyteller.

Fiksel, who works both in theater and as a DJ, blends together archival recordings of Johnson telling tales—a more informal but essential dimension of how power works—into a sonic evocation of the power of the voice of LBJ as a narrator. His focus is less on the content of Johnson’s stories than the way in which Johnson disarmed listeners through the quality of his speaking, how he performed stories in service of wielding power. Listening to Fiskel’s treatments of LBJ’s storytelling recordings, we begin to understand that the President was not only the brusque, crude, intimidating leader, but also a caster of spells, a speaker who could exert control over audiences through enchantment.

Using the “raw” historical material of audio recordings that document Johnson telling stories, Fiksel produces a tone poem that is less about the content of Johnson’s storytelling than the mesmerizing timing and rhythm of his pacing, the skillful ways he uses timbre, intonation, volume, and pitch, the ways in which he is able to seize control and overwhelm at a sensorial rather than a semantic level.

Inspired by composers such as Steve Reich, he quite literally turned the cadence of Johnson’s voice into melodic guitar lines. An original Johnson recording

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becomes a musical phrase

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so that when you hear them together you begin to pay attention to the sonic qualities of LBJ’s storytelling style.

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The achievement of mastery by this master storyteller emanates not so much from the actual details of his tales, but rather from his performance of vocal gesture and form. Like a dancer, in fact, but with sound.

Here are other examples of voice

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and musical phrase,

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and a combination of the two.

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The final result is a musical composition that contains a dense web of multiple Johnsons telling tales. His voice leans in and backs away, coils itself around your shoulders and into your ears, then recedes into the vistas of the Texas Hill Country from which LBJ came. He plays the country bumpkin and the wise sage, the twinkle-eyed elder and the innocent naïve. He has audiences in the palm of his voice.

Fiksel chases his phrasing round and round with acoustic guitar phrases and percussive clicks that produce a compressed, hypnotic, musical evocation of a politician who was famous for his ability to win over audiences in face-to-face gatherings.

The sound design created by Fiksel accompanies an extended sequence of dance in which The Seldoms themselves perform gestures of storytelling. As audience members, we do not know the contexts for these motions and movements, which encompass everything from the comical to the aggressive, the playful to the deadly serious, the informal to the official. What we receive instead of context is a density of references.

Overall, the combination of sound design and dance movement conveys how power works through whispers as well as screams. The Johnson Treatment, it turns out, was about far more than just aggressive bullying; it could work at more soothing, charming, and bewitching frequencies as well.

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His current version of the fully developed design sounds like this:

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The Presidential Past and Present in Dialogue

Playwright Stuart Flack contributes original dialogue spoken by the dancers in Power Goes. At key moments, he also collages historical materials of spoken word from the past into scripted accompaniment to the dance movement on stage. One of the most startlingly scenes in which he does this is a dialogue between Johnson and Barack Obama taken entirely from speeches made by the two presidents: Johnson’s famous 1965 “We Shall Overcome” speech (sometimes called “The American Promise” speech) in the aftermath of the civil rights march on Selma, Alabama, and Obama’s 2008 “More Perfect Union” address on race that he delivered in the aftermath of the publicity over his former pastor Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s controversial remarks.

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LBJ’s speech is by a sitting president. He is responding to the grassroots pressure of civil rights protesters and the violent backlash against them. Obama’s is by a presidential candidate. He transforms a seeming scandal and liability into enormous political capital. Both are about the role of race in American life, both historically and in the moment the addresses were delivered. Flack skillfully uses collage to bring out where the two speeches—and the men who delivered them—converge and diverge, how they share certain kinds of charismatic forces as public speakers and also, crucially, where they wield power differently.

Here is Flack’s script:

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Mikhail Fiksel then created a sound design from the speech excerpts that Flack compiled, chopped up, and rearranged into a new sequence.

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After conducting research on music from the 1960s, Fiksel then added Dave Brubeck’s “Unsquare Dance” (recorded in 1961) to the mix. Written in 7/4 time, the composition is not only from the historic era in which LBJ rose to power, but also an off-kilter yet insistent accompaniment to the rhythm of the voices in the collage. Here is what it sounds like:

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There is also a fabulously strange version of the song as accompaniment for un-square dancing on American television. (The Seldoms are not the first to dance to the song, but Power Goes certainly takes “Unsquare Dance” in a very different direction.)

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Fiksel’s initial version of the sound design, taken from Flack’s collage tactics, brings voices and music together into a fully developed sound collage.

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Then, Fiksel refined the sound design, tweaking the volume levels, timing, and pacing. The interplay of spoken word and music and other sound elements becomes a structure within which history and the present intersect.

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Finally, Bob Faust added a typographically driven video treatment for the section, highlighting the key words in the speeches by giving them a large visual presence. The letters join the dance too.

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Onstage, the resulting mix of dancing bodies, texts, sounds, songs, images, costumes, lighting, and more creates an intensification of both information and emotion. As viewers, we can receive, read, feel, perhaps even contemplate the references to the past, but my experience is that even as the material is rooted in the use of archival objects and historical frameworks, Power Goes does not send us back in time. Instead, it unleashes our imaginative facilities from present-day assumptions about the topic of power and social change.

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“Tomorrow Is Ours To Win Or To Lose”

In Power Goes, The Seldoms and their collaborators use the past to reorient us to the present, in service of the future. They move history from the archives to the stage, from static source materials to something new. The transmogrification of historical artifacts into live theatrical action creates an ardency and an immediacy. It brings history to a boil. It generates an immersive space where bodies and media dance with each other, in time. Something is happening here. Or as Johnson himself put it in 1963, speaking as the leader of a nation shocked by the assassination of John F. Kennedy, “Yesterday is not ours to recover, but tomorrow is ours to win or to lose.”