Carrie Hanson

Dancer and choreographer Carrie Hanson is in Madison this fall as the UW Division of the Arts' Interdisciplinary Artist in Residence. 

Not many choreographers find inspiration in Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon B. Johnson or flat-earth conspiracy theorists.

Carrie Hanson, the acclaimed Chicago dancer/choreographer who created the influential dance troupe The Seldoms, infuses her work with social, political and environmental issues. Yet the performances are never didactic, mixing athletic dancing with humor using spoken word and visible text.

"Hanson makes politically oriented pieces so passionate yet nuanced it can be difficult to say what her views are," wrote Laura Molzahn in the Chicago Tribune in 2015. "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."

As the UW-Madison Division of the Arts’ Interdisciplinary Artist in Residence this fall, Hanson’s been teaching a course called “From Topic to Topography: The Body, The Environment and Social Action” for students from a wide range of backgrounds and disciplines. The Seldoms will perform an excerpt from their influential 2012 work about climate change, “Exit Disclaimer,” with Kate Corby & Dancers this weekend. Later, Hanson’s class will give a group performance on Nov. 21. 

Finally, Hanson returns to Madison for the world premiere of “Floe,” The Seldoms’ new climate change piece, from Jan. 22-24, 2020, in the Wisconsin Union Theater.

Hanson talked with the Cap Times about working with her class, the challenge of turning topics like climate change into performance, and the notion that dance should primarily be entertainment.

How do your two pieces on climate change, “Exit Disclaimer” and “Floe,” differ?

It’s interesting to really try and differentiate those two pieces. “Floe” has more emphasis on what’s really happening in terms of the ice melt and the extreme weather events. There’s more of an emphasis on evidence, because there wasn’t as much evidence in 2012 when I was making “Exit Disclaimer.” That one was more about the argument.

By argument, you mean the debate over whether climate change is real and man-made.

Right. But then that argument is still happening, isn’t it?

So why make art about it? You can’t not do it?

I think that’s it. I don't know what else I would make works about. The trajectory of my dance making over the 20 years or more since I completed my undergraduate is that, initially, I was really focused on just movement invention. I would spend a lot of time alone in the studio and really focused on crafting a sort of idiosyncratic language for each piece. A lot of people do that. And it is hard to spend that much time in a studio by yourself. Eventually I shifted away from doing solo work to doing more ensemble work.

I created The Seldoms after I completed my graduate work in London. I'm a very visual person and I love working with visual artists. I’ve always had an interest in architecture and started doing more site-specific work. I’ve always been interested in removing dance from the confines of the proscenium theater and responding to the different spaces. One favorite project was we worked in an 18,000-square foot truck garage space, owned by my landlord who was a landfill operator.

Part of is it that I like the research of it. I like reading about these topics. And I have, at times, gotten into a little bit of trouble where the research weighs down the actual artwork. I want to share all of this content, everything that I've been reading, and it hasn't necessarily been kind of absorbed into the work. So I have to be careful about that.

How does that work, that translation process after you learn about these things?

I have my tricks and my procedures. That’s actually what part of this course is about, is that translation process. I always want my students to learn an awareness of one’s own methods. I think that’s really helpful for the artist to understand how they work, and know themselves as a maker.

I’m quite analytical. I have my notebooks and my storyboards. I take my subject, and I separate it out into the different aspects that I think that I can speak to. We did a piece about Lyndon Johnson, and I can’t ignore Vietnam, right? I do all this mapping, and this process that I call distillation, and then amplification. It’s pretty simple. Just like when you’re sitting down to write and you’ve got your notes and your outline.

(With the students), sometimes I have them do some writing and they build from there. Sometimes I have them listen to some other stories. Then I get my hands on it and we play some standard choreographic games of manipulation.

Are you enjoying the class?

I am. I like the detail, I like the analysis, I like the craft of it. What we call “playing with the dials.” This is going to be more improvisational in nature, which is not familiar territory for me. But it’s not about me. It’s about these students.

I saw a quote from you that said something to the effect that you don't want dance to merely be considered entertainment.

I totally reject the perception that most people have of dance, that it’s a form of entertainment and that it cannot carry some of these larger social messages. There’s also the experience of dance where it is a social exchange, or there’s the “So You Think You Can Dance?” type competitions.

Dance occupies various places within our society. The least understood or accepted one is that it’s a way for us to understand the world that we live in. If we’re looking at bodies, and we’re looking at bodies together ... we can read into the shape of their spine or the force of their gesture. We do that all the time. We just don’t put it into a proscenium frame.

I’m thinking of a scene in ‘Exit Disclaimer’ where I’m trying to make a statement about the climate debt, where first-world countries are indebted to third-world countries, that notion of inequity. How can I show that between two bodies on stage? It’s sometimes a stretch to say that dance can do it on its own. That’s why I started working with text. I wanted to get even more specific and turn up the volume a little on the issue itself.

Would you call it political art?

I wouldn’t use that term myself. Really, everything’s political, isn’t it? I don’t set out to air my politics. One of the ways that I described what The Seldoms do is that we stage the argument. In “Exit Disclaimer,” we make fun of the deniers, but we also make fun of the “50 Ways to Save the Planet” absurdist ideas.

On the other hand I believe we do have to act at the individual level. I had an argument about this. I was visiting this historian we’re working with in Vermont, and I walked into the kitchen and the lights were on, and I turned them off. And then a minute later he turned them on, and then I turned them off. Then we got into an argument about whether a decision at that scale matters. For me, it really does matter. If you scaled it up, if everybody did it, it would make a difference.

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Rob Thomas is the features editor and social media editor for the Capital Times, as well as its film critic. He joined the Cap Times in 1999 and has written about movies, music, food and books.