The Seldoms have always taken their time, premiering new works every year or two. But little did artistic director Carrie Hanson know when she started her newest amalgamation, “Grass," in 2020, that she would be forced into a pregnant, pandemic pause.
Founded in 2001, The Seldoms has been a staple in the Chicago dance community known for creating intellectually entertaining works in unusual spaces like an architectural warehouse, a truck garage and even an empty Olympic-sized pool. Topics covered include the stock market, climate change and social activist movements. Not for the faint of heart, The Seldoms’ performances are thought-provoking, informative, inventive and wholly unique. They’re also funny! More than just a show, these are evening-length theatrical experiences that linger with you long after the stage lights are turned off. That is in large part due to the mad professor-like brain of artistic director Carrie Hanson, who finds familiar threads between seemingly random subjects and takes her dancers and the audience on a journey. I spoke with Hanson as she was putting the finishing touches on “Grass,” which premieres at the Dance Center this week.
“Grass” blends the worlds of turf grass (A.K.A. your lawn) and cannabis (read: pot, weed, ganja). Why? What do they have in common? It turns out, in a strange and intriguing way, a lot. “I’m using these two plants, these two grasses, to look at other issues,” Hanson said. “It’s not really about grass so much as it’s about conformity, commodification and exclusion.”
Oh, of course. “I could’ve made a piece about our obsession with lawns, or I could’ve made a piece about marijuana and its legal status. I decided to put all of it together,” Hanson said.
With a cast of four dancer-actors, “Grass” takes an hour-long, multimedia approach to the vegetative topic blending movement, spoken word, vogueing, voiceovers and taproot animation. Hanson always dives deep into her subject matter of choice spending months reading, researching and talking with experts before setting foot into the studio. Often taking an academic approach to subjects, Hanson takes it one step further by including excerpts of her interviews into the tapestry of the work. Voices of turf grass scholar Paul Robbins and cannabis scholar and journalist Lina Britto are incorporated and add an extra layer to the action happening on stage.
Hanson’s work is typically dense, leaving the audience with much to contemplate. She showcases many sides to a given topic providing examples pulled from a variety of sources. In the case of “Grass,” one section (or scene) focuses on biodiversity and how plants communicate through their root systems. In another, dancers Damon Green and Dee Alaba bring to life a fact-filled “letter” to Harry Anslinger— the first and long-time commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and one of the leaders in the war on drugs—using the language of vogueing. Pop culture and history collide making a poignant statement of real-world consequences in real time.
“It felt appropriate and meaningful to use vogueing in that section as one of the places where vogueing originated was Rikers Island with Black and Queer incarcerated populations,” said Hanson. “Dee and Damon area speaking to this really significant figure in the illegalization of marijuana and vogueing is part of their dance practice. It felt good to pull in some of their other skills.”
Yet another example that informed the work is Levittown, NY, which is commonly thought of as the first modern American suburb. Built in 1947, the post-war culture was one of “conformity and uniformity” from the houses to the residents, and yes, even the grass. Also worked in is an animated cameo of former President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan known for her “Say No to Drugs” campaign and a “witty dialogue” written by playwright Seth Bockley between Mindy Segal of edible cannabis fame and “Brownie Mary,” thought of as the godmother of pot brownies.
Through the research, development, playing in the studio and a pandemic, Hanson thrives spending time “in process.”
“One of my favorite parts is when you get to the end and have so much material that you can start to move this little piece over here and recontextualize that section of the work,” she said. “That’s really fun.” Buckle up! It will be a fascinating and informative ride.
The Seldoms presents “Grass” Oct. 14 – 16 at the Dance Center of Columbia College Chicago, 1306 S. Michigan Ave. Tickets are $30, available by clicking the link below. There will be a post-performance discussion including representatives from Cannabis Equity Coalition Illinois on Thursday, October 14.