The Seldoms’ RockCitizen: Excess and Activism in Tumultuous Times

The Seldoms are sporting straggly beards and long, free-flowing hair this weekend, which can only mean one thing: “RockCitizen” is back.

Premiered in 2016, this evening-length work came second in a trio of dances by Seldoms artistic director Carrie Hanson. With “Power Goes” (2015) and “The Making” (2017), the trilogy is an exhaustive investigation of power structures and hierarchies within societies, political systems, and the human body.

“RockCitizen” is the quirkiest of the three, shining a lens on 1960s counterculture and mounting civil unrest in a chaotic and polarizing time in American history, a time when citizens rose up against injustices like LGBT and racial discrimination, voter suppression, police brutality, corruption in the government and military conflict abroad – sound familiar?

Many a political pundit has pointed out similarities between the Nixon era and the Trump administration, and the public outrage which ensued as a result of both, but this bit of writing isn’t about that, exactly – nor is “RockCitizen” a direct comment on Trump. (Besides, the piece premiered before the tally was in on the 2016 election). But it is hard not to notice the parallels, particularly when the group of dancers on stage, ranging from their 20s to their 40s, are performing the trials, tribulations and triumphs of a generation that was their age a half century ago.

Like the times which inspired it, “RockCitizen” is densely packed, appropriately hyperbolic, with saturated, brightly colored light (an anomaly for this company), funky flower power costumes, a web of fluorescent bras, and projected images and quotes by influential politicians and rock stars cast behind the “Brascape,” which is rigged to the grid above a brand spankin’ new stage at Evanston’s Studio5.

And the piece is chock-full of content, too, referencing, among other things, the Stonewall Riots, the Vietnam lottery draft (see also: a gut-wrenching recent episode of “This is Us”) and a chilling Pat Buchanan speech – Buchanan’s rhetoric, by the way, was once categorically rejected by Donald Trump, but is strikingly similar to the sorts of things currently coming out of the White House.

But the dance starts with a happy, hippy vibe, with Sarah Gonsiorowski recalling a time she hitchhiked down Highway 12; or the cast parroting songs by Tom Jones, Sly Stone, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix; or a hilarious acid trip. Indeed, much of the first half of “RockCitizen” is the beautiful people singing and playing together – it’s all sex, drugs and rock’n’roll.

There have been a few structural changes since “RockCitizen” premiered, as Hanson’s wont to do when she visits a work again. Sections have been rearranged, and a role played by actor Brian Shaw, who did much of the linguistic heavy lifting in this work, has been cut, with his text parsed out among the cast of seven dancers. They function as stage hands, too, managing the enormous “Brascape,” in addition to acting and dancing.

But it’s the body that has always been at the center of The Seldoms’ work, even in ones which are so text-heavy. Hanson’s research is equal parts body and brain, infusing comprehensive study on the period with how that manifests in movement and gesture. Look especially for examples of this in magical sections on feminism and sex discrimination, and in particular, in a trio set to Robin Morgan’s 1970 essay, “Goodbye to All That.” There’s a subliminal message, too, captured in random dog barks and weird, distorted facial expressions, which form a distinct through-line to similar moments in “Power Goes.” Does the disintegration of power structures, many of which function to preserve systematic inequality, in fact, expose a mirage that is destined to degrade, the half-life of which is bizarre and uncomfortable? I’m going with yes.

I can’t say that I know what the ‘60s were like; heck, my parents were in middle school when Nixon became president. But something that occurred to me yesterday, while watching a dress rehearsal at Studio5, is that we don’t always recognize the significance of a time period as it’s happening. But right now, I’m acutely aware that history is being written in real time. I imagine the ‘60s felt something like that for people who, 50 years ago, came together and rose up to fight for justice, equality, and a fair, democratic process. So, it kind of makes you wonder how my generation will be remembered. What is the dance, in 2068, which will be made about us?

The Seldoms present “RockCitizen” runs 8:00 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Studio5, 1934 Dempster St. (in Evanston Plaza). Tickets are $25-50, available on The Seldoms' See Chicago Dance event page.