Near the end of our interview in an upstairs office of the Dance Center of Columbia College, Carrie Hanson, founder and artistic director of The Seldoms holds her head and says, sighing, “I’m trying to change the world.” We were with Hanson’s collaborator, playwright-director Seth Bockley, discussing the completion of “Floe,” The Seldoms’ three-years-in-the-making performance about climate change, making its Chicago premiere April 22-25 in the reconstructed Chicago Stock Exchange Trading Room in the Art Institute of Chicago. Hanson has long been attracted to complex, historically informed, not-ostensibly-dance-y topics—political and personal power, the 2008 recession, overflowing landfills, rock music and revolution—and for this, the biggest of all questions, upon which the very survival of the human species hinges, Hanson pulled on myriad threads—science, literature, internet culture—and as many collaborators. But then, for a problem so massive, so seemingly intractable, which scientists agree has irrevocably altered the world as we knew it and many fear has passed the point of no return for human habitability in the not-so-distant future, addressing it is going to take everything we as a species has got.
Hanson made a piece related to climate change in 2012, “Exit Disclaimer: Science and Fiction Ahead,” back when the matter at hand was internet dialogue and denialism, the press release used the term global warming, and before the coining of the phrase fake news and the relentless frequency of catastrophic weather events. Hanson restaged “Exit Disclaimer” last fall to set the table for “Floe” and, despite some updates Hanson made to the show, the reboot felt surprisingly flimsy and dated. “Floe” promises to be anything but. Research and residencies for the project stretched from Kaktovik, Alaska on the Arctic Ocean to Houston, Texas on the Gulf Coast; her creative team was informed by climate scientists at the University of Texas Marine Science Institute, The Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at University of Wisconsin Madison, plus there are personal stories of survivors of Hurricane Harvey. Add in references to “Moby Dick” and flat-earth conspiracists for good measure.
“There is a kind of overdetermination, and a too-muchness, it’s totally baroque. Carrie had prompted me to think about climate change, but also the novel ‘Moby Dick’ by Herman Melville. I’m a huge Melville fan and I have some literary adaptation background,” Bockley says with understatement. “And then going to Austin and meeting with these scientists. And we’re going to an English class to talk about ‘Moby Dick.’ And also we’re going to be in this studio playing. All of those pieces were happening very fast and all at the same time. It was kind of a wash that I was responding to, sitting off to the side writing text. Sometimes Carrie would place the text, sometimes it would get thrown out. It was iterative, generative and really fun.”
“Floe” is a first-time collaboration between Hanson and Bockley, who is not one to shy away from overabundance, as proved by his 2016 Jeff Award-winning adaptation, with Robert Falls, of Roberto Bolaño’s 900-page magnum opus “2666.” Both Hanson and Bockley agree the partnership has been a fun and fruitful one. “What I love about your writing is how nimble it is,” Hanson says to Bockley. “It moves immediately and beautifully from soothing to really grave to something light and humorous.”
The same can be said of Hanson’s approach to dance theater, which blends pure, contemporary dance with supporting set design—“Floe” includes huge inflatable icebergs by frequent collaborator Bob Faust—and relaxed, authentic-feeling dialogue that has space for gentle conflict and humor. Hanson and Bockley seem keenly aware of the need to include a spoonful of sugar in a potent dose of some bitter medicine. We discuss how “Moby Dick” factors into the show, and Bockley talks about adapting the cook’s sermon to the sharks into a sermon to the audience about consumption.
“It’s ironic. In ‘Moby Dick,’ it’s a burlesque and everyone is in on the joke, including the cook,” Bockley says. “He’s saying, ‘Hey, come on sharks, knock it off,’ and they’re all eating in a frenzy of blood. It’s parodying religion, telling people to not be who they are.”
Hanson says, “In ‘Floe,’ Damon [D. Green] is admonishing the audience in a very preacherly way, and it’s kind of direct address.“ She turns to Bockley, “You’ve been open to him shaming the audience, I’ve been more like, ‘Mmm, let’s not point the finger too much.’ But he’s talking to the audience as sharks as consumers, as frequent fliers: use less, use less.”
Whether “Floe” directly points a finger or not, the reality is we’re all implicated here, and the setting of Louis Sullivan’s elaborately stenciled temple to capitalism is reminder enough that we’re all together on this ship of fools, helmed by a madman. Hanson says that the post-show discussion is a critical component of the performance. “’Floe’ is meant to be a platform to spark thinking and conversation,” she says. “We’ve had post-show talks in Madison and at an excerpt showing at the Newberry Library, but I don’t feel like at any of these we’ve had the conversation I’ve been wanting to have. We’re in Chicago. Lake Michigan is rising. Why aren’t we talking about that?”
The key is talking. Hanson says that consensus amongst the climate scientists and activists she talks to, reads and follows on Twitter is that we need to talk more, which will lead to more voting and more action. “I’m not too interested in making work anymore that doesn’t have all of that information, all of that content,” she says. “Climate change is the issue. Bernie Sanders calls it the existential crisis of our time, and I think that’s true. It contains economic issues, it contains issues of racism and power, it contains all of it.”
Art Institute Chicago, 111 South Michigan, (312)857-7132, $15 Art Institute members, $25 non-members, artic.edu. April 22-25 at 7pm.
This event has been postponed. The rescheduled date TBA.