Writer, Educator, and Speaker Liz Lerman Receives Dance/USA Honor

Coming into the Fold

Liz LermanLiz Lerman is a performer, choreographer, writer, educator, and speaker. She has been described as “the source of an epochal revolution in the scope and purposes of dance art” by The Washington Post. Her aesthetic approach spans the range from abstract to personal to political. This month Lerman receives the 2014 Dance/USA Honor Award during the organization’s annual conference in Minneapolis.

She founded Liz Lerman Dance Exchange in 1976 and cultivated the company’s unique multigenerational ensemble into a leading force in contemporary dance until 2011, when she handed the artistic leadership of the company over to the next generation of Dance Exchange artists. With her iconoclastic belief that everybody and every body can be a dancer, she has influenced the  field over the past three decades to expand the definition of dancer and dancemaker.
Her collection of essays on art making and collaboration, Hiking the Horizontal, was published by Wesleyan University Press in 2011 and is released in paperback this year.

Liz has received numerous honors, including a 2002 MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellowship and a 2011 United States Artists Ford Fellowship. Her work has been commissioned by Lincoln Center, American Dance Festival, Harvard Law School, the Kennedy Center among many others. Now she is pursuing new projects with fresh partnerships, including a recent semester spent at Harvard University as artist-in-residence.

Her recent work includes a collaboration with the University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra where she choreographed the musicians into a moving ensemble as they performed Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring.” A major multi-year, multi-site commission, “Healing Wars,” premiering this month at Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage, investigating the impact of war on medicine and collaborating with both Civil War historians and wounded veterans at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

Born in Los Angeles and raised in Washington, D.C., and Milwaukee, Lerman attended Bennington College and Brandeis University, received a BA in dance from University of Maryland and an MA in dance from George Washington University. She is married to storyteller Jon Spelman. Their daughter is living in Thailand working at the Shanyouth Center in Cheng me.

Lerman spoke with Dance/USA at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland, College Park, during a break in rehearsals with the University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra.

Dance/USA: You’ve been in the field from more than three decades. Some look to you almost like an oracle: you came of age during the dance boom in the 1970s; you lived through the “NEA Four” issues, and now here we are in the 21st century and I’m going to ask you to lead us there through our conversation. But first let’s talk about what this recognition from Dance/USA means to you. I know you’ve often spoken about feeling like an outsider in the dance community so what does it mean to be receiving the Dance/USA Honor Award at this time?

Liz Lerman: When they called me, I burst into tears. I was completely shocked. More shocked than with the MacArthur.

D/USA: Seriously? Tell me why?

I just couldn’t understand where it was coming from. It was completely shocking. And, of course, Amy [Fitterer] had been instructed to tell me, but she didn’t tell me right away. We chatted first. [Then] I said, ‘I bet Jawole [Willa Jo Zollar, founder of Urban Bush Women] had something to do with this.’ And Amy said, “Oh, no, I’m supposed to tell you that Jawole had nothing to do with this.” Jawole is on the Dance/USA board and she and I work together and I know that she would be a defender of me and my work.

You know, I don’t even really know what it means yet. It feels to me that in one sense it means – I don’t want to say hierarchy – but a softening of the position of where art has to be in order to be excellent. It’s like an absorption of the idea that there are many, many ways that this all can be expressed. So it’s about yes: yes to fabulous ballet companies, and yes to fabulous modern companies, and yes to jazz, and yes to people dancing in the street, and yes to the most spectacular stuff on television, and yes to musical theater .… It feels more like that. It’s a statement about that. And, if anything, I’ve provided the dance world with a philosophical framework  which allows that to happen.

D/USA: You’ve had an interesting career path. You’re a baby of the dance boom, you dabbled in post-modernism and you had early Graham training [from early Graham dancer Ethel Butler]. Can you talk about your path through the mid and late 20th century and consider what a dance career’s path might look like today in the 21st century? What has changed?

LL: I think maybe the first time I thought about having a dance company was when I was about 10 or 11 years old. So the idea of having a company and that I was going to do this thing – but it was going to be a weird company – I think that the vision that I held even back then – and I think you see it in the nature of the work – is that the modern dance company structure that we’ve come to know … isn’t enough. I’ve been thinking about where my influences were and they included those early musicals that I watched. They actually had a big impact – Fiddler on the Roof, Oklahoma!, West Side Story. Those and the early story ballets, I think you can see a structural element in my work that gravitates around storytelling and I’ve taken much from that. So that combined with the company and those influences were all there when I began to look hard at the political and social commentary and integrate that into my work. It was a blending of all of that and early implications with my real frustration with institutions.

I can’t say that enough: I’m really not much of a believer that institutions can maintain integrity.

D/USA: And yet you created and ran an institution for more than 30 years. Why are you so negative about institutions?

LL: The Dance Exchange was a laboratory for this exact dilemma. The questions I struggled with: can you keep [a company] a humane place;
can you stay connected to your values; can you actually aggregate
enough resources in a reasonable way to do good work in the world,
whether that good work meant what’s the next iteration of my own
creative edge, or what’s the next iteration of your creative edge?The questions I struggled with: can you keep [a company] a humane place; can you stay connected to your values; can you aggregate enough resources to do good work in the world, whether that good work meant what’s the next iteration of my own creative edge, or what’s the next iteration of your creative edge? I like to remind everybody that when I started, there were hardly any non-profits and nobody or hardly anybody knew how to run one. I didn’t have to take courses in how to run a non-profit. I say “have to” as in being, say, a physician and studying for that. It would, of course have been nice to have had some guidance. But it was like the Wild West then. We simply figured it out. It’s so different now. The landscape is so packed with people that I think finding an open space to stretch out and say, “I want to try this,” is hard to do right now. What open space? Where?

D/USA: This 20th century model that we have was created by our founding foremothers of modern dance – Ruth St. Denis, Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Anna Sokolow – is a company structure. Is that structure viable in the 21st century?

LL: You know what’s interesting is that you look at the theater and you look at those of us who have companies and the absolutely positive, powerful part of that is the evolution of the [artistic] ensemble. It is really incredible, really incredible. I know the early ones actually formed [companies] around a particular movement – actual movement, but “move my way.” People from my generation, people I consider my peers lessoned that, we didn’t want everyone to move like us …

D/USA: … but you wanted them to think like you.

LL: Yes, we definitely did. To develop the collaborative nature, we needed people to invest over time and to learn each others; strengths and weaknesses and to commit to these bigger ideas. And it was a mission, it was a mission. I think that’s very true for a lot of us from that generation. We shared that and you see the emblematic nature of those investigations: in artists from David Dorfman, to Vicki Shick, to Jawole.

Now we see the breakup of companies. [Dance artists] don’t want to be full-time; they want to be part-time and they want to have their freedom. They want to work with lots of people. They want to make a dance, but then they want to make a film, but then they want to do this or do that. It’s a very, very different sensibility we’re seeing in the strands of this new world. We see that people don’t want to be full-time; they want to be part-time
and they want to have their freedom. They want to work with lots of
people. They want to make a dance but then they want to make a film but
then they want to do this or do that. It’s a very, very different sensibility
we’re seeing in the strands of this new world. It’s so hybridized and I think we’re going to play that out for a while. I think we’ll reach a place where it becomes untenable because people will be exhausted and it will be hard to schedule because nobody will be able to be at anybody else’s performances because everyone is just so busy.

The other day I was thinking about whether the arts could end up being like grocery stores. There would be small ones and big ones and just as many of them and just as important, and they would be in our neighborhoods.

D/USA: Maybe we’re already there with our hundreds of small companies that do one or two performances a year then we have the big behemoth companies that tour and do multiple shows in a season?

LL: Yes. And I think what’s interesting among the many interesting questions is what will inspire dance artists to sustain themselves and how will they reward themselves and be rewarded and acknowledge themselves and be acknowledges and on what basis will they feel they are contributing. I don’t know how that’s going to work. I think back to my beginnings and think about how frustrating it was [to be reviewed by some of the critics], but I did have some people watching me in that beginning period. There were four or five critics who kept their eye on me and that was really fruitful and that is not happening now. The field is just so full and there’s been such a shrinkage [in arts journalism] but let me be clear I’m not advocating this. In fact that’s a system, it’s not the system that I want. I’m suggesting that people need to find other means by which we discover our strengths and strengthen ourselves.

D/USA: What would you tell someone today who comes to you asking advice about going the company route?

LL: I have a lot of people who ask me things. They often have very, very particular questions. A lot of people who find me are people who trying to make art – not necessarily in community, but it might be, for example, a young woman who is taking her company to Vietnam to work with women who come out of the sex trafficking trade over there. She wants to talk about specific questions. There’s a question about someone who wishes to start a center for dance so everyone in the dance community would have a place to go. That kind of thing. So they come to me with big ideas, which is fantastic. And that’s the main thing and, as I said, the most important thing is how do you sustain your vision. In my case I get a lot of that by partnering and by taking my vision to other places, but still doing the work. I get inspired back and I get told back that this matters to me and that helps me stay in the depths of it all. So there’s that. I think that’s really a big question. I am just full of admiration for the ingenuity of a lot of young artists. On the one hand they’re saying, “I’m just going to do it.” They’re not going to wait for the money. What else are they going to do, career-wise? That’s inspirational to me, how they can keep going.

There’s a lot to be said about having a small nimble organization. Since I don’t have that anymore, I would say that I did gain some independence in the sense that I could look around and partner with all kinds of different people, which was one of my goals. I could now explore where else could I partner and what else could happen. But [my current choice is] a lot more raw. That is, there’s not very much protection between me and the world. At the Dance Exchange there was a lot of protection not only for how fast people could find me, but there was just a lot of vetting going on, a lot of thought going on. If I had an idea I had to run it through 10 or 15 people at meetings and in conversations. I loved all that, but I’m saying about that that you don’t think specifically and clearly. So when I think about the people who are young who also don’t have organizations, it’s rough, the bruising is quick and it’s hard.

I don’t give advice; I share only if I’m asked. If people have a question, I’ll respond. Because if they’re anything like me, they’ll want to figure it out themselves.

D/USA: Where do you think the dance field will take us in the next couple of years?

LL: One thing I’m thinking a lot about, of course, is generational work. Because there are a lot of us who are older and we’re still working. In fact, in some cases, in conversations I’ve had with several of my colleagues we feel that we’re at the top of our game. We’re deeply invested in our questions and eager to make more work. Also I have a feeling that there is this issue of clogging in whatever little pipeline there is [in the dance field]. I’m not sure about that.

D/USA: With your intergenerational work, you actually gave so many dancers and artists permission to continue working in the field. Look at Carmen De Lavallade and Gus Solomons. I don’t think that 40 years ago at the same age they are now, they would be putting themselves out there in the same way they can today.

LL: It is amazing, this change. I only ever wrote about it, but I always said the baby boomers would never not be involved. They would always be in it. I am interested and there seems to be a lot of interest in the generations. We can have generations together and, of course, I made that happen with the Dance Exchange. But there’s such interest in that. I feel that a lot of people want that.

I hesitate to say what will happen [in the future] because I feel like we have some breakdowns ahead before we know what we really have. Finally, it’s a question of sustainability – what resources will be available to people? That’s shrinking. One of the questions we have is the income gap and inequality: where do we fit within that as artists? If most of our sponsors are going to be people who have money, then does that mean we’re making art for them, does that affect how we make art or what we make? I think it does. You don’t want to rock the boat. So there’s a part of me that’s by nature outraged and angry and wanting to change things and how does that play out when the money and resources are shrinking?

Looking ahead there’s also a change in demographics. I don’t know when we’ll have this major change. My daughter is in Cambodia so when I visit her I see the world as it is becoming.

Let’s circle back to the issue of institutions and whether those institutions reflect those demographic changes or not. It may come down to how those institutions are supported. That’s why I think there’s a breakdown ahead. It could be that young people living in those communities are way better off and better supported than we imagine. I think there are a lot of structures inside those communities that are useful and people are doing amazing work.

It’s also very beautiful to watch the alumni of some of these companies – Urban Bush Women, Dance Exchange – I see these artists out in the world doing incredible projects in all kinds of places and making work and connecting with one another. There’s a lot of really beautiful work being done in diverse communities.

But you know, there’s no way I can predict the future. I don’t even know what I am going to do. I have all these projects I want to do. Right now I’m very involved with the veterans and seeing them coming home and the incredible way they are practicing to be a part of what could aid them as they try to discover who they are to become.

D/USA: You have taken a long view of the field. Even here now in your work with the student orchestra. You’re willing to give it time. These are 20 year olds. It could be five, 10 or even 20 years before you may reap rewards from these students if they become orchestra leaders.

LL: Yes. These 20-year-old undergraduates, you watch them, some day they’ll all be in orchestras. With these kids there’s no going back. So I don’t know what it will mean for these kids or the orchestras they decide to join.

Last year when we did Claude Debussy’s “Afternoon of a Faun” with the UM orchestra, I thought it was good but I did not expect the excitement from the music world over this. Now we’ve done the second year with “Appalachian Spring,” and we get better. We’ve spent hours and hours of work over a semester and that is the world changing. And the audiences, I don’t think they can go back either. The National Symphony Orchestra is doing a project with movement and they have dancers on the stage the week after we’re doing this.

And, yes, I’m willing to wait it out. If Jawole were here she would say, “You’re really just a part of becoming.” We picked up where somebody was and someone will pick up after us. It does make me aware of something. I wondered the other day, I don’t think I acknowledged my teachers enough. There are so many teachers I want to thank … and I realize that many were my students, my colleagues, the company members, oh, and my actual teachers. I learned from all of them, from their work and their writings for the field.

I think that I’m an unlikely candidate for this award because I just feel like such a fringe artist. There are so many other people for whom this is the actual essential nature of who they are and this is who they are. It was true with me at the beginning but over time it’s been filtered through other processes and other ways of being. That’s life, but for the dance world to say we’re going to honor those efforts, that’s really special.

Finally, I want to pay my respects to the field of dance, even as I pushed against it. I went to a rehearsal of a friend the other day and as I watched the performers come out onto the stage to warm up, I had a certain joy in observing the way they took space, filled their bodies, went to work. It was a moment of recognition and pleasure.

Lisa Traiger edits From the Green Room and writes on dance and the performing arts for numerous publications from the Washington, D.C. area.


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