35 years of questioning
“For me, beginning to study dance seriously at the age of 5 meant entering a quiet world of intense physical training where talking was banned and even a certain kind of thinking was discouraged. But during the years of study, questions dogged my path... Who are we dancing for? Why do some people watch and other people get to move? Why this movement instead of that one? I consider my attempt to answer these questions as one of the driving forces in my work.”
—Liz Lerman, Hiking the Horizontal: Field Notes from a Choreographer
More than three and a half decades ago, choreographer Liz Lerman saw a photo that inspired her to make dances with people of all ages and abilities. In her newest book, Hiking the Horizontal, Lerman writes: “At my parents’ home in Madison, Wisconsin, while my mother is dying, I see a picture in the newspaper. It is of a nun, in full habit, teaching an exercise class to the elderly. I look at it and think, ‘Wait, if she can do it, I can do it.’ And so I did.”
Lerman began teaching senior adults in 1975 and the next year established her own company, the Dance Exchange, in metro Washington, DC. Known for its intergenerational explorations, the Dance Exchange has produced more than 100 works and created site-specific projects in communities across the nation. Lerman’s work has been commissioned by the American Dance Festival, the Kennedy Center and Lincoln Center, and in 2002, she received a MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellowship.
Just last month, Lerman stepped down from her role as artistic director. Though she will remain close to the Dance Exchange and collaborate with the group, this transition will allow her to pursue independent projects, including an artistic residency at Harvard University this fall.
DT: What are your plans for Harvard?
LL: I’m teaching a course on partnering. Starting with the partnership between the mind and the body, we’ll then discuss different kinds of partnerships. Using choreography, students will explore partnering with each other, and they’ll research partnerships across campus and so on.
Aside from that, new collaborations are coming down the pike. Jawole Willa Jo Zollar from Urban Bush Women and I are discussing working on a piece about Martin Luther King and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. The things these two men did together were quite subversive. We’re going to ask: Who were these iconic heroes and how can we be intimate with their stories? We want to explore how you go about standing up to your own people. As I say in my book, it’s easier to stand up to former President Bush than it is to people in your own community.
DT: What do you see as your most lasting contribution?
LL: It’s the notion that being a professional artist does not have a singular definition and can have many different looks. I’m a professional when I’m teaching a dance class in a nursing home or working in a shipyard with a community to help explore its past.
Another contribution is the idea that old people can dance, which has been essential to my work. Older bodies make for great storytelling, beautiful movement and a curious form of courage.
DT: Is there a teacher who deeply influenced your career?
LL: Jan Van Dyke, who is now at the University of North Carolina–Greens-boro, told me, “Go to New York, but you can always come back.” That was really great advice, because I did go to New York in 1974, but I didn’t feel compelled to stay. So I was able to return to DC and teach Cunningham technique at Jan's studio. But soon I found I wanted more so I moved on. Now that I'm a mentor to others, as Jan was to me, the same thing happens—dancers push off me in order to become what they need to become.
Seattle-based writer Leslie Holleran holds an MA in dance history from the University of California-Riverside.
Photo by JS Rosenthal, courtesy of The Dance Exchange