With a career spanning nearly six decades, Liz Lerman has been questioning and testing the boundaries of dancemaking and education her whole life. She is known for building communities, working with dancers of all ages and abilities and creating works that explore topics like the human genome, particle physics and the defense budget.
Earlier this month, at The Jacob's Pillow 85th-anniversary season opening gala, Lerman was honored with the festival's 2017 Dance Award. This summer she'll also be honored as American Dance Festival's 2017 Balasaraswati/Joy Anne Dewey Beinecke Endowed Chair for Distinguished Teaching.
ADF dean Leah Cox says this award acknowledges the ways in which Lerman teaches through her artistic practice. "It's not living just inside the studios; it bleeds into people's lives," Cox says. She first experienced Lerman's teaching at a Dance Exchange Summer Institute. "She blew my mind. She teaches nondancers how to feel in the ways that dancers do, connecting them with their bodies."
The idea of "turn discomfort into inquiry" has been a through-line that began with Lerman's formative dance education. "My training began classically in ballet, but a teacher of mine had choreography workshops every other Saturday where I was given opportunities with freedom and experimentations," Lerman says. In those early stages, even at 14, she felt like she was beginning her process of questioning.
Lerman's Healing Wars. Photo by Teresa Wood/Arena Stage, courtesy of ADF
Lerman founded the Dance Exchange in 1976 in Washington, DC, and led the company for 34 years before passing it on to a new generation (with Cassie Meador as artistic director). The company's school enabled Lerman to explore new approaches to dance education. "Questions were coming up for me," she says, "like 'Why is there only one teacher in a room with 30 to 40 bodies all carrying their own knowledge?'" She brought together those based in somatics, African dance and other modern techniques, to exchange practices and teaching.
In 2016, she took a new role: the first Institute Professor at the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University. In her creative research lab there, she gives her students opportunities to work across disciplines and encourages them to be fearless about their subject matter choices.
Lerman has impacted the field of dance and education with her open-source approach to the techniques and tools she's cultivated over the years. The Atlas of Creative Tools, an ever-growing collection of creative practices, includes her own methods and those of DX alumni and artists and is encouraged to be used, repurposed and adopted by other artists worldwide.
Her Critical Response Process, a four-step process for giving and receiving useful feedback, has become a staple in arts education in the U.S. and abroad. "She has almost single-handedly given us the gift of figuring out how to talk about work in a way that is helpful to the artists," says Cox. "There is not a conference that I go to, in all of my touring of universities and colleges, that is not aware of and employing her process, because it works."