Lisa Traiger has been writing about theater and dance since 1985. Currently she contributes a weekly dance column to The Washington Post Weekend section. Her pieces on the cultural and performing arts appear regularly in the Washington Jewish Week and DanceViewTimes.com. She has also written for Moment magazine, Stagebill, Sondheim Review, Asian Week, the Boston Jewish Advocate, the Atlanta Jewish Times, Intermission and the Washington Review. A recipient of two Simon Rockower Awards for Excellence in Arts Criticism from the American Jewish Press Association, she recently earned an M.F.A. in choreography from the University of Maryland, College Park. In 2003, Ms. Traiger was a New York Times Fellow in the Institute for Dance Criticism at the American Dance Festival, Durham, N.C. e-mail : firstname.lastname@example.org
Why are we doing this?" Liz Lerman asked somewhat plaintively of her Harvard Law School friend Martha Minow back in July.
A choreographer, Lerman was in the midst of wrestling with immense questions of truth, justice and reconciliation surrounding this year's 60th anniversary of the Nuremberg Trials.
The internationally acclaimed dancemaker, a MacArthur Award-certified genius who has pushed contemporary dance into untested territories by teaching older adults to dance, and communities to express themselves in sweeping choreography of poetic and political activism, was worried that dance wouldn't have the power to address the atrocities expounded at Nuremberg and the judicial legacy it left for current and future generations.
So Lerman asked why.
Why a dance about Nuremberg S and Rwanda, South Africa and Abu Ghraib, Bosnia and Croatia? What can dance do to make a difference in the face of these ongoing atrocities, she queried Martha Minow, the legal scholar, Harvard Law School professor and the chief commissioning supporter of a work about Nuremberg and its aftermath through Harvard Law School.
Small Dances About Big Ideas, the name Lerman finally decided on, commemorates Nuremberg's legacy. Its world premiere this weekend at Harvard's conference Pursuing Human Dignity: The Legacies of Nuremberg for International Law, Human Rights and Education, is meant to shake up legal scholars, educators and human rights consultants at a conference that boldly faces these untenable issues.
Small Dances About Big Ideas, choreographed by Lerman with members of her multigenerational Takoma Park-based Dance Exchange, made its District debut on Nov. 9 at the Library of Congress under the auspices of the Veterans History Project's observances of Nuremberg's 60th anniversary year.
"I like that name, Small Dances About Big Ideas, because I feel like it sets up right away this acknowledgment: There's way too much," Lerman says at the outset.
The 30-plus minute dance-theater piece is both gripping and gut-wrenching, culling from personal reminiscences and experiences of World War II U.S. Army veterans and their spouses on the homefront, repeating journalistic accounts of atrocities in Croatia, Bosnia, Rwanda and other venues where genocide, once a word relegated only to the Holocaust, reoccurred.
Lerman views this piece as continuing her interest in choreography that examines historical moments. Among the works she created that combine history, storytelling and her commitment to expressing herself with a distinctively Jewish voice ‹ often invoking the Reform movement's emphasis on tikkun olam or repair of the world ‹ are Miss Galaxy and Her Three Raps with God, in which the choreographer boldly queried God; Russia: Footnotes to History, an expansive study of her Russian Jewish grandfather's roots amid the politics and sociocultural forces of Russia; The Good Jew? a personal work where Lerman put herself on trial questioning whether she was a good enough Jew; and Shehechianu and The Hallelujah Project, two works inspired by Jewish prayers for sustenance and cultivating praiseworthy moments in life.
Lerman, a one-time history student and teacher who took the creative path of a dancer and choreographer, rather than an academic one, continues to rely on her investigative and research skills.
She wrote, early in her research for Small Dances: "The opportunity to reflect about the impact of the Nuremberg Trials, not as an historical moment but in terms of its legacy, carries on one of the issues I've been exploring throughout my life as a choreographer: What is our relationship to history?"
For Lerman and Minow, the issues Nuremberg raised 60 years ago remain current and vast.
"What is the law? How, when and why do we choose to bind ourselves to law? When do we choose ‹ as individuals and communities ‹ not to bind ourselves to law? What are we supposed to do when we hear these stories? And, are we in some ways continuing to hide behind the law ourselves?" writes Lerman.
Small Dances includes spoken and recorded monologues drawn from trial testimony, personal narratives, journalistic reports and personal musings. The movement and the characterizations of the dozen Dance Exchange dancers ‹ who range in age from 24 to 77 ‹ has emerged from workshops and rehearsals where dancers experimented with their own movement motivations, which have been incorporated into the choreography.
Onstage a judge presides over a pair of defendants, while three women in mix-and-match layers portray the ancient Norns, a trio of Norse female mythological creatures said to reside beneath Norn Mountain, where the city of Nuremberg was built.
They both protect and admonish as they integrate the various characters ‹ a journalist and interpreter for the viewers, a forensic anthropologist, an African judge, a French-speaking Holocaust survivor and Raphael Lemkin, the Russian-born historian who coined the word genocide ‹ into this complex work.
Minow, who was in Baltimore prior to the world premiere to watch a rehearsal at the Baltimore Theatre Project, asked Lerman to make the work difficult, particularly for her conference of educators and legal scholars.
"I want them to sit a long time with the images and confront the issues," Minow said.
So Lerman and her dancers don't flinch from the unpleasant: autopsy-like duets, bodies that rattle and hang as if from gallows, and emotionally wrenching solos that lay bare personal adversities while an evocative soundscape unfurls, both lush and harshly realistic, ranging from symphonic violins to strafing fighter jets.
Asked about the work's roots in Nuremberg and the Holocaust, Lerman, a well-read and questioning Jew, admits, "I know that so well that I don't feel compelled to put it in there very much S because Nuremberg and in fact the Jewish Holocaust in some way clouds over everything else."
But Nuremberg serves as a launching point for the choreographer and dancers to wrestle with more recent genocides, particularly Rwanda's, where in the course of 100 days 800,000 Rwandans were killed by machete-wielding Hutus.
"I continue to be moved," Lerman says, "by my own incredulousness that I have lived on the same planet with this going on and done nothing. So, this idea of becoming an upstander is very vivid for me."
An upstander, for Lerman and for Minow, is one who speaks out, stands up, makes a difference in the face of atrocities and mortal danger. Minow concurs: "Preventing atrocities ‹ that we don't know how to do. But we hope that teaching, talking, remembering, provoking, will make a difference."
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