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Liz Lerman: Looking Ahead, Looking Back
By Lisa Traiger

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 : lisatraiger@aol.com  

There's a small but telling moment in "Still Crossing," choreographer Liz Lerman's 1986 work about the immigrant experience. Dancers -- young, middle-aged and old, trained and novice -- simultaneously strike a pose: right arm lifted proudly like the curving prow of a ship, body facing front, while the left arm reaches back and the eyes follow, gazing into the distance. Those few seconds seem emblematic of Lerman's feelings as Dance Exchange, the critically lauded company she founded and has nurtured, turns 30.

On Friday in the concert hall at Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland, the company will perform with the University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra, literally. For "Man/Chair Dances," an excerpt from John Adams's opera "Nixon in China," dancers will be positioned on chairs within the orchestra. The symphony's classical program also includes Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 and Richard Strauss's "Don Juan." Next week in the center's Kay Theatre, Dance Exchange, which for years has spent much of its time touring and teaching groundbreaking community movement workshops across the country, will return to College Park with "Man/Chair Dances," "Small Dances About Big Ideas" and the company classic "Still Crossing."

Lerman, who received a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" in 2002, is known as much for her public persona as an influential speaker who translates dance processes into ideas for business, economic, policy and scientific leaders as for her work as a choreographer. As for next week's performances, she is adamant that the program is not a retrospective.

But why? "Because there's so much looking ahead here, which is spectacular," she says. "And probably no retrospective because it's so expensive. And partly no retrospective because I'm not ready for it."

Instead, Lerman, 58, is facing forward and looking back, like the dancers in "Still Crossing." The significance of the work comes in its final moments when about 50 members of the community -- some dancers, many not and of all ages, ethnicities and physical abilities -- join in an anthemic choral paean to resilience and strength.

Lerman says she watches "Still Crossing" and reflects on her own beginnings. "I just think about my grandfather on my dad's side. . . . What brought him [to the United States from Russia]? And what would it be like if this country didn't want him? He just had all that desire to make good in the world," she says about the impetus behind "Still Crossing."

It is that desire that Lerman carries forward with her choreographic approach, which engages audiences on hot-button topics such as the efficacy of the law in confronting genocide, the theme of 2005's "Small Dances About Big Ideas," a work that garnered an unusual commission from Harvard Law School to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Nuremberg trials.

In an approach that Lerman calls "nonfiction choreography," she developed a libretto of sorts, culling ideas from history books, speeches and interviews with World War II veterans and concentration camp liberators. The trials of the Nazi war criminals continue to be relevant, Lerman says, when dealing with more recent atrocities: genocide in Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur.

Hope, Lerman says, comes only through action. Her pulpit is the dance studio and stage. And those who face unspeakable acts she calls "upstanders," breaching the silence to take action.

"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.

"I'm positing that [the stage] is a public space for ideas, aesthetics, interpretations and reinterpretations . . . where your mind can be an active partner in your aesthetic pursuit, where it's okay to think."

Liz Lerman Dance Exchange Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center 301-405-2787 Friday, Thursday and Nov. 3


Source: © Copyright 1996-2006 The Washington Post Company

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  • Lisa Traiger

    Liz Lerman

    Dance Exchange's Elizabeth Johnson and Ted Johnson in "Small Dances About Big Ideas." photo Chris Randle

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