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Liz Lerman Dance Exchange in "Small Dances About Big Ideas"


Liz Lerman is a choreographer, performer, writer, educator, speaker, and public intellectual. From a piece about her days as a go-go dancer in 1974 to a recent investigation of the origins of life that included putting dancers in the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland, she has spent the past four decades making her artistic research personal, funny, intellectually vivid, and up to the minute. A key aspect of her artistry is opening her process to various publics from shipbuilders to physicists, construction workers to ballerinas, resulting in both research and outcomes that are participatory, relevant, urgent, and usable by others.


She founded Liz Lerman Dance Exchange in 1976 and cultivated the company’s unique multi-generational ensemble into a leading force in contemporary dance until 2011, when she handed the artistic leaders of the company over to the next generation of Dance Exchange artists. Now she is pursuing new projects with fresh partnerships, including a recent semester at Harvard University as an artist-in-residence; initiating the National Civil War Project, which pairs theaters and universities to create new work and new research to the U.S. Civil War.


Her newest work from 2014, Healing Wars, investigates the impact of war on medicine. The genre-twisting work “Blood, Muscle, Bone” was created with Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and Urban Bush Women. She has also recently worked in London with Sadler’s Wells Theatre, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, the National Theatre Studio, and the London Sinfonietta. “The Treadmill Tapes: Ideas on the Move” is one of her online projects. In 2013, Lerman curated Wesleyan University’s symposium “Innovations: Intersection of Art and Science,” bringing together teams of artists and scientists from North America to present their methods and findings. In the fall of 2016, she will become a tenured faculty in Arizona State University’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts.


Hiking the Horizontal: Field Notes from a Choreographer, Liz’s collection of essays, was published in 2011 by Wesleyan University Press and released in paperback in 2014.


Liz has been the recipient of numerous honors, including a 2002 MacArthur “Genius Grant” fellowship; a 2011 United States Artists Ford Fellowship in Dance and the 2014 Dance/USA Honor Award. Her work has been commissioned by Harvard Law School, the Lincoln Center, American Dance Festival, The Kennedy Center, among many others.


Born in Los Angeles and raised in Milwaukee, Liz attend Bennington College and Brandeis University, received her BA in dance from the University of Maryland, and an MA in dance from George Washington University. She is married to storyteller Jon Spelman.


Dance ICONS: I wanted to speak with you early in our series on notable choreographers because you developed an online toolbox for choreography:  The Liz Lerman Dance Exchange Online Toolbox


Liz Lerman: I actually have a new title for it. It’s called “The Atlas of Creative Tools.” I’m working on it here at Arizona State University where they have a deep belief in online education. I have an amazing team that’s going to help me design it so that the design of the online format is as creative as creativity itself. I don’t want it to be pedantic and didactic. I want it to be full of the excitement that I had in discovering the tools, making them, and sharing them. 


It’s like dance: you practice the steps but, of course, dancing is not about the steps. Same with the tools. You practice steps because you need something to practice. But it’s about what gets uncovered because of them.


I always felt I was fighting for the idea of tools and everybody thought I was an idiot. Choreographers felt the tools would make them repeat themselves or take the mystery out of creation. There’s a change in the air now. I think people are really interested in tools. I truly believe that if you know what you’re doing and you practice that thing, you can better change what you’re doing. If you keep it murky or mysterious, it’s much harder to change.


ICONS:  It’s fascinating to name and define the creative process, rather than leave it up to chance, or inspiration, or something else.


Lerman: Times have changed. It is true that some choreographers will sell their dances, but most will sell their process, because that’s what the world wants right now, whether you connect in communities with your process, or connect in corporations with your process, or connect in the healing world with your process. They’ll be happy that you make dances and may even support you in that process,  but you won’t be choreographing [for the concert stage] with your job.


Because the problem solving -- the creative research -- that goes into making art, that kind of research is becoming more and more interesting, not just in the academy but for everybody. Artists need to understand how to do that research. It is another way of talking about the choreographer’s creative process, what is the research. I think dance in particular, but arts in general, are way ahead on this. These engagement or community-based practices we’ve been doing in the field for the past 50 years, whatever we called them, researchers, everybody from scientists to businesses … has to do that now. No one can just do research and put it on a shelf anymore. 


ICONS: You gained your notoriety and popularity when you showed the world that anybody could be a dancer. With the development of these tools in your “Atlas,” that raises question, can anybody be a choreographer?


Lerman: I would say that it’s true that everybody can be a dancer, because everybody’s body can be expressive in some way. Does everybody want to be a performer? Can everybody be the obsessive person it takes to make dance central to your life? Those aren’t exactly the same thing. I think everybody can be a dancer because everybody’s body can engage with its own knowledge and expression in the world. “The Atlas of Creative Tools” can support that spectrum. People ask me, ‘Who is it for?’ I think it’s for professionals who want to make art the central feature of their lives. It will help and inspire them, and they may choose to put their own tools in too. But it’s also for beginners.


Regarding choreography, well, the question becomes, “What do we even mean by choreography?”  So, I might have tested something out at, say, Children’s Hospital in the morning and then I would try it again in an afternoon rehearsal. Of course, the outcome is entirely different, but it becomes a living, breathing, amazing opportunity.


People will get a lot from “The Atlas,” but not everybody’s going to want to be a choreographer and definitely not a choreographer for the stage or the dance world or wherever the dance world is taking itself.


ICONS: What’s the best advice you ever received as an artist or choreographer?


Lerman: Well this is a little bit funny, but I happen to be a fan of Dumbledore from the Harry Potter series. I thought he often said good things. I forgot which book, but he said to [character] Neville Longbottom, “It’s very hard to stand up to your enemies, but it’s even harder to stand up to your friends.” I think about that a lot because I want to belong to my dance community, I want to belong to my fellow choreographers, I want to belong and part of belonging is sharing. But actually, it’s really important to break away because you have to make something that your peers won’t like. They won’t like it because it’s not them, it’s you. The more you really stick to what you’re trying to do, your vision, your friends, colleagues and the critics might not like it. You might get bashed for it, but in the end it’s going to be your work and it will be even better for it. We don’t all need to do the same thing, but it’s really hard to do both things: to belong and to not belong.


ICONS: What are your thoughts on where the state of the field is right now?


Lerman: I continue to see more people dipping into narrative-based practices within the movement field, which I’m happy about, not to the exclusion of pure form, I’m happy about that, too. I’m interested in seeing where it all goes. We still have a lot of work to do. For example, sometimes people think what makes a work narrative is if you have  a voiceover with a long list of words and [dancers] do whatever they want to do. I don’t find that satisfying. I want people to do the hard work of figuring out how the movement might be derived from some of the subject matter.


Interviewer Lisa Traiger writes on dance, theater, and the arts for numerous publications and is director of communications for Dance ICONS.