Liz Lerman, Part 1

Liz Lerman, Part 1
Photo by J.S. Rosenthal

Transcript of conversation with Liz Lerman

Liz Lerman:  "Hiking the horizontal" is actually a term that I'd begun to use in the last couple of years, although it relates to something that actually I've been talking about for probably 25 years, which is this idea-- it initially grew out of what I would describe as equal commitment to concert and community, and that very often in my life people would put one or the other on top.  They'd either say, "Your concert work is more important than your community work," or they'd flip it and they'd say, "No, no, no.  The community work is really important.  Why are you still even bothering with concerts?"  And I would keep saying, "But this is a false dichotomy.  I don't believe that.  I don't want to make that choice," or I would say, "That's impoverished thinking."  You're asking me to make a choice that's impossible."  And I would flip that hierarchy onto its side and say, "Look, there's a spectrum of possibility here."  Sometimes I live entirely at one end.  Sometimes I find a project that lets me move between them.  But why would I choose?  That was its beginning.  Over time, the more I began to try to live in the horizontal, not just throw my hands into it, but actually live it-- I began to realize that actually there are a series of practices and ideas and ways you have to be in the world to actually live that way, and that hierarchy is pretty much where we've done our training, unfortunately.  So all of our behaviors, I believe, come out of a hierarchical world, and in fact, we're asking ourselves to live in something different.  So that's what the book is about, and the idea of hiking the horizontal to me is simply that people talk about flat environments, they talk about flat workplaces, the world is flat-- those kinds of things.  Actually, it's a hike.  It isn't flat, really.  It's a constant up-down, up-down, up-down.  It's a challenge.

Jo Reed:  That was choreographer, dancer, performer, innovator and author, Liz Lerman talking about her recent book, Hiking the Horizontal. Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation’s great artists to explore how art works. I’m your host, Josephine Reed.

Liz Lerman is one of the revolutionaries of contemporary dance.  She is founder and artistic director of the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, an artist driven company that looks to break the boundaries between stage and audience; theater and community. For Lerman, Dance is a way to think and everyone can dance.  Her subjects have ranged from pets to the death of her mother, to the origins of the universe.  Her working process emphasizes intensive collaboration with dancers, communities, and thinkers from diverse disciplines.  Liz Lerman is known for nurturing a multi-generational company of dancers  whose ages span six decades and creating site-specific work at places as diverse as  shipyards in New Hampshire and the Lincoln Memorial. Liz Lerman has been the recipient of numerous honors, including a 2002 MacArthur “Genius Grant,” while her company has received a number of notable awards for its pioneering work, including grants from the National Endowment for the Arts.  In the first of a two-part interview, Liz shares many aspects of her thinking about culture and dance as well as milestones in her work, including her  book Hiking the Horizontal.  I spoke with Liz in her takoma Park dance studio…and you might occasionally hear faint music in the background.  I began by asking her about the similarities and differences in choreographing a dance and writing a book.

Liz Lerman:  Well, there are ways in which writing, organizing and making a book are similar to organizing and making a piece, especially one of these longer pieces that I sometimes get myself into, in that there's enormous research, you're moving pieces around; one is editing; one is trying to figure out the difference between if I put this first or that first, how will people experience it.  So there's a lot about the art of it that has an analogy.  But the part's that really different is the fact that it's real and concrete and lives, and that people can hold it, and people can come up to me and say, "I read this part of it."  That is just so different from the experience of what happens to audiences.  Basically when they experience a dance, that's it.  Our experience is in that moment.  And they remember it, they may talk about it, they may come back and tell me about it-- all of that but it's nothing like having a book.  And lately I've been doing these readings, when we're on tour with something else, I very often will go to the local bookstore and do a reading-- and it's a whole 'nother experience too.  I mean, people, they gather, they listen, we talk, we have questions.  They'll ask me a question and I'll go, "Oh, let me read you this section."  And then instead of my digging through my brain to come up with what it is, there it is, in prose that I hope is useful.

Jo Reed:  The other thing that would strike me as interesting is with dance, you perform the dance and the audience is right there, so there's a way of gauging the reaction or living with the response immediately, whereas a book, it might be concrete, but it goes out there and it's difficult to get a sense of how people are interacting with the book.

Liz Lerman:  Well, that is really true, and that's a whole new thing as well.  So for example, I heard from somebody I know who said, "Oh, Liz, we used your book at our board meeting."  That just made me so happy.  She said, "Yes, I read them a section of it, and we really got into a good discussion about it."  So, who knew that somebody would do something like that with it?  And I find myself ridiculously interested in how people are receiving it.  Not like in a review, the good/bad.  It's never about good/bad.  It's always about, "What happened to you?  What was your experience?  What did it make you think about?"  That's exciting.

Jo Reed:  The conversation.

Liz Lerman:  Yeah.

Jo Reed:  You are known for your intergenerational work.  Tell me how you got there.

Liz Lerman:  Yeah, I'm a very lucky person.  I mean, I wasn't lucky in the thing that made it happen to me, which was a relatively early death of my mother.  I mean, she was only 60; I was in my 20s.  And the shock of that event was really hard on my system.  I'd already, however, been thinking about the fact that dance was way more powerful than just to keep in the hands of 18- to 25-year-olds. I knew that more was possible.  It's just and I'd experimented a little bit, but not much.  But my mother's death threw me into the fact that I had to go find some old people to be in this piece that I wanted to make about my experience and my family's experience.  The result was that I wandered into this senior's residence, just on 16th Street, not all that far from the National Endowment for the Arts, actually, and I ended up staying in this place for 10 years, going once a week, working with the residents.  And over time, of course it transformed all of my thinking about my art form.  So I say lucky because I had no choice.  I stumbled into it.  I wasn't courageous.  There was nothing brave about it.  I was desperate.  I needed old bodies.  I had to have these old people in this piece I was making.  The fact that they became my teachers and that I was able to reconceive so much, including, maybe most especially, what we consider beautiful.  Because dance at that time, in my own youthfulness, what did I think dance was about, how had I come into dancing, and these ideas of what beauty is it turned out that these, and they were old-- old, old people in this place.  I found their movement just so incredibly beautiful.  And their spirits and their souls and their willingness to try stuff was just so inviting.

Jo Reed:  And you made the decision that you were not letting this go, even though you explored it for this piece.  But this was something you were just keep on keeping on.

Liz Lerman:  Yeah.  Well, partly I did that because I wasn't done with it.  I mean, they were incredible in this first dance, but I also didn't understand all the power of it.  I mean, I felt like I had slipped into Alice's hole in a way.  I felt a little bit like I had slipped down the rabbit hole, because it just kept unfolding in ways I wasn't prepared for.  Okay, yes, they got better.  Yes, they could do things they, they would report to me, "Now I can zip my dress up," "Oh, now I can turn my head," "Oh, now I can take a bath."  I mean, these things I couldn't believe.  But meanwhile, I was changing too.  And so I think one reason I stayed for 10 years and insisted upon is that it was so interesting and was teaching me so much.  At that time, there wasn't in my field much interest in this.  Now, Bill T. Jones did do a piece with his mother in it, and I was delighted in that, the fact that I could see a mirror, that someone else was experimenting.  And I did find other artists in the theater community and in the visual art community in the early years of my work.  We would meet up at conventions, like hospice conventions, or these kinds of places where people interested in the elderly would be, and I'd find another artist or two.  I'd go, "Look, you're doing this too?"  So there was this funny little subterranean group of people working-- Susan Pearlstein in theater and Suzanne Lacy in visual art, and they are both profound artists.  That was helpful to me.  But otherwise, I was pretty out there.  But there was no letting go of it for sure.  The other thing that happened is that I found the young artists in the company doing much better work when the old people were around.  And that is, I know, hard for people to imagine, but their dancing changed, the way they performed changed, the way they behaved in the world changed, and that was really important.

Jo Reed:  You know, more than any other art form, I think dance is so concerned with body image, and your approach makes everybody rethink that.

Liz Lerman:  Well, and that was, of course, one of the most significant things for me, is that I wanted audiences to reconceive dance anyway.  What better way than to put some old people out there, because they'd come in and they'd go, "Well, I guess if the old people are up there, it must not be only about how high your leg goes, or how many turns, or how many tricks.  It's got to be about something else, because these people can't do that."  And that was-- so you're right: It was really a way to make people sit up and take a look in a different way at the art form itself.

Jo Reed:  Liz, you had been trained classically.  Can you talk about the process of moving beyond that?

Liz Lerman:  My coming of age as a dancer I think is-- well, of course it's interesting to me.  In one way, I got a tremendous amount of my classical training in so early.  I mean, I started when I was five.  So when I was 14 and 15, I was already a very well trained classical dancer.  Which meant that a certain amount of the physicality was in there because I could really think.  And so when I became a teenager and started to look at around and see the world, and also when I began to experience what I considered to be the worst of the behavior in any classical system--not just ballet--but most classical systems, what makes them classical, is that there is a purity, there is something you're reaching for.  You either make it or you don't, and there's not much interest in changing the perfection, the idea of perfection.  It was decided hundreds of years before you, and you can't really interact with that. I didn't like that.  So I had to begin that very bruising enterprise of leaving classicism, which I think occurs for many people.  Fortunately for me I had some interesting contemporary dance teachers to help me, and I had some interesting ideas, philosophical ideas, swirling around me that also aided that.  I was kind of out of my classical background by 16, 17, 18.  So this is 10 years later now when I entered this senior world and I had, by that time, attempted to quit dance several times, been drawn back to it.  Because I think once you dance, it's really hard to let it go.

Jo Reed:  That was going to be my next question: Why dance?

Liz Lerman:  Yeah, it's an interesting thing.  I'm not sure how true this is, but sometimes I reflect the fact that I'm a pre-Title IX baby. Title IX set up in the schools that sports had to be equal for girls and boys.  That is a significant event for a girl who's a physical person.  I happened to have been a physical child.  My parents tell me I was climbing before I could walk.  I mean, I was just incredibly physical.  So I needed to be physical.  And I did talk about wanting to be in dance and they gave me dance classes.  They probably would have even if I had never said a word about it, just to match what was going on for me.  So if you were a girl and you wanted to be physical, dance was certainly one place.  It's hard to explain, but there is a way in which the combination of training your body to do things, and then stepping back from the training and letting your body express whatever it is you need to the combination of that is very, very, very wonderful.  There is something about dance, and probably this is true of other art forms too, but for me, this is the one I know, that-- and it's another aspect of this horizontal, this idea about moving between things.  One the one hand, it's completely abstract and anatomical, and on the other hand, it's full of meaning.  And I like the moving between those two ideas very, very much, and that I think has been a backbone of my life, really.

Jo Reed:  Can we talk about choreographing space, and I'd like to begin that conversation by talking about what happened at the Lincoln Memorial in 1980.

Liz Lerman: Well, you know, Washington, D.C. is such a great place to be an artist in the '70s and '80s. It's a small arts community, people knew each other, there wasn't tons going on. Well, there probably was all kinds of stuff going on that I didn't know about. But to me, it was just a wonderful place. So the Washington Performing Arts Society, a big, huge institution, approached me when I was just a young choreographer and said, "We want to do something. Will you do this thing for us?" And anyway, the upshot of it was that I had this idea that we should do a big event on the mall, and we'd get all the dance companies down to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and we would do-- I choreographed a piece to Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man," and I got the youth orchestra to play it, and I was all excited. And the way we did it is we, I had rehearsals all over the city, and dance companies and dance schools would send one representative, and I would teach them the dance, and then they would go back to their schools and teach it. So all these rehearsal spaces were packed when we would do the, and it was packed, and I thought, "Oh my god, look at how gorgeous this is." And I do the numbers, and it looks like we're going to have 800 people down at the foot of Abraham Lincoln. So we get there, and I get all the dancers out-- because this-- one rehearsal, and then we're going to do it. And I put them up on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and it doesn't look like anything. The steps are so big. And 800 people is nothing.

Jo Reed: When I read that in the book, I didn't think that that could be possible.

Liz Lerman: Shocking. And so I was up against something which-- and now is a way I think about things, which is this question of scale. And it was so interesting. And I panicked, but I don't know whether this is just an optimistic trait of mine or what, but you problem-solve right away. This is why I think choreographers--well, all artists are such-- why I think we continue to get smarter as we get older, actually, is the amount of problem-solving that goes on. I think your brain is just constantly getting new patterns. Anyway. I looked, and there are three steps, that are closer to the reflecting pool, and I put everybody there. And then it was packed, and it was beautiful. And it made me very happy. But that one moment of shock.

Jo Reed: And what also struck me is it actually seems like a forerunner to the flash mobs.

Liz Lerman: Yes. No, I think that that is really true. They are wonderful. I think they are so great. My daughter graduated from college last year, and they did one after the graduation was over, and there was the college president dancing. It was just really a hoot. It was wonderful.

Jo Reed: You did another one in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the Shipyard Project, which was really, really interesting. Tell us about that.

Liz Lerman: The Shipyard Project is probably one of the projects that really opened up the world to me, and I think allowed us also to show the world some things that none of knew was possible. We were asked initially to go to the shipyard because they were on the cutoff list--that is to say, as a defense site, they were going to be shut down by the BRAT Commission. They ended up not, and some people think our project had something to do with the fact that they weren't. But at the time, they were on the hit list, and they were worried initially, about 12 generations of stories that were going to be lost, because it's the oldest federal facility in the country, and there people in town--12 generations had worked at the yard--12. So initially I had a little reluctance but when I went up to meet everybody, I was just so moved by the people in the yard, the questions they had, their own attempt to understand their role in the world, and there were so many interesting questions. So we decided to stay and do this project. So what it meant was that the company traveled up and back to the shipyard over a two-year period, and eventually we did a full weeks-long festival, two events a day. Each day had a theme. And one event would be in the community and one event would be on the shipyard, because you still couldn't get on-- everybody couldn't get into the shipyard but you had to have special permission to get on. And that turned out to be just a beautiful project, filled with challenging processes. There are things I think about that. For example, there were four generations of gay men in the company at that time, and the shipyard was a homophobic place. But over the course of coming and going and people meeting each other and talking to each other, and the fact that the men in the company were out, all kinds of things shifted on that front, without us ever having to say, "Look what's happened." It just happened, because people were making art together. Then there were other situations, like the fact that the place was a toxic dump, and the environmental community struggling very hard with the shipyard. And we never found common ground on that. We spent a lot of time trying to bring people together, and we made a beautiful piece in a church about that, letting the different voices be heard, and the dancing was just incredibly beautiful. But I don't think we were able to change minds on that one.

Jo Reed: And the workers were very open and accepting of you. How did that go? How was the relationship forged?

Liz Lerman: <laughs> Well, the workers weren't 100 percent open, but over time, they just got used to it, and we did tremendous amount of work to get to know people. I mean, we met lots of people in small ways. So we spent time with the engineers, we spent time with the nuclear people, we spent time with the wives. Small groups. We spent a lot of time with the young people in the community, having them collect the stories, making dances for them. And in fact, one thing I heard years later, after the project was long done, I talked to somebody who said that the school kids that we had worked with had just graduated from high school--so this was four to six years later-- and they were entering the workforce at the yard, and the yard in general found them all to be the best workers that they'd ever hired right out of school, and they all said it was because of this project, because they had a connection. They felt something in relationship to the yard besides the fact that it was the place to work. So I loved that part of it. When you spend time with people trying to see if art can make a difference in their life, it's interesting to hear all the reasons why it can and why it can't. And acceptance isn't the only way to make it work. Whether we're accepted or not isn't always the case, because we're not always accepted in the theater, and we're not always accepted by a critic, and we're not always accepted my own peers--hardly always accept what I'm doing. But I think giving people an opportunity to experience it on some level and see, "What does this say to me? What does this mean to me?" So in our case, one of the things that we did was we began making a gestural piece, with each gesture having a story behind it. And wherever we went, we would teach however number counts we were up to. So the dance eventually got to be quite long-- maybe 30, 40, 50 counts. I can't remember now. So for example, the second gesture in the piece, you bring your arms up over your head, your palms facing front, and you kind of criss-cross your arms. And it came from a man who had been a child when his father was on a submarine that was leaving the harbor and going out for a test run, and the submarine sunk, and he never saw his father again. And this was the Thresher-- the accident on the Thresher. And everybody in town knew the story, but now they had an embodied relationship to the story. So what we were saying earlier, whether you think of it anatomically or whether you think of it with meaning, you have choice. You can decide to just bring your arms up and wave them, or can decide, "I'm going to embody this little body waving goodbye to his father who he'll never see again." But regardless, you have a relationship to the town and its history. So this dance is being repeated all over the place--Girl Scout meetings, Kiwanis clubs, rehearsals, the formal dance company in town. Everybody's learning the dance. And on the last day of--we had a thousand people in the park facing the yard. We did the dance one more time to this beautiful score that we commissioned from an incredible composer, Wayne Horvitz. Everybody's doing the dance. We tell the stories one more time. And it's just--it's profound. So I think that there are many workers-- in fact, we know one story of one worker who said to me, "I know you've been coming"-- he came up to me at this festival the last day. He said, "I know you've been coming. I've had nothing to do with you,” and he was quite strong in telling me, "I've had nothing to do with you." Which I appreciate. And then he said, "But would you like to know my favorite movement?" At which point I said, "Well, sure." And then this guy--he's a welder-- and this guy, he does one of the movements from the dance. And then he says, "I have been working at the yard for 20 years. I have never been able to imagine life on the boats. But once I saw this and did this today, I can actually picture what their life is like on the boats that we make." That's pretty great.

Jo Reed:  That was choreographer, performer, dancer, author and innovator, Liz Lerman.  Next week, I continue my conversation with Liz. Among the topics we discuss is her fascination with science and the intrinsic relationship science shares with the arts.

You've been listening to Art works produced at the national endowment for the arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor

Excerpt from “Foreric: piano study” from the album Metascapes, composed and performed by Todd Barton, used courtesy of Valley Productions. 

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To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter.  For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.


Liz Lerman: Conversing through dance.