There’s an oft-repeated quote that’s been attributed to Frank Zappa that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Upon hearing it, Liz Lerman smiles. “Of course it is,” she says. “Your point?”
Most folks consider the comment a snide swipe at music critics, but Lerman, an acclaimed and visionary choreographer, takes a different view. Since founding the Takoma Park-based Liz Lerman Dance Exchange in 1976, Lerman has danced about architecture and the defense budget and biology and immigration and various other big-picture subjects and issues. And she did it at a time when modern dance was primarily about nothing more than gesture and movement.
Sitting in the second-floor living room of her Fells Point alley house, Lerman flicks a strand of unruly hair from her eyes and leans forward. “I’ve never accepted that sort of narrow thinking,” she says. “I’ve always believed in an approach that encourages dancing about architecture.”
Lerman exudes intellectual bravado, even as her soothing voice hints at reservoirs of empathy and her twinkling eyes radiate curiosity. Those qualities lie at the core of her genius, which has been well documented. The Washington Post called her “the source of an epochal revolution in the scope and purposes of dance art,” and the MacArthur Foundation awarded her a “genius grant” in 2002 for her “visionary, profound, and revelatory” work.
It also gave her $500,000, no strings attached. “I’m resolved that this incredible gift make me more bold, not less bold, in the future,” said Lerman at the time. And she’s certainly honored that resolution.
In what might be her boldest move to date, Lerman recently left the seminal company she founded—it’s now just called Dance Exchange—and relocated to Baltimore from Silver Spring. She’s actually been here a few years, but she’s just starting to make her presence felt around town. Lerman joined the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance (GBCA) board in January, collaborated with Jawole Willa Jo Zollar (of Urban Bush Women) for Centerstage’s Play Lab series in April, and helped launch a national Civil War project with, among others, Centerstage’s Kwame Kweh-Armah. “To have someone of that stature, someone whose mind is as large as Texas, and spirit even larger, is more than an asset to all of us, it’s a gift,” says Kweh-Armah.
“Because of her stature, but mostly because of her spirit and brilliance, Liz provides a connectivity and vision that beautifully suits our artistic renaissance,” says GBCA executive director Jeannie Howe.
She’s also starting to get a feel for the city. “I’m attracted to its grit and its neighborhoods, and anybody will talk to you,” she says, “For an artist in Washington, the scramble to stay competitive wasn’t very interesting to me. I can make a virtue out of any adversity—I can find ways to make it mean something and make it work—but it came to a point where I just wasn’t interested in that anymore. It was much more interesting to break it apart and come to Baltimore.”
A sampling of Lerman’s Dance Exchange work is archived at YouTube, and a search quickly yields two excerpts from Ferocious Beauty, a 2006 piece about genetic research. They are revelatory.
In the first clip, two plump, middle-aged women stand onstage, one with a wheelchair and the other, barely 4-feet tall, on crutches. As the dancer with the wheelchair talks about her grandmother’s apple trees and the tasty, sometimes sour, fruit they yielded, the tiny woman executes a series of crisp movements and, at one point, balances precariously on the crutches. As the talk turns to the appearance of apples being modified to perfection over the years, and their taste becoming increasingly bland, the woman on crutches recedes out of sight. The stage lights dim, as a final “No more tart surprises” is spoken.
The second clip includes a scientist repeating: “How do I ask myself a question?”
The use of non-traditional dancers (in both age and body type), spoken word, personal stories connecting to larger issues, and the blending of abstract and realistic content are all hallmarks of Lerman’s art. But the questioning is key.
In fact, the “epochal revolution” sparked by Lerman began after she started questioning basic assumptions in the dance world. Born in Los Angeles and raised in Milwaukee, Lerman began dancing as a youngster and studied ballet at the National Music Camp in Michigan.
“For me, beginning to take dance lessons at the age of 5 meant entering a quiet world of intense physical training where talking was banned and even a certain kind of thinking was discouraged,” Lerman wrote in Hiking the Horizontal, a collection of her writing published last year by Wesleyan University. “But during the years of study, questions dogged my path.”
Questions like, “Who are we dancing for?” and “Who gets to dance?”
She attended Bennington College and Brandeis University, before eventually getting a bachelor’s in dance at the University of Maryland College Park and her master’s at George Washington University. “I was seeking something broader than the dance world,” she recalls. “The paradox of purity versus crossing boundaries is an ongoing tension. I see the point of purity, but I don’t see it at the exclusion of everything else. I thought the dance world was ridiculously narrow.”
When her mother got sick with cancer in the mid-1970s, Lerman returned to Wisconsin to be with her parents and started envisioning a dance about the process of dying. For it, she imagined older bodies, older dancers—which was practically unheard of at the time. But she was emboldened by a newspaper photograph she stumbled across of a nun, dressed in a habit, teaching a fitness class for seniors. It struck her that if the nun could do it, so could she.
Returning to D.C. after her mother’s death, Lerman began teaching dance (for $5 a week) at a local residence for seniors. There, she found exactly what she was looking for—elderly performers for Woman of the Clear Vision, the piece inspired by her mother—and so much more. “Doing that piece altered everything,” she says. “My entire artistic life changed.”
Indeed, it did, and Lerman went on to ask many other questions and break more rules with her collaborative efforts and choreographed responses. The titles of her Dance Exchange pieces give an idea just how inquisitive and inclusive she is: Darwin’s Wife, 613 Radical Acts of Prayer, Fifty Modest Reflections on Turning Fifty, The Shipyard Project, and Pollution Dances among them.
“Taking on these subjects allowed me to continue being a student, allowed me to keep learning,” she says. “I was satisfied leading the Dance Exchange as long as I continued to learn and stretch what an artistic director does. But at some point, I’d stretched that so far that I stretched myself right out of it.”
As Lerman talks, her husband, writer/storyteller Jon Spelman, brews tea in the kitchen, and their dog, a shepherd named Riley, sits near the fireplace. The couple’s daughter, Anna, is in Thailand volunteering with the American Jewish World Service.
Lerman’s assistant, artist Kini Collins, sits at a computer downstairs, fields phone calls, and helps organize an increasingly hectic schedule.
Since leaving Dance Exchange, Lerman is busier than ever. Last fall, she spent four months at Harvard as an artist-in-residence. In February, her schedule was so hectic that she was home for barely three days, and she spent the last two weeks of March doing an artist residency in Maine. In addition to her dance projects—and the extensive research they require—she gives talks, leads workshops, and teaches.
Her multi-everything (-media, -generational, -ethnic, -purpose, etc.) approach to making art and living life has been embraced by the mainstream. “When you think of how much pushing and shoving I had to do when I first started,” she says, “I’m incredibly lucky to be welcomed now. It’s a nice trajectory in life to live long enough and see that people now think these are good ideas.”
A few sentences from the syllabus for her Harvard class, which focused on partnership and collaboration, get to the heart of that evolution: “Ask a big enough question, and you will need more than one discipline to answer it. Problem solving in today’s world requires collaborative efforts on both an imaginative and concrete level. This course asserts that artistic practice, beautiful in its own right for making art, also provides a means for being active in the world.”
Lerman feels Baltimore is a good place to put that philosophy into practice. “I’m still such a newcomer, but there are some people at big institutions that are visionary,” she says, citing MICA’s Fred Lazarus, The BMA’s Doreen Bolger, and the BSO’s Marin Alsop. “Even the big guys here stay open, think young, think big, and Baltimore is really lucky to have that.”
The local dance scene, Lerman says, “has a lot of kinetic potential and could pop soon.” She’s been particularly impressed by a pair of local companies, Effervescent Collective and Muse 360, and hopes such artists might help blur some of the city’s racial and economic boundaries with their work.
Lerman believes “you can get things done in Baltimore” and mentions an experience she recently had at the downtown courthouse. Summoned for jury duty, she looked around at the other potential jurors, sitting and doing nothing for an entire day. Where some people might simply see hopeless tedium, Lerman saw potential: “I’m thinking, ‘Why isn’t there a nonprofit room here, a place where I could go and do something? I’ll stuff envelopes, whatever.’”
Lerman went out of the room and told a clerk she’d like to speak with someone about that and was sent directly to the woman in charge of jury duty.
“That’s what I like about Baltimore,” she says. “The same day, the same hour, I’m in her office talking about the possibility of a volunteer program for nonprofits or something that could tutor children. I told her, ‘I think people would love to do something besides watch television.’”
The jury administrator wasn’t so sure. But Lerman continues to ponder the question. “I’m still sitting on that idea,” she says. “I haven’t solved it.”