Earlier this year, dancemaker Liz Lerman surprised modern dance watchers with her decision to step down from the Takoma Park-based company she founded more than 30 years ago, the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange. Now 63, Lerman is one of the big names in American modern dance, best known for her assertion that dance is for everyone. She’s proved it over and over in performances that have incorporated seniors, blue-collar workers, farmers, and just about everyone else.
Last week was Lerman’s final day with the company, which will now become the Dance Exchange (without her name attached to it). Several days into her new life, she spoke briefly by phone with Arts Desk. It was an easy conversation: Lerman’s got an incredibly warm voice and a sense of enthusiasm that’s infectious.
Washington City Paper: Why did you decide to leave the Dance Exchange?
Liz Lerman: [In the past few years] I’d been trying to find a floating “laboratory” for myself where I’d be connected to the Dance Exchange, but would also be free to explore things that might end badly, might fail even. But the demands of sustaining the organization didn’t give me that kind of freedom. I knew there were artists who could step in and lead the organization, but in time I began to see that no matter how small I made myself, I still cast a shadow. So we went on a retreat and I said, “I think I have to leave.” And immediately, it was as if the roof of the building flew off with all the creative energy that was released. And off we went, in what’s been an arduous disentanglement process. It’s not a divorce; it’s more like separating Siamese twins.
WCP: When you say you want to experiment, what kinds of things are you talking about?
LL: I love everything the Dance Exchange has done. But I’m the kind of person who really needs to be in new territory. I’ll repeat myself until I feel like I really understand something, but once I get it where I think it’s really there, then you don’t see me being that interested in it. But now, for example, I taught a very short course at Wesleyan together with a physicist, a cosmologist, and an astronomer. They presented content, and I presented research methods. I was taking the students through ways of thinking, studying, and eventually interpreting the data, based on choreographic techniques. It was very, very interesting, and I want to do more of that.
WCP: Any specifics of what you’re currently working on?
LL: First out of the gate is a project with Jawole [Willa Jo Zollar] from Urban Bush Women. I got a call from a Jewish organization asking if I’d do a project on the relationship between Martin Luther King and Rabbi [Abraham] Heschel. So I called up Jawole asking her about it, and she got all excited. So now we’re doing it together. I’ll learn all this stuff about how she works, and we’ll make a piece that’ll be, I think, quite theatrical. It’ll be about how they stood up to their own communities—they both came out against the war quite early, and both communities were quite angry about that. I’m also interested in making a piece about the Civil War. And I want to get back to my political beginnings; I’ll be doing a big online project [related to that]. I’m not gone. I’ll be showing work.
WCP: But are you moving away from dance?
LL: The pressure in the dance world to make really complex movement that’s incredibly physical and goes on and on—that sometimes gets in the way of what I’m really interested in. It’s fine and good if you’re doing a piece that supports that kind of investigation, but it’s only a great way to get across ideas to a very select few. So I don’t feel like I’m leaving dance—in some ways I feel like I’m getting closer to dance—but I’m leaving some rules that I don’t buy into. I’m still moved by movement, but what makes me feel connected and emotional and challenged to think is juxtaposing it with other things.
WCP: Any thoughts about where modern dance is now? It’s feeling to me increasingly like the art form is getting smaller and smaller, and playing to a very specific crowd.
LL: With modern dance, I think one problem is the patterns around it. So for example, at the time of the Civil War, men wore pants and girls wore dresses. So if you saw a person in pants, they had to be a boy. You couldn’t perceive it differently. And that’s where I feel the problems are [with modern dance]: The perceptions are set. And the question is, what do we have to do to break those to see ourselves freshly? I don’t know. I feel personally I’ve always pushed against the edges of dance anyway, so I don’t see a need to protect its purity, that’s for sure.
Photo by Lise Metzger