The Liz Lerman Dance Exchange announced today that its founder and director, Liz Lerman, is stepping down and will leave the reins to company member Cassie Meador. The Washington Post first reported the news this morning.

In a way, it’s a big surprise and a big deal. Despite the emergence of other strong local companies, the Takoma Park-based Dance Exchange is still Washington’s only national-level modern dance company, one that’s broken ground with its inclusion of older dancers and even non-dancers, and has presented intriguing pieces on a variety of real-world topics like defense funding and genetics.

Lerman herself received a MacArthur award in 2002 for her work, and that stature has probably played no small role in the company’s ability to pull off major, sweeping productions like The Matter of Origins, which premiered at the University of Maryland in October and incorporated a visit to the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Switzerland and footage taken from the Hubble Telescope.

On the other hand, maybe it’s not so surprising. On the local scene, at least, Lerman has seemed oddly MIA for some time: She’s emerged every five years or so to premiere a big new piece that makes a splash, but the company’s Washington presence has been very low key and performances have almost always been created and led by company members rather than Lerman herself. They’re still good—the Dance Exchange can be reliably counted on to produce attractive, pleasing shows, both in terms of technical quality and composition—and in this region, where performances can be inconsistent (at best), that says a lot. But the pieces generally lack the scale and impact and quirky creativity of Lerman’s works, particularly the earlier ones.

It’ll be interesting to see where Meador, a 31-year-old who’s been with the Dance Exchange for nine years, takes it. One of the company’s hallmarks is its collaborative decision-making style that emphasizes process and community, and it’s likely that Meador was chosen in part for her ability to bring people together rather than simply her singular artistic vision.

Lerman won’t be retiring—she’s pursuing “a new realm of choreographic and public intellectual endeavors”—but it nonetheless seems as if modern dance in America, which critics warn is seriously flagging, is about to lose yet another innovative pioneer. Still, if this change of hands means more engagement at the local level, that would be a win for Washington.

Photo by George Hagegeorge