Liz Lerman: Stepping Up
Liz Lerman creates dance with purpose that fosters engagement. But like many great creative thinkers, doubt has always been part of the process.
Liz Lerman is a groundbreaking choreographer, the founder of Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, and the originator of the artistic exercise Critical Response Process. Among her many awards, she received a MacArthur Genius Grant in 2002.
Born in San Francisco and raised mostly in Milwaukie, Lerman studied dance at Bennington College in Vermont, the University of Maryland, and George Washington University in Washington, DC. She founded Liz Lerman Dance Exchange in 1976 and led the company until 2011. Often including older performers alongside young dancers, the multi-generational ensemble expanded the traditional boundaries of movement art with its focus on personal narrative and multidisciplinary collaboration. Lerman choreographed over 80 works for the company, exploring such non-traditional subjects as genomics, particle physics, and defense funding. Since 2016, she’s taught as an interdisciplinary professor at the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University.
Liz Lerman is a mover and a shaker. Who’s never been content to sit still. The groundbreaking choreographer and Arizona State University professor has spent more than four decades expanding the possibilities of dance, relentlessly pushing the form, herself and new kinds of performers to tell stories once thought too complicated for bodies to express. But at the start, Lerman wasn’t interested in speaking out. All she wanted to do was move.
Liz Lerman: I was enchanted by the physical and happy to be in the midst of the physical.
Lerman was born in Los Angeles on Christmas day, 1947 to Anne and Phillip, an artist, mother and a social activist father who quickly realized that their daughter would need an outlet for her abundant energy. The solution came at age five when she took her first dance class. Lerman danced through her childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood, ultimately earning a bachelor’s and a master’s. Along the way, the influence of her socially conscious upbringing began to show. In her early 20s she decided that she needed not only to perform, but to create dance and not just for its own sake. Lerman wanted to communicate, to change notions of what and who dance was for and what a dancer could look like.
Lerman: I’d been saying for a long time, dance was over-involved with technique. And I had decided that one reason the dance world valued it so highly is because it was measurable and because again, in the West this pressure to measure, measure, measure. Okay, this person’s leg is this high, and this one’s this high, which one’s better. You can measure how high the leg is going. You could do that kind of stuff. And so I was really interested in countering that, ’cause I felt like we were missing so much of what dance could be and what the, it just, it seemed crazy to me.
Throughout her young life, Liz Lerman had given scant thought to mortality until when at age 27, her 60 year old mother was diagnosed with cancer. She rushed home to care for her, but after a painful three months Anne Lerman died, her daughter’s world was upended. To cope and to mourn, Lerman created Woman of the Clear Vision. In the piece she plays her mother being welcomed into heaven by elderly angels. Lerman understood that young, healthy bodies like hers couldn’t know, much less tell the truth about aging and dying. In a world, obsessed with youth and athleticism, these dancers broke the mold.
Lerman: Right away, out come these people. You have to say to yourself, okay, it’s not going to be how high their leg goes or how high they jump because they can’t. I was always so surprised. You had people, I was working with people who were never dancers, who became dancers in their late 50s, 60s, and 70s and I was also working with people who had been dancers and were still dancing in their 50s, 60s, and 70s. They would both do the same movement. One of them would be so happy and the other one would be so mournful. For the people who had been dancers, you see what you can no longer do, but the people who had never been dancers, it’s like, wow, same move.
For the first time, Lerman realized how complicated the experience of aging could be. And she set about challenging stereotypes about what older people could accomplish with her company, Dancers of the Third Age. But this would not be the only way she would reject received wisdom. Hungry to tackle ever tougher subjects, Lerman created a hybrid genre called docu-dances. These were thought provoking, often satirical works about controversial topics of the day like genetic engineering.
Lerman: So what I could imagine that dancers would be, would just start out by just laying dancers out end to end on the floor, head to foot, head to foot, head to foot, end to end on the floor.
The Nuremberg trials.
The U.S. defense budget.
Lerman: The defense pieces were really that’s probably not quite the first, but probably really the first major time I had this idea that you could connect information and feeling through movement. I was on this kick that you were supposed to get your information from the news and you were supposed to get your feeling from all I guess, poetry or something. And I was thinking, why is that? People watch the news and they’re full of feelings. So why would we separate that? But it is true in that particular— there’s one section in that piece, it’s about the M1 tank, which by the way, we still use, 13-foot blind in front of that tank. So in that one, I sort of scurried around the floor and I bumped my head constantly into the side of the stage while this little voiceover was going on. Laugh, laugh, laugh, laugh, laugh. People are, you know, but afterwards, oh, I mean, almost every time I performed that piece, there would be a group of people waiting. Is that true? They want to know. Is that really true about the tank?
These kinds of responses were exactly what Lerman was hoping for. She wanted to get people thinking, talking, questioning, and though she spent her life using dance to address social and political issues, today, she’s still questioning herself.
Lerman: What have we done? Where have we contributed? Where have we been part of the problem? Where did we not do enough? In fact, I would say the 60s is my being in your 60s is almost entirely about regret. It feels to me as you think back, if I had taken a different turn, what if I had stopped making dances and said, I’m going to work entirely on how this defense money is actually spent. I mean what if I had done that?
What Liz Lerman has done is create a body of work that has dissolved boundaries, physical and philosophical. Her latest work called Wicked Bodies delves into the ways Western culture has for centuries depicted women as unruly, dangerous and grotesque as they blossom, reproduce and age.
Lerman: But that piece is full of rage. Yeah, I mean not entirely but oh yeah and I’m not the only one dealing with it in that work.
Now in her 70s, Liz Lerman has lived as long as many of the seniors she discovered at the dawn of her career and she’s still innovating, still pushing against convention, still kicking.