writers on dancing


Two Extremes

“Current Ideas and Dances
Liz Lerman Dance Exchange
Presented by TheVeterans History Project
Library of Congress, Coolidge Auditorium
Washington, D.C.
November 9, 2005

by Naima Prevots
copyright ©2005 by Naima Prevots

The dances presented on this evening showed two extremes, in terms of choreographic intent and execution.  “Preludes/Prayer” (2005), with choreography by Peter DiMuro and Company and music by Rachmaninoff, was a lovely abstraction and opened the program. Four dancers moved with great fluidity, creating soft patterns in space weaving in and out of each other’s sphere. “Small Dances About Big Ideas”, a longer piece and the evening’s major offering, was definitely in the message category, with numerous vignettes of war and justice. Conceived and directed by Liz Lerman, with choreographic input from Dance Exchange company members, it was commissioned by Harvard Law School for a conference commemorating the sixtieth anniversary of the Nuremberg Trials (post World War II). We saw an older woman on a bench whose body twisted and turned as she spoke of forced deportation. We saw the entire group embracing crutches, as the narrator told about people from Rwanda whose Achilles tendons were slashed. Dancers moved benches and chairs to form various courtroom scenes, and these were interspersed with war images. A key figure throughout was Raphael Lemkin, a Polish lawyer/activist responsible for coining the word genocide. Portrayed by one of the dancers, we saw him constantly moving, pointing and accusing with his hands and body, as if alerting us to the evils of nations. Three female “Norns”, creatures from Norse mythology, were much like a Greek chorus, as their movements encompassed sorrow, fear, and hope. Unfortunately, the “Big Ideas” in the title were hard to identify, as so many short vignettes made the piece confusing, scattered, and very long, with ideas fragmented and lacking clarity.

There were no program notes articulating the themes and messages in “Small Dances About Big Ideas”. The best explanation of what the dance might be communicating were the e-mail excerpts in the program from June 2005 between choreographer Liz Lerman and Harvard law professor Martha Minow, who initiated the commission. Minow hoped “the dance would reach people who seldom think about mass atrocities… with the chance to be drawn in emotionally and intellectually, with the pacing that can allow people to absorb… the limits of legal responses but also the dignity in the effort to frame and respond to atrocities through law…. How could a trial be the right response to mass violence? … BUT also How could a trial NOT be the right response…” And Lerman noted, “I myself continue to be moved, in part, by my own incredulousness; that I have lived on the same planet with this going on and done nothing.” 

The various scenes depicting war contained strong movement, but did not go beyond simply showing us that people were dying in various wars from different atrocities.  The court room scenes were confusing, and perhaps there was a desire to present ambiguity about the legal process as a solution to mass murders and rapes, but this was not at all clear. It was very hard to watch so many “small dances”, when they were so abbreviated in their content and hard to relate to segments that came before and after. Images came and went quickly, and ideas passed through briefly, and the piece seemed to end several times before the final conclusion.

The Nuremberg Trials lasted four years, and were meant to address  atrocities committed by the Nazis and make them accountable. The Germans themselves are now dealing openly with the horrors of World War II by creating exhibitions and building monuments. Wars and atrocities continue, but the question remains what is Lerman trying to tell us about how we deal with these awful events and how these affect individuals and large groups of people. She starts the piece with the three Norns coming on stage to the sounds of guns, airplanes and other war sounds.

The program states the Norns are the “source of the name Nuremberg, which originally was Norenberg, or ‘Norns’ Mountain’ and that they “help the gods understand the laws”. From the very beginning, and as they reappear, we have no idea how they provide moral or spiritual compass, as they seem to echo actions rather than guide them. It is clear Lerman wishes to extend the concept of atrocities from the mass murders under judgement in the Nuremberg Trials to the rapes in Rwanda and current war torn sites, but it is not clear if she is offering insight or solutions. The scenes of people struggling with death and murder become repetitive and lose emotional or metaphorical meaning. The courtroom scenes that keep repeating neither raise questions nor provide answers. The judge in each of these scenes seems frightened, uncertain and tormented, and the actions of the defendants and others are not made clear. It is hard to tell if the message is that the Nuremberg Trials and others are unjust and should not occur, or that there are other ways to solve these atrocities, or that they are not open to solution.

The Veterans History Project is part of the American Folklife Center at the Library of  Congress, and as the sponsors of this evening, we were told that the thousands of interviews they are conducting with veterans provided source material. This is not evident in the dance, as none of the movement or interaction shows us the complex feelings that exist when soldiers go to battle, encounter other humans they must shoot, and then recall the traumas of war and the reasons they fought and what they feel as they look back.

The premiere was very recent: on November 3, 2005, in conjunction with Harvard Law School’s conference “Pursuing Human Dignity: The Legacies of Nuremberg for International Law, Human Rights and Education.” My hope would be that the piece could be reviewed as time goes on,  perhaps with fresh eyes and a view to some editing and development. The dancers were magnificent, and there were wonderful moments, but the cohesive whole was missing.

Which brings me back to the opening dance, “Preludes/Prayers”. Here there was clarity of movement, as the quartet of dancers moved individually, in lines, and in couples. The music was used with great sensitivity, as the dancers curved their bodies, brought their hands together, and reached for each other. The flow was organic and satisfying, and the dance gave us a sense of internal logic. There is no reason that “Big Ideas” should not have the same clarity, and provide logic and illumination for the viewer. Choosing the other extreme of the choreographic spectrum, where ideas are the choreographic motivation, does not mean artistic coherence has to be abandoned.  I admire Lerman’s attempt to deal with strong and difficult issues, but I want her as an artist to guide and provoke me, and to give me a sense of how she feels and where she stands. Perhaps revisiting this material with strong reshaping can make this happen.      

Volume 3, No. 42
November 14, 2005

copyright ©2005 Susan Reiter



DanceView Times

What's On This Week
Index of Writers

Back Issues
About Us


Mindy Aloff
Dale Brauner
Mary Cargill
Nancy Dalva
Rita Felciano
Marc Haegeman
George Jackson
Eva Kistrup
Gia Kourlas
Alan M. Kriegsman
Sali Ann Kriegsman
Sandi Kurtz
Alexander Meinertz
Gay Morris
Ann Murphy
Paul Parish
John Percival
Tom Phillips
Naima Prevots
Susan Reiter
Lisa Rinehart
Jane Simpson
Alexandra Tomalonis (Editor)
Lisa Traiger
Kathrine Sorley Walker
Leigh Witchel
David Vaughan
last updated on November 14, 2005