writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, Washington, D.C. edition

"Oh, Brad. They're dancing in the galleries!"

Liz Lerman Dance Exchange
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

October 25 2003

By Lisa Traiger
Copyright ©2003 by Lisa Traiger

"Oh, Brad! They're dancing in the galleries!" And why shouldn't they? Dance, that is. In the galleries. In the streets. On stages. Off stages. Anywhere there's a space for people to gather and move, to create a community of body and spirit, there should be room for dance. That's what I've learned from Liz Lerman.

Saturday one of Washington's august spaces for contemporary art, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, opened its doors and its galleries for Lerman's Dance Exchange to dance in, to explore the art and the art spaces. And, oh my, what an hour it was.

Lerman changed the way we look at dance here in Washington, and I think very nearly across the country. She's democratized the body and erased barriers of age, she's welcomed, urged, ordinary people into the rarefied experiences of art making. She's taught us that dance is for everyone—young, old, fit, and less so, black, brown, white, and anything in between. Her company with its dancers from their youthful 20s to their mature 70s, reflects how we live and who we are. Messianic in her fervor to bring dance to the world outside of the concert stage, Lerman has since the mid-1970s been seeking out new venues and new ways to bring dance into the world. Her Dance Exchange, a multigenerational, multicultural troupe, has danced at the base of the Statue of Liberty, in a Portsmouth, N.H. Shipyard, at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial, in houses of worship, in gardens, church basements, bathrooms and elevators. When Lerman brings her dancers out of the theaters she revitalizes our eyes and our minds, revivifies our viewpoint of where and who and why dance is important. She urges us to know dance and invite it into our lives. For dance, moving bodies, is everywhere. She told us as much that Saturday when she connected the thousands of runners in the Marine Corps marathon with the war protesters with her own trained dancers. "We're all using our bodies to say something," Lerman said. "And isn't that wonderful." Indeed.

On a brilliant, mid-October afternoon, on the sun drenched steps fronting the Hirshhorn, Roy Lichtenstein's 32 foot high, 5,000 pound "Brushstroke" was unveiled and Lerman's troupe was there to celebrate his art and the gallery's "Gyroscope," a celebration of the collection's breadth and depth. Lichtenstein's mark, an homage to the popularity of pop art is as much a tribute to the more classically aligned painters across the Mall in the National Gallery. At once it's memorable and indelible in how it aligns, as well, with the mark Lerman has made on the cultural landscape of Washington as much through her artistic statements as her political, social, and communal ones.

Oh, Brad! a 40-minute site-specific work, tours some of the Hirshhorn's galleries, and those who joined were advised that they couldn't possibly see everything: Dancers, soloists, pairs and small groups would be at work simultaneously for observers to glimpse or study as they wandered the galleries, catching perhaps a solo in an elevator corridor, or a replication of a Picasso mother and child sculpture, sneaking with a fabricated baby carriage down a passageway, Picasso brought to life. These smaller, more intimate works created by the dancers, were framed by two group sections for four participating company members and eight adjunct artists.

What was most revelatory and satisfying about "Oh, Brad …," as has been the case in many Lerman projects, was what could be learned from the process of watching. Lerman instructs us in these outsized productions that art and dance take time and effort. She tells us that looking, as well, takes concentration and that, most important perhaps, you can't take it all in at once. Looking, like art making, and the process-oriented choreography that Lerman and her dancers favor, takes work. Art isn't easy. Neither is art viewing. You'll miss something surely and need to go back and look again. Susan Sontag told us in "Against Interpretation" more than a generation ago that looking at art takes time, effort: "We must learn," she wrote, "to see more, to hear more, to feel more." That's what Lerman, too, urges us to do, just as she seems to be telling us that we can't get it all, we'll always miss something. It isn't that the art is inscrutable, a trick for our minds and our senses. Rather it's that art is big, too big for one viewing, whether it's a black canvas painting by Ad Reinhardt set in a room of monochromatic minimalist art—where the dancers opened the tour with a pastiche of movement and a monologue ruminating on Lichtenstein, gallery-going and the sundry nature of society's view of the arts.

Or it's one viewing, even two of the ritualized Ann Hamilton installation—a room with a whispered soundtrack where machines drop leaves of paper from the ceiling in an ongoing cycle. There the dancers reconvened after 40-minutes in that crisp crumble of paper that littered the floor to restate what Lerman has taught us once again through process, as much as product: art is grand, art is mysterious, art is breathtaking in its simplicity. In that room filled with white clad dancers moving through white paper falling, falling, crunching, crumbling, Lerman gives us a lesson in beauty and truth. Through their moments of repose and unison choral movement, as we tried to peek in the doors of this overcrowded gallery, we learned that art-making is messy, art-viewing is frustrating, it takes effort, it's hard to make and hard to see. It takes time-and money -- to produce and it takes time and effort to understand. Looking hard, looking more than once, and looking again, and once more, then, is worth the effort. Missing, too, Lerman seems to assure us, is part of that process. And it must be okay to miss something. What we miss in looking, perhaps might be what we discover on another trip into the art of seeing.

At the same time, though, Lerman seems to reassure us that art, while it takes work, it must be accessible to everyone on some level. What my eight-year-old daughter saw and what I saw that day undoubtedly were completely different, but in a Lerman experience, that difference, too, is wholly valid. That art is for everyone is something that Lerman has been teaching her audiences since she first set out to make dances. Anyone can dance has long been her mantra, and dance for anyone, for any body, has long been the goal of her accessible choreography, which often eschews strict formalism and abstraction for content-driven narrative works. Her dancers relish gestural phrases and movements that underscore the spoken word or in this case the art through a language of body that doesn't mimic but reflects and underscores the art in recognizable ways. One example noted: the way a dancer draws himself up narrowing his body to reflect the Alberto Giacometti statue of a tall "Walking Man." Moments like that say quite simply: you can get this just by looking. Art is rarefied, obscure, unattainable, Lerman's dancer tells us in that moment that art is for us, if we just take a moment to open our eyes and see.

I return again to Sontag. "Our task is not to find the maximum amount of content in a work of art, much less to squeeze more content out of the work than is already there. Our task is to cut back content so that we can see the thing at all." Seeing art for what it is, I learned once more that brilliant fall Saturday in October when Liz Lerman set her dancers free to explore the galleries. Those who accompanied the tour or just stopped to look for a minute, saw some art, missed some art, and learned that the seeing is a process to be attended to as vigilantly as the process that goes into the making of art. Dancing in the galleries? If it makes us see something differently, more clearly, with new eyes, then why not?

Originally published:
Volume 1, Number 6
November 3, 2003

Copyright ©2003 by Lisa Traiger




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The Autumn DanceView is out:

New York City Ballet's Spring 2003 season reviewed by Gia Kourlas

An interview with the Kirov Ballet's Daria Pavlenko by Marc Haegeman

Reviews of San Francisco Ballet (by Rita Felciano) and Paris Opera Ballet (by Carol Pardo)

The ballet tradition at the Metropolitan Opera (by Elaine Machleder)

Reports from London (Jane Simpson) and the Bay Area (Rita Felciano).

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last updated on November 3, 2003