writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, Washington, D.C. edition

Following in the Footsteps

Dance Exchange
Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center
University of Maryland, College Park
April 9, 2004

By Lisa Traiger
Copyright ©2004 by Lisa Traiger
published April 19, 2004

In the nearly 20 years that I've been watching Liz Lerman's work, I've come to realize that the most powerful, lump-in-the-throat moment of virtually every Dance Exchange program comes at the end. That's the very end, after the choreography is finished, when the cast lines up and takes its curtain call. That's the moment when those sitting in the audience see themselves up onstage. They too could be dancers, Lerman and her always ordinary-looking, but frequently extraordinary troupe seem to be saying. Give it a try, the faces whisper; it's not as intimidating, not as scary nor as difficult as most dance companies make it out to be. For the Dance Exchange—long before all the ultra-popular multigenerational, multicultural, multi-abled labels, took hold — looks like us: middle-aged, lumpy, youthful and fit, grandparent and grandchild, married couples and true friends, strangers and lovers of every stripe.

All dance has at its root the kinesthetic experience. Whenever we see that rarified ballerina, lithe and exquisite, on stage we know somehow deep in our bones and muscles how it must feel to fly, to spin endlessly, to float effortlessly. In the 28 years since Lerman, now among Washington's grand dames of dance, founded the her unashamedly progressive and eclectic group, the Dance Exchange, she has been relying on the overwhelming effectiveness of that innate kinesthetic quality that draws many to watch dance. But, while ballet leaves one with the idea of "if only I could do that." Lerman, through her use of a diverse range of dancers and non-dancers of varied technical abilities leaves one thinking — rightfully so — "even I could do that." And, Lerman and her company members will tell you, "you really can do that, just give it a try."

In 1975 Lerman broke the age barrier in contemporary dance by inviting senior citizens — non-dancers all — to share the stage with her youthful dancers. Ever since, the work she has made has been multigenerational, first with a modest troupe of touring senior citizens and young dancers, Dancers of the Third Age, and ultimately with a small cohort of senior dancers fully integrated into the seven-member Dance Exchange performing company.

Saturday night, MacArthur-grantee Lerman wasn't present at the Dance Exchange's Near/Far/In/Out; she's out of the country working on another community-based project. Newly named artistic director Peter DiMuro is at the helm of this latest project, which like many Lerman works in the past, will travel the country picking up ideas and momentum before returning in a year or two, newly evolved and differently experienced. At this point, Lerman remains as involved as ever in the Dance Exchange, she's choreographing her own multi-year venture — Ferocious Beauty: Genome, which too is taking shape at various sites and with multiple collaborators around the country. But Lerman has named herself founding artistic director, preparing for a time when she will eventually slow down and allow the Dance Exchange to evolve. The question is will it remain a clone or take a different route?

That evolution, that question of where the Dance Exchange will go under the helm of a new artistic director was at the core of Saturday's program. DiMuro has worked with the company for a decade and he seems to have completely assimilated the Lerman techniques and even, in some nearly spooky ways, the Lerman mystique. (The way he comfortably addresses the audiences with a flat Midwestern intonation and the stylistically similar narrative base to his choreographic works come immediately to mind.) His Near/Far/In/Out maintains many of the hallmarks of major community-based works Lerman has created in the past, including 1997's The Shipyard Project and 2002's Hallelujah. Like all Dance Exchange work, it's process- not product-oriented, which means that how the work gets made is of as great an interest and import as what comes out, for better or worse. At the work's foundation rests the Lerman concept of small story/big story: or how in the hands of an apt storyteller/dancer a very personal narrative, can contain universal resonance. Thus DiMuro narrates the story of his sexual coming out as the basis for a universal acceptance of difference and similarity in all people.

The N/F/I/O community and target audience are the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered community (LGBT), but, as in all Dance Exchange endeavors, N/F/I/O desires to reach further. In this case, beyond the lines separating sexual identity to demonstrate one of the basic foundational values of the company: pluralism and acceptance of difference.

The two-part program began with three solos drawn together under the title "Significant Others." DiMuro's"Male Monument," was the most fully crafted and attuned to the rest of the evening. Excerpted from his evening-long Light Reading, this chatty monologue-cum-dance, discussed DiMuro's Midwestern police chief dad's obsession with collecting photos and newspaper memorabilia. But masterfully Lermanesque, DiMuro wove in poignancy and hilarity, depth and curiosity as he described the basement haunt his father resurrected. There was also shtick, including bringing in four male friends from the audience to demarcate with masking tape, the basement room and insinuate the Iwo Jima Memorial. It's a work DiMuro has refined and returned to over the years; at times it seems richer and more significant. This time it felt light, tossed off, overly chatty and less introspective.

Elizabeth Johnson's danced essay on skin, its layers and qualities, opened the evening followed by Marvin Webb's reminiscence of a former boyfriend, I Remember/I Forget. Both works felt slight and suffered for it. Johnson, a fine dancer and performer, has trained her body into a frenzy of sinews and muscles — made most evident by her camisole and bare legs — that has drained sensuality and sensitivity from her technique.

The evening's centerpiece, N/F/I/O, featured 23 onstage performers in addition to DiMuro's three Dance Exchange company members, Johnson, Webb and Martha Wittman. Video interviews with members of the LGBT community including Congressman Barney Frank and photographer Joan E. Biren/JEB project on a screen, while a modest chorus of singers, many from the Lesbian & Gay Chorus of Washington, DC, contribute their voices.

The work, like all Lerman works, is meant to instruct. But sometimes, mostly in the hands of Johnson, it becomes preachy, as when her character turns teacherly, soliciting questions from the audience and recounting anecdotes. DiMuro hopes to convey the history of the LGBT community with vignettes culled from earlier generations. Anita Bryant, one-time Florida orange juice pitchwoman and right-winger, is paid an homage with oranges and a bright, sprightly dance. But it's the acknowledgment — in voice over — that she was the best thing to happen to the gay community for it finally brought them together that makes the point. Other small story/big story moments include the one when Biren describes how she burnt the letters from her lover in the bathtub of the Plaza Hotel, fearing discovery of her lesbian relationship would ruin her. DiMuro even brings on an old claw footed tub, and that and the multi-layers of skirts, shawls and tops Wittman dons and removes, seem superfluous window dressing.

Most effective in this evening of multiple vignettes drawn together under the N/F/I/O banner, is ultimately the sheer numbers of performers and their stories. When the stage fills — in particular a moment of six duets borrowed from Lerman's Hallelujah Project: In Praise of Constancy in the Midst of Change — the work truly dances, small pairs holding hands, clasping one another, caressing and letting go. It's not the dance, most of these performers can muster the trademark simple gestural motifs — fingers touching lips, hands wiping across the mouth, fists clenched, and so on — and the ever-so-basic walking patterns. And that is enough. It's not the movement, which is for the most part non-inventive. It's the meaning behind it. It's the idea that these performers somehow actually lived through these events, and here they are sharing their own once-secret stories, coming out as a creative and revolutionary act. Welding these dances and dancers to true-life stories marks the appeal.

And for many this may hold no appeal at all. But that's another hallmark of Lerman's work — and now DiMuro's, as he follows so closely in her footsteps: she's most often preaching to the converted, or at least to the sympathetic. Right-winged Anita Bryant descendants would no way be found in a Dance Exchange audience. That doesn't diminish the work itself, but it diminishes its promise.

As DiMuro completes the first year of N/F/I/O, which earlier had outings in Tampa and Durham, he has much more to accomplish. This College Park version was made as part of a residency at the University of Maryland and featured students, faculty and community members from the campus, including Marilee Lindemann, director of the LGBT academic program on campus, professors Evelyn Torton Beck, Josephine Withers and Carol Burbank. Their stories, their students' stories, their gestures and idiosyncrasies become fodder for DiMuro's art as he shapes their stories. N/F/I/O isn't complete, nor is it whole, rather at the moment it's just vignettes. The work has another year or two and more stories to cull, more people to meet, more ideas to assimilate, before DiMuro shapes it into his finished product. It's his work, yes, but it remains very much connected and informed by Lerman and the Dance Exchange process, if not consciously, then unconsciously. I can be sure of one thing, though, whatever the outcome the high point will no doubt be the final bow, with a rainbow of faces and a yardstick of ages, in all its diverse splendor.

Lisa Traiger is currently working on a biography of Liz Lerman.

Originally published:
Volume 1, Number 13
April 19, 2004

Copyright ©2004 by Lisa Traiger




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The Autumn DanceView is out:

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

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

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last updated on April 19, 2004