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The DanceView Times, Washington, D.C. edition

Dance Exchange At Home

Scores for Salt and Snow: Dances Since 2002
Liz Lerman Dance Exchange
The Greenberg Theater, American University
Washington, D.C.
May 22, 2004

By Lisa Traiger
Copyright ©2004 by Lisa Traiger
published May 24, 2004

Whether it was hula-hoops or snow encrusted umbrellas or hysterical laughter that rained down onto the stage, Saturday evening's performance of the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange had an inexplicably subdued aura, especially so for a company that typically celebrates its home season with great fervor. At the newly inaugurated Greenberg Theater—a terrific mid-sized proscenium space affiliated with American University—the company returned to town with new and recent works—all since 2002. The last time the company had a home season, it bowed out Lerman's cumulative "Hallelujah" project at the then-newly minted Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center on the University of Maryland campus. It's surprising how infrequently the Dance Exchange performs its signature choreography at home. Residencies and commissions have been the company's bread and butter for years and those commitments keep the Dance Exchange dancers on the road and out of town much of the time, so a Dance Exchange home season is usually a big deal in the D.C. modern dance community. All the more surprising, then, to see the brand-new Greenberg Theater less than two-thirds full for the evening of three works, Scores for Salt and Snow: Dances Since 2000.

This evening of repertory comes two years after Lerman's three-year-long epic work, Hallelujah, which touched down in 14 cities and communities before coming home. At present the company under Lerman's direction is at work on a new multi-year, multi-collaborative work based on genetics called Ferocious Beauty: Genome. But the Dance Exchange is also at the beginning of a new phase in leadership as Peter DiMuro, a long-time member and associate director, becomes acclimated into his new role as artistic director while the company evolves away for Lerman's key role as founding artist. More changes will surely be in store.

The work on Saturday evening, then, is in-between work, not necessarily filler, but it's choreography that will most likely promote artistic development and experimentation, or it may just be an artistic cul-de-sac, a point where Lerman with the collaboration of her six full-time company members and five adjunct artists has stopped off on her way to bigger, broader, more complex and complete projects.

No matter, the evening's three works still demonstrate many of the Lerman hallmarks: the now well-accepted, even expected multi-generational company of dancers—it currently spans six decades—the import of story and situation as integral in the work; the use of spoken and prerecorded text and personal narrative; and the reliance on gestural motifs for movement invention. For those familiar with Lerman's process-oriented choreography, the work feels comfortable, even comforting in its demand for viewers to interpret render a text-based reading from the viewing experience. Lerman very definitely wants her artistic output to induce discussion, questioning, even debate—she said as much during her curtain speech after the first work. And that invitation to think, feel and explore dance in its theatrical, expressive, narrative and visceral contexts is comforting, even familiar for audiences used to parsing out meaning and stories. There's not much unattainable post- or post-post-modernism here. The choreography, then, doesn't seem quite as mystifying and scary, Lerman suggests, if one knows, somehow that the work relates to say the life history of Leonard Bernstein, or to the post-September 11, 2001, malaise and depression that set in across much of the population. This work beckons viewers to relate to it personally. And they do.

The life of musical maverick Bernstein shaped Dances at a Cocktail Party (2002), a Washington, D.C. premiere, which opened the program. Using some less well-known selections by the composer, Lerman delves into Bernstein the artist, Bernstein the man, and Bernstein the exemplar of an era when the idea of classical music and classically trained artists where admired not in spite of their elitism, but because of it. Today, when classicism and even modernism is suspect, disdained as high brow, this view of Bernstein as both a populist—remember he composed West Side Story and Candide and he conducted and instructed a generation of children with his Saturday television broadcast—and a maverick—he choreographed psalms and masses, ballets and choral works—reminds us of what we've lost in recent years as popular culture has ascended at the expense of high culture.

Bernstein's sound is frequently grand, all-American, providing stirring renditions of mid-20th century American music—brash, a bit jazzy, confident even boastful. Lerman's ten dancers evoke Broadway and American living rooms circa 1957 or so. At times the work channels Jerome Robbins as much as it does Bernstein. There's an instant when the men in white T-shirts and black jeans lift their legs side arms stretched overhead like Jets and Sharks, or when the women swivel their knees and snap, ready to swoosh their skirts and stomp like Chita Rivera in "America." The work builds, following DiMuro as the Bernstein character who toward the end comes to attention as the charismatic conductor while the company mimics his motions—their arms painting a memorable filigree of notes, bars and measures, their heads dropped forward in concentration one moment, thrown back in the ecstasy of the music the next. Leonard Bernstein has been channeled.

In between though, despite often high energy scores and excerpts Lerman selected, there are some pallid duets for DiMuro, with his lush, black hair recalling a young, virile Bernstein, and Margot Greenlee, whom he whirls around before she parcels out a riot of technically balletic batterie. It's an homage to the classicism that Bernstein religiously weds to his compositions. But then DiMuro finds a new partner, another brief duet, this time with Marvin Webb, and the pair lift and support with ease. Yet surprisingly, or maybe not, considering Bernstein's charismatic personality, neither of these very personal duets contained much spark, let alone sexual or sensual tension. And that lack of the intangible charisma subdued much of this work. As Bernstein's work crescendoed, especially that Candide overture with horns, cymbals, drums, flutes, clarinets ringing, the company didn't attain a hyperkinetic abandon to match the music. In the end, DiMuro left his conductor's stand to ascend the spare wrought iron steps, yet the work doesn't rise to the occasion. It feels unfinished—perhaps as Bernstein, himself felt for his life and his music

The evening's centerpiece and premiere, Scores for Salt and Snow in Three Episodes, pulls together diverse pieces that the company is working on into a single unified format. First there's Wittman's Salt, a miniature that mines an Irish-American family history with its monologue and features Wittman's filigree of delicate gestures, her sighing full-bodied turns and her gently stoic presence. Gumdrops and Funny Uncles explores a DiMuro monologue, spoken by adjunct artist Ted Johnson about dancing the Herr Drosselmeier role in The Nutcracker. Johnson's personal coming out as a homosexual actor in a staunchly conservative Midwestern town becomes fodder for DiMuro, who is now in the midst of his own work about living life in or out of the closet, Near/Far/In/Out. The men in floor-length black skirts strike a long diagonal line before delicately lifting their hems to skim the stage; it's a lovely moment.

Johnson catches, cradles and carries falling salt (or sand) in the folds of his skirt and it becomes a totemic icon, passed in cupped hands on to a line of dancers filing across the stage. It's a small but potent gesture that connects these very separate sections. Finally, Young Woman features Greenlee and wisps of fluttering paper—reminiscent of installation artist Ann Hamilton's At Hand, a room in the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, where the artist filled the space with recorded whispers and falling leaves paper. In the fall of 2003, this space was the penultimate gathering point for Lerman's site-specific tour of the galleries, Oh, Brad! They're Dancing in the Galleries!

Following the poignant but subdued Funny Uncles section, there's nothing sweet and childlike about Young Woman. With spoken text by Lerman, Greenlee and Hamilton and a warm cello score sharpened by metallic percussion, this work rips through any semblance of calm, collectiveness suggested by the two earlier sections. Greenlee punches, flings and twists her steely body then she emits a harshly cynical cry, a literal "boo-hoo" that mocks the pain, suffering and misery of thousands of deaths. The text describes bodies falling from the sky. It's harrowing as couples try to comfort and assuage trembling or tremorring dancers. Then Greenlee weeps again with that sarcastic, fixated cry. "Boo hoo hoo," she spits. She's tough, tensile, unrepentant in her demonic monstrosity. The group mimics her toughness—the way her leg whips sideways, arms pulling it up from underneath, body pitched forward. It's hideously off kilter, like this young woman who finally, ultimately falls prey to her own demented anger—her mocking tears now silent—a scream of pain. Scores for Salt and Snow in Three Episodes is still an experiment and may not be seen again in the same fashion. These three sections though represent new ideas and directions on where the company is going.

Anatomies and Epidemics returned to the repertory from Hallelujah, with new company members taking over some roles. The work figures around a laughing epidemic that overcame an African village. Like many Lerman works it explores the issue in its entirety, from a scientific explanation of the physical attributes of laughter to the sometimes funny physicality of it. Using a Spike Jones recording the company giggles and snickers, guffaws and snorts, their physical tics, twitches, sneezes and rubs comically timed to the second. Yet amid the laughter, there's also an anthemic, elegiac quality, a wistfulness that seems to wonder, is this last laugh or will we laugh again?

First: Company members rehearsing Dances at a Cocktail Party. Photo by Michael Mazzola.
Second:  Company members rehearsing Anatomies and Epidemics. Photo by Stan Barouh.

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 19
May 24, 2004

Copyright ©2004 by Lisa Traiger




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last updated on May 3, 2004