Liz Lerman: When you spend time with people trying to see if art can make a difference in their life, it's interesting to hear all the reasons why it can and why it can't. And acceptance isn't the only way to make it work. Whether we're accepted or not isn't always the case, because we're not always accepted in the theater, and we're not always accepted by a critic, and we're not always accepted my own peers— hardly always accept what I'm doing. But I think giving people an opportunity to experience it on some level and see, "What does this say to me? What does this mean to me?” That’s pretty great.
Jo Reed: That was choreographer, performer, author and Macarthur genius grant recipient, liz lerman. Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation’s great artists to explore how art works. I’m your host, Josephine Reed.
This is the second of a two-part interview with one of the great innovators of contemporary dance, Liz Lerman. For Lerman, dance is a way to think and anyone can dance. The Liz Lerman Dance Exchange is a multi-generational company of dancers whose ages span six decades. She is known for breaking down boundaries between stage and audience, and theater and community often by creating site-specific work in places like the Portsmouth shipyard in New Hampshire. In fact, Liz lerman believes that The Shipyard Project of the late 1990s is probably one of the projects that really opened up the world for her, but it opened up the world to her ideas. The purpose of the Shipyard Project was to explore the significance of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard to the lives of people in Portsmouth. It is the country’s oldest naval base and had been downsized and at that time was slated to close.
Throughout the two-year residency, current and retired shipyard workers, and local citizens told their stories to Lerman and her dancers. Tihs became the raw material from which Liz developed a commissioned dance piece.
The project culminated in a three weeks of dance events performed by the Liz Lerman dancers and community members. They performed on boats and on bridges, and in the shipyard.
The response from people in the community responded to The Shipyard Project was enormous. They were moved to see their own stories, their working lives, enacted by the dancers. And this where I pick up my conversation with Liz.
A few weeks after leaving Portsmouth Liz Lerman received a letter from a man who worked in a shipyard in a neighboring state and who just happened to be on a day trip to visit the Portsmith shipyard. He saw one of the dances. Here’s Liz Lerman to tell us about it.
Liz Lerman: So this is like three weeks later, four weeks later, I get a-- and we were exhausted. I mean, we had just pulled out everything we could do for this piece. I would also that one thing about the shipyard project is while we were in Portsmouth, we did everything we could to make these dances for the people there. It was like a gift for the people. But I also made a piece of my own based on these stories that I put inside another work, where I felt I could have my own voice. And I think this is an ongoing question for artists, and it's an interesting question: Whose voice is it, and when? And I'm fine being of use and being in a community and letting all the skills that I have be able to be part of something in relationship to their lives. And I'm also fine saying, "And now it's my turn too." So yes, I came back and got this letter. The last day in the park, we put dancers all over the park, and people could wander and see these dances, and then we all gathered and the company performed a formal piece, and then we all did this last little gesture dance. And one of the dances I had made was set off in the corner, and it was a dance about some of the different jobs that people in the shipyard had had. So then I got this letter from a man. "We got up and stepped over the garden to find"-- and then he puts in quotations-- "dancers"-- and I think he puts it in quotations because the dancers were some of the workers from the yard, plus a couple of the company members-- "telling us about their, quote, first job at the shipyard. I found myself staring at these people, people in dance and word celebrating what their jobs were-- real people, who worked real jobs just like me. Even as I remember that moment, I can feel myself fill up with emotion. I have never truly appreciated the arts before. Yes, I've seen great works on stage, but never have I been lifted up and made to feel as I did that day in the park."
Jo Reed: That is a powerful letter
Liz Lerman: Yes. It is. And I think, as much as <inaudible> all yearn for the fact that people will come to the galleries and come to the concert halls and come to all the places where we make beautiful art happen, I know that tremendous number of people never will. And so it's fine with me to make the art go to them. It's fine. In fact, it's more than fine—it's really interesting. And if you think of it as a form and content question, as an artist, then the challenges multiply in all the ways you want to be challenged as an artist. "Well, if the form is a garden, now what I am going to do? How am I going to adjust to this?
Jo Reed: But you also do choreograph for theater and for concerts.
Liz Lerman: Absolutely, and that's where hiking the horizontal, that's where this idea is so critical to me. Every time a person senses, "Well, it's either/or"-- either you're in the park or you're in the theater-- I always say, "Every time that happens, notice-- notice what you're saying, and realize that you can flip it on its side and take a look at what's out there for you." Absolutely. I would not want one without the other, and I don't know why anybody would.
Jo Reed: Why do you think there is this difficulty in letting go of either/or?
Liz Lerman: I think that for some people, orthodoxy and hierarchy and rules are more interesting to live within, where you know you've gotten to the top because, "Well, you got to the top," and the top—there is no either/or; it's a top. There's just a top. There's just a top. The disaster for us is that in these kinds of worlds, first of all, you fight the wrong battles. You've decided the top is the top, and then you end up spending your life fighting for things that you may not really believe in. And it's just a tragedy. Whereas if you flip it sideways, of course I can apply all the standards of what the top is and live and work on that, but I don't have to only have that. So I like to say in a hierarchical world, the cutting edge is just at the top, and in my world, the cutting edge is really long. So for artists who are interested in new, different, challenging, changing things, then the horizontal is the place you want to be, because then you cut a new path in a second-grade classroom, and you can cut a new path in a garden in a shipyard. Oh, and also at BAM. You can.
Jo Reed: Another dichotomy that seems to come up quite frequently is there's science, and there's art, and the relationship between the two is-- it's not examined very often, but that's another thing you have certainly had an interest in and you've worked with.
Liz Lerman: I'm really-- the last eight years, I've been deeply ensconced in this science/art world, of which it's just fascinating, and I'm happy to say I have many artist cohorts in this world. There's a lot of interest in this right now. I think some of the interest is because the subject matter itself is just really curious, and there's just so much happening, and some of it's an awareness of the processes and how much they overlap, which I find really exciting. And it may also be true that it's just-- people at the top of their professions, there's a point where they need to be pushed and challenged and changed, and I think you find that in your cohort somewhere else-- not in your cohort, but I mean, in your colleagues on the other side. Yes, it's been really, really interesting to be with the scientists. I've learned a lot, not just about their world, but about my world. What I find peculiar is the assessment that perhaps if I'm making a dance, say, inspired by physics, and somehow I'm serving science and that science isn't serving art, I find that kind of an odd construct that may people ask me about. But I don't feel it that way, so.
Jo Reed: Can we talk about The Matter of Origins? Give us a little bit about what that project is, and then how did we get there?
Liz Lerman: So I made a piece with a geneticist called Ferocious Beauty: Genome, which I really love, and that piece had a big, long touring life. It stayed up-- we just finished the last performance of it in January at JMU.
Music excerpt from Matter of Origins.
So it toured for over five years-- not consistently, but it was out on the road. And one place we went, I approached by Gordy Kane, a wonderful physicist at the University of Michigan. He said to me, "Hey Liz, we want one." Meaning, I think, would we spend some time in the physics world. And actually, I told him, "No, not really." I was at that time feeling finished. But we had a meeting, and it was such an interesting meeting, and he gathered some of the physicists from his department, and we just met, and I just loved talking to them. And one of the things that he posed is that the work that they're doing at CERN, which is the place in Switzerland and France, where they're smashing the particles-- this is my paraphrasing; I'm not doing justice to it-- but trying to recreate the conditions of the Big Bang so that they can really understand that. And he really believes that they're going to figure all this out, in his lifetime. And I just, brightly, just said something like, "So, what about the other origin stories? What's going to happen if this really is the truth?" And nobody laughed. They said, "That's interesting." And in fact, that was what set up my next sort of investigation. Because I do think one thing is that science is changing our perception of ourselves rapidly, and that we don't have a lot of places to work that out, whether it's biology or physics or any of them. You might read a headline in the paper and you might just, "I don't want to read that," and keep going. I don't know where we get to work these feelings out. And so I like to think that artists, by working with these subject matters, give the public a chance to kind of investigate, over a 30-, 40-, 50-minutes period, "How do I feel about this? What do I think about this?" And that's certainly what The Matter of Origins does. So the first, Act I, you're in the theater and it's a big multimedia piece. The video is beautiful, and it's just looking at these questions about how astrophysicists and particle physicists are thinking about the beginnings of things.
Music excerpt from Matter of Origins: Without the dark matter you couldn’t have the galaxies or the stars or the planets or the dinosaurs that evolve on planets.
I know this is a hard kind of a question, but do you have an image of the dark matter, a picture image, or just a math image? No pictures. No pictures. It’s dark….
Jo Reed: You went to Switzerland; you actually visited CERN and spent time there.
Liz Lerman: I did. I got to go. It was wonderful.
Jo Reed: When you went there, what does it look like?
Liz Lerman: Well, you know what? CERN looks like the shipyard. That was my first take. In fact, my first proposal to CERN was for us to do something like we did at the shipyard. The oral histories that are living at that place are unbelievable. Now, since I've been there, there've been so many artists there that they actually have a program now for artists in residence at CERN. They've developed something, because they have so many people wanting to come and spend time. It's really fantastic. But at the time I went, that was not yet in place. And we got to tour. We were there before the tunnels opened, so we got into the tunnel, and we got to dance on the tunnel. In fact, you see video of the dancers in the tunnel. It was very, very interesting. And just kind of exciting to see all of the ways that they want to come to understand things. And this is the part I-- I know it's hard to understand-- but I feel it's not unlike the way artists want to understand. It's just different. But the intensity and the obsessiveness of it feels very familiar. Very familiar. So we made this piece, and then the second act for our public is this idea they can sit down and have tea, and there are scientists at every table, and the audience continues to have dancers around them, but they also get to reflect on what they've seen, talk about. And this is important to me too, because I still feel, especially with dance but maybe with all the arts, that audiences have an experience, and if they don't have a chance to reflect on it, it's gone really fast, and then later they don't even know they had it. So I like to give people a chance to name what went on for them, even if it's not exactly what went on for them because, of course, we can't recreate the experience. But I think asking people, "So what did you notice? What happened? What did you discover? What were your feelings about it, or what did you think about while this was happening?" So for example, the section we call "Genesis," where you get to hear the Hebrew version of the Old Testament, you hear an English translation of that. You also hear a series of incredible indigenous stories of different cultures and their idea about how the universe began. But meanwhile, you're looking at these incredible images of CERN. And the dancing is, these beautiful duets that are done very close and simply-- I think it's a profound opportunity for an audience to think about those these.
Jo Reed: Structure is important to you. You call it your lifelong companion. Talk about how structure works for you.
Liz Lerman: I think structure is a misunderstood concept. When I did some work with the American Banking Association around the idea of creativity, one of the things that struck me was that….I asked the bankers how they had been creative in their lives and in their work life, and they couldn't think of it. And I think the reason they couldn't at first is because their idea about creativity is that it's complete abandonment, anything goes, you do whatever. I just think that is so far from the truth, actually, that for many us, constructing a structure that allows us to move, discover, unleash the things that we're trying to make is really important. And so part of the job of an artist is to learn how to build these structures. This is, incidentally, one of the appeals to me of scientists. I think scientists do the same thing. They build structures and then they observe the conditions that happen because of the structure. That's kind of similar to what I do. So I think it's a profound notion, this to me would be a critical aspect of education-- is that I think you can build a structure to support any investigation you want, or you can build a structure to support any interaction that you want to have, and then you look at what you've caused, and then you fix things until you get what you want. So I love building structure. Recently I was teaching a class at Wesleyan University, and I was trying to get the students to understand how incredibly creative structure is. Because for them, I think structure felt like an oppression—oppressive. Pretty much because they've all been taught these five-paragraph essay forms that you get in our school system. That's structure. But I said to them, "Well, let's just think for a minute. What is the structure of a leaf? Name it. Describe it." And of course they all had different ways of describing it. And I said, "Okay, now imagine that, however you just said that, that that's going to be the structure for your next paper. Now what would happen? Forget the five-paragraph structure. I'm not interested in that. Tell me how you would-- because depending on how you describe the leaf, you're going to have a different outcome of your knowledge." Very exciting.
Jo Reed: What is "bulky love", and what does it have to do with dance?
Liz Lerman: I was in a conversation with the wonderful choreographer BB Miller, and we were talking about something-- we were at the Bates Dance Festival, sitting-- I can remember, we were just sitting around a corner of a table, and somehow we got into talking about love, and then animals. And I said, "Well, my Golden Retriever..." And then out of my mouth came, "She is bulky love." And that was so amazing to me. It was one of those images that was just so true. She's filled with love, and also the way that big dogs tend to bump into things, and you can't hold the whole thing, and you get the whole package whether you, you might just be looking at her ears. You get the whole-- it just struck me as just wonderful. Now, as to why it shows up in my book, and why it shows up in my book at the end, has to do with this deep, deep love and affection that people have for their animals, in a way that they can never quite describe. And in my attempts over the years to find thousands of reasons to explain the power of art in the world, and how many times what's said back to me is, "Prove it," or "Show me the data," or "Give me the information," or-- all that. In the end, it's the fact that we can't say it in words that gives it its power, and I have a feeling if I can get people to align that sense of what they think about, if they happen to love animals this way, then maybe they'll understand what I'm talking about. But the other piece of too that the essay brings out is this is ancient. This is ancient and deep, and way beyond just current conventions-- whatever we may think, the way artists practice currently, as just a convention of whatever our practice is. The depth of that kind of need and love that goes into art and goes into our relationship with our animals; that's ancient.
Jo Reed: I'm certainly not the one who's said it, but it has been said-- it's storytelling, in whatever form, that makes us human that really is the thing that differentiates us.
Liz Lerman: That's lovely. Since my husband's a storyteller.
Jo Reed: I could go on and on, but I cannot skip the big question, which is, this is a liminal moment for you. You are stepping away from heading the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, and you're onto other things. Talk about the decision to step away, and talk about what you anticipate.
Liz Lerman: Well, first, I'm extremely fortunate in that the artists here and the young managers that are here are so ready to step up and make the Dance Exchange be its next iteration. The fact that they're here and I know that they're here and that they're already doing such beautiful work makes stepping away possible, easier, exciting. And I think that the Dance Exchange has a chance of surviving into the future because of this change. I think if I had stayed, it would have to just change so drastically to support some of the new directions that I'm interested in. So I'm very excited for them. For myself, I'm also excited. I think what will be new for me is, after 34 years of running a nonprofit, there's a way of being in the world where I'm always looking for work for people here. I'm always looking for money. I'm always looking for ways to sustain it. That takes up a lot of my brain. So by stepping away from running a nonprofit, I believe I'll have a new space, and I hope new behaviors, that will let me experience things differently. For starters, I'm going to spend a semester at Harvard. They very kindly offered me a visiting lectureship and being artist in residence, essentially, to the university. And it's a very interesting place. They want to understand the role of practicing artists in higher education. They know that there is a role. Maybe not just for practicing artists; for practitioners, but artists. They have a proud history there of supporting theory but not practice, and they want to investigate that. So that's fun. But that's not where I'm going to live. That's a wonderful, wonderful opportunity for me, and I get to do some research on some new work. And then I'm developing partnerships in unusual ways, with museums and theater companies, for new projects. Some of the projects I'm thinking about are really big, way big-- big in a way the Dance Exchange would never be able to do. I'm hoping to find the right partners so that they can unfold in a way that would be fun for people, and I'll continue to make work. My own work, there are a few projects coming up-- a partnership with Jawole Willa Jo Zollar from Urban Bush Women. We've been commissioned to do a piece about the relationship of Martin Luther King and Abraham Joshua Heschel, two iconic figures. That's going to be really interesting. Jawole and I have known each other forever. We are best colleagues, and we've never worked together. So I'm excited about that. I'm very interested in the Civil War. That's the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, and I'm looking at-- my own interest is around the impact of war on medicine, what happened in the Civil War, and what happened in Iraq. I don't know how all that's going to play out, but that's something I'm looking at. And the other thing is, I'd like to find some platforms to carry on my insistence that artistic practice can make a difference in the world, that it is not merely luxury. So for example, with the Civil War stuff, I would like to also bring artists from other countries that are currently in civil unrest. I would like their work shown side-by-side. I would like our policymakers to experience this. Because we're back to your first—bulky love. We're back to what makes us understand anything in this world, and then how do we make our actions congruent to our values, our feelings, and what is meaningful to us. And I think our policymakers get out of whack sometimes. They're not in touch enough with some things that I would like to say ART can help them with, and I would dare say even artistic practice could make a difference. Now, whether I can find those platforms, whether I can make these things occur, I don't know. But I do know that artistic practice makes a difference.
Jo Reed: Liz Lerman, thank you so much. I really appreciate it.
Liz Lerman: Thank you.
Jo Reed: That was choreographer, dancer, author and innovator, Liz Lerman.
You've been listening to Art works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor
Excerpts from"Fugue" and "Scientist as Choreographer" are from Liz Lerman’s project: "Ferocious Beauty: Genome." Both are compilations by sound designer Darron L. West.
“Dark Matter” is from Liz Lerman’s project, The Matter of Origins. All are used courtesy of the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange.
Both are used courtesy of the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange.
“Foreric: piano study” from the album Metascapes, composed and performed by Todd Barton, used courtesy of Valley Productions.
The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at www.arts.gov. And now you subscribe to Art Works at iTunes U -- just click on the iTunes link on our podcast page. Next week, graphic designer, computer scientist and President of the Rhode Island School of Design, John Maeda.
To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.