Podcast: Liz Lerman nurtures civic dialogue and creativity through dance
The choreographer’s studio is a hot spot of innovation for the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange.
A production of the Smithsonian's Lemelson Center. Written by Amanda Murray. Audio production by Matt Ringelstetter. Art Molella, executive producer. Amanda Murray, podcast program manager. Joyce Bedi, webmaster. Liz Lerman was originally interviewed on March 15, 2010, by Amanda Murray. Podcast released May 20, 2010. Music is “Microobee” by Keinzweiter, from http://freemusicarchive.org/music/Keinzweiter/.
Matt Ringelstetter: Invention. It happens all around us, and not only in the fields of science and engineering, but also in the visual and performing arts. For dancers, artists, and choreographers, the studio can have a lot in common with a scientist’s lab. Both places are sites of improvisation, experimentation, adaptation, and testing. In this podcast, we’re going to look at one choreographer’s creative process, and her dance studio as a place of innovation. The Lemelson Center’s Amanda Murray talks with Liz Lerman, Founding Artistic Director of the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, based in Tokoma Park, Maryland. Liz describes her company as a group of multi-generational makers, working together to explore how meaning is created in the world. The dance exchange uses art to spark public dialogue, and their dances explore topics like the human genome, health care, where our food comes from, and even where we come from. Let’s find out what happens when art and invention mix.
Amanda Murray: Welcome, Liz. Thanks for being with us.
Liz Lerman: Thanks for having me.
Amanda: I first learned of the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange back in September of 2008. I went to see at the Kennedy Center a piece called Drift, choreographed by Cassie Meador, and then I heard of your work again with the Maryland Science Center, on their exhibition called Cells: The Universe Inside of Us. That was a great example of civic dialogue around science, and what you really do is spark conversations through dance. And what else, as we start off here, should our listeners know about the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange?
Liz: Well, first I just love that your entry level into the Dance Exchange was from two other artists. The Dance Exchange is many artists, and though it bears my name, that’s simply because I started it a very long time ago. But in fact one of the wonderful things about the Dance Exchange is that its multi-generational at all times, including who are the inventors, who are the makers, who are the doers. We talk a lot about good leading and good following, and we all mix that up all the time, so I love that it was some of the younger artists who came to your attention. But I think if someone was going to say to you now, “What’s the DNA of the Dance Exchange?” or “What’s the essential nature of the Dance Exchange?”, this is probably what you’d hear: that there are people of many different ages working together; that we have a— The shorthand is “an equal commitment to concert and community” but I think it’s much bigger than that. I think the commitment is to the idea that art is central, and our institutions and the way we live just don’t make that so evident. So the Dance Exchange builds all kinds of little byways and waterways and bridges and any metaphor you can think of that lets art into people’s life, both as viewers, but also as doers. And then lastly, that we’re really committed to a sort of a vast spectrum of meaning, how meaning happens in the world, and that means that our dances may, they may talk, we may use video, there’ll be stories, there’ll be narrative, there’ll be subject, and then sometimes they’ll be abstraction, which is what I think people first think of when they think of dance, is that it’s just steps. Of course it is many things more than that.
Amanda: And I’m struck by your observation that when a scientist has data, he or she tries to make a story around the data. This is a quote from a talk of yours that I watched. And you yourself, as a choreographer, are a data-gatherer. You’ve done dances about the defense budget using sources from the Library of Congress. You’ve explored immigration, economy, geology, prayer, and you combine all of the data that you gather with music, movement, spoken word, and you tell stories. So when did you begin combining things this way and using dance as a way to explore science and technology?
Liz: Well, it’s interesting, your idea about data. I love that it’s so broad, because again I think a lot of people think data may just be the numbers and the bits, and of course that is part of data, but the idea of information is everywhere. And the way we see it, take it in, and I guess right now for me, I’m very interested in how people experience information. I think people don’t realize how much we each take in information and file and sort and keep and let go, I love all that. For me, I mean initially, it may be just because I was lucky to be – in some ways lucky – started dancing really young, so in some ways I got a lot of technical information that my body needed done very early. I don’t even know how it happened, in a way. I can’t tell you the nature of what it was like to spend a gazillion million hours in dance classes in my youth. But what that did is lead me to a time in life where I began to wonder how to use all that, and I love the dancing, but it didn’t quite express everything that was going on.
In particular, it’s interesting just seeing the Greensboro exhibit downstairs [at the National Museum of American History.] It’s interesting that for me one of the first moments that made me say, “Wait a minute, I’ve got to rethink this,” was the Civil Rights Movement. Because for me, being taken out of school, sent to a freedom school at the same that I’m learning the Bluebird Variation, which is a classical little variation from ballet, and trying to understand, what’s the relationship between these huge events in life and what was happening in my personal life as an artist— I was fourteen at the time, so trying to understand how to take what was so powerful to me on a personal level of dance, and look around the world, I realized that actually the way I was being trained wasn’t enough. I don’t think I could have said it to you like that, the way I said it was, “I’ll quit. I’ll quit dancing.” That was my expression of it, but later, of course, I believe once you start you can never stop and I came back again and again to the beauty of the art and also the challenge of the art form. I began to see that there was no reason not to use this other data, and not to use these other things, just because supposedly and fine art, the purest art, it’s just the pure movement.
Actually it turned out, by adding these other things I could make something that really meant something to me, but also to the people that I spent time with, because a lot of the Dance Exchange’s history has been working, getting the stories from, people in their own lives. When they come to see it, it still has to mean something. How do you build those relationships?
Liz: So let’s talk specifically about your piece Ferocious Beauty: Genome. This is a dance that weaves folk tales, interviews with scientists, and questions about all kinds of implications of genomics, diversity, how we respond to the world around us. This is really complex stuff. How did this project in particular come about?
Amanda: There are several stories as to why it came to be, and I suppose when you think about what makes you finally— I’ve been musing lately how we always know the straw that breaks the camel’s back, when we realized not to do something. But actually sometimes there’s a straw that puts it all together, and you say, “Oh wow, I should do this.” This is kind of like that, because I had met a woman who works in at NIH named Irene Eckstrand. And I’d met her in an odd way because we were both moms with little kids in a swimming pool, and you know, you stand around for hours while the kids try to flop in the water. And pretty soon the moms start talking, and that’s how I met Irene. So I like to say it began in water. We got into some interesting conversation about the relationship between art and science. It was all just sort of theoretical and curious and interesting.
But meanwhile, there was an exhibit touring the country called Genesis, in which bio-artists, which are visual artists using biological material, and that exhibit was touring. It had actual DNA in the artwork, and it was out in Seattle and it caused a big stir. The big art museum out there that was showing it, and they called me to see if I would come out and do something with the public. Now, they called because I’ve developed a structure for giving feedback, which a lot of people are curious and interested in. That particular structure would not work in this setting. But I was really interested, so I said I’d love to come out, maybe we could do something with dance and the public or something, or at least listen. Because I love these, I like very much what happens when art crosses into other domains. I’m interested in the sparks. But I said to them, I don’t know anything about genetics. So they overnighted me what I like to say is four pounds of genetics. I mean, I got this huge stack, and I started to read it, and I went into shock, which I now realize is because they sent me shocking material. They could have sent some other aspects of genomics and I don’t know that I would have done what I did.
But in particular I was curious about the stuff around reproduction and what was going on. My daughter at the time was a teenager and I though, “Oh wow, she may actually make decisions in her life around reproduction that’s very different, because of what science is doing. I should know something about that, as a mom, really.” I know this about myself and I know this about the art form, which is, I don’t know anything about genetics, but if I make a dance about it, by the time I’m done I’ll know something. It is an incredible way to learn and discover. In fact, if I had my way, that is how I would design all learning, is to give people the tools and skills for investigation and let people go find what matters to them at the point in their life where it really matters. Which, as I said, this mattered to me a lot. So I called Irene, I said, “What do you think? I might make a little dance about this,” and she was connected to scientists all over the country. We were touring a different dance at the time, but everywhere we toured, I’d say, “Hey Irene, I’m going to be in San Francisco,” and she’d say okay, and then she’d get me in touch with these amazing scientists. So I got to be, I researched for about nine months while we were touring other stuff, talking to scientists. For example, Steve Palumbi out at Stanford just spent a day with me and four of the dancers, took us all around his lab. He does marine biology, and he had a huge impact on the piece, because of the kinds of things he was asking. In fact he led me to this whole thing about whales, our relationship with whales. It turned out to be a big part of the piece, speaking of stories. So that was really just incredibly magical, to be able to have that time with people. They were also, the scientists, were very interested in talking to artists. Very, very curious little exchange. At first a little nervousness, but once the conversations got going, we had so much ground to cover. Everything from, how do you ask a question, which is one of the sections of the piece, to why do you persist, to the nature of making mistakes, which I always wish we had a different word, because they’re not really mistakes, they’re something else that happens. Even the tedium, even the tedium was something we could share, which is that it’s not, it is tedious, but it’s also incredible. It’s like a restful space while you wait for something that you know is eventually going to happen.
Amanda: Did you think that their nervousness was to do with maybe a fear that you wouldn’t speak the same language? They’d be speaking some other language and you’d speak another language, and you wouldn’t find common ground?
Liz: I think so, and I think also—I learned this a long time ago when I first started to dance with old people—we live with stereotypes, because that’s what we know. And once you are in relationship with people who, say, are old, or are scientists, or are artists, then the stereotypes, which are often simplistic ideas like, “Oh, they’re only going to be interested in facts,” that is not true about science. In fact it’s hardly true. Or, well, it’s true, they’re interested in facts, but what facts are and how they change and what’s their relationship to factual information, it’s more like artists. And just like their notion of us [artists], perhaps we’re indulgent, and do whatever and have no discipline. That’s not true either.
So there was some very interesting re-discovering of purpose, both of our own passion, but also a certain compassion for each other that I think developed out of this. Also I think both art and science, and maybe every field feels this right now, because the world is changing so radically, but I think that they are nervous about the public in this sense: they need the public; scientists need the public, but so do artists. We need the publics to pay attention, to care, to invest, to participate. I think there was interest on the part of the scientists who sat down with me, that maybe through art, there might be a different way of communicating. So I think at first their idea was we’ll make it get better for them in relationship to the public, but I think for the scientists who I’ve continued to work with, and there are several, they are beginning to see that artistic practice can affect their inquiry. And I certainly see that in reverse.
Amanda: I’m especially interested in how the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange studio, and your work as a choreographer, can compare to the experimental process of a scientist, the thought process. A scientist or an inventor in his or her lab, whatever shape that may take. It seems that in general, a choreographer’s studio can serve as a laboratory for testing out ideas and collaborating, and all these different elements of what we call the inventive process. Based on your own experience and your creative process, how is your studio a place of invention and experimentation?
Liz: I think it’s completely true that you can overlap almost everything. The nature of being generative. When do you generate, when do you edit? When is everything open, everything possible, and when do you say wait, we have to start closing the funnel now? The nature of when do ideas come? One of my favorite exchanges with the scientists over time has been the relationship of what we might describe as improvisation. So when I’m getting to work on something, I will— I don’t just come in and say, “Here are the steps. Do it.” I’ve got to test for a little bit to see if I’m even close to what I think I’m trying to do. So I will construct what I would call an improvisational structure. Improvisation doesn’t mean “do anything.” Improvisation means there’s a design element where I construct something that gives the dancers some series of tasks or something to do, and then we look and watch, and then I’ll begin to side coach. That is to say, if I’m not getting what I think I want, I’ll side coach, I’ll start to fix the structure. But sometimes of course they do something that’s so much better.
Amanda: And you didn’t know you wanted it.
Liz: Exactly. And then off we go to that. Both things are possible, and I love that, which is to say, it’s not an either/or. It’s very possible that I am onto something and I can get them to it, and it’s very possible that they will lead me somewhere I never thought of that is just magnificent. And then there’s all kinds of stuff in between.
When I was talking to the scientists more and more about this, one day one of them said, “You know, it sounds like algorithms to me.” That is to say, the construction of local rules, or the observation and setting what the local rule was. I mean, that’s the other thing I could do, in fact we did that with the scientists on occasion. We would say, “Here, watch the dancers,” and then we would say, “What is that? What is the biological process you see, or how would you describe that?” It’s just wonderful to see what they do. And they can’t all do it. It turned out the ones who were best at that were also ones teaching science to non-majors. That people who are, and I find this in our field too, and I’m not in any way being pejorative; for me it’s much more spectrum, that is to say, people who are really interested in public engagement and people who do their best work by themselves in their studio. It’s not an either/or. My field needs all of that to be going on. I personally like to march along that long spectrum right between them, because there are times when I like to be completely alone, by myself, not engaged while I try to understand what I’ve come to know. I like that.
So the Dance Exchange, we’ve evolved over time a whole set of ways, of methods, of working which I could hand off to anybody. I can just say, “Here, these are some methods, and they will work for you if you try them.” We try to find ways so that, we like to say, get the smallest piece of information, so that you can add those pieces up in your own way. So that it’s not prescriptive. It doesn’t come out looking like Liz Lerman, it comes out looking like whatever it is the thing is you’re trying to make. We can describe what those things are, and we continue to find them. But I think I’m at my happiest when the problem is so big that those don’t work, and that I get to have to find another one. I gotta try to figure out yet another way to approach this particular dilemma then I’m very, very happy about that.
Sometimes all of that goes on in the studio. You’re right, the studio is a lab. But in some cases, our laboratory is in the world. So it could be that we’re actually doing everything I just described, but it’s in the context of some community project, or a dilemma, working with scientists trying to teach something. We’ll get up on our feet and try to figure out what would be the best way to embody that, something like that. The laboratory itself doesn’t have to be only exclusively our studio. But we do some beautiful work in our studio.
Amanda: Well, this has all been really fantastic, and thank you so much for your time.
Liz: Thank you, I’m really glad to have been here.
Matt: That was choreographer Liz Lerman speaking with Lemelson Center’s Amanda Murray. In her latest piece, called The Matter of Origins, Liz Lerman explores the theme of beginnings, drawing ideas from history, science, and religion. You can see the premiere of The Matter of Origins at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland, September 10th and 12th. For the Inventive Voices podcast, this is Matt Ringelstetter. If you’d like to contact us regarding this episode or any of the series, drop a line to email@example.com. Leave feedback on our iTunes page or on our web site, invention.smithsonian.org/video. Tune in again next month as we continue to explore the people and places in the world of invention.