Movement, text, younger dancers, older dancers, music, art and politics all are at the disposal of Washington, D.C., choreographer Liz Lerman.
In her latest work, "The Good Jew?", she explores what it means to be a Jew and what it means to be Liz Lerman.
"The setup is particularly theatrical,'' said Lerman, the artistic director of the D.C.-based Dance Exchange, in a recent telephone interview from Washington. "So much of the piece questions theology and faith, and it turned out to be the most theatrical piece we've done.''
"The Good Jew?" will be a part of two dance concerts offered by the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange to be held at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Liberty Hall, 642 Mass. The piece is a co-commission of the Kansas University New Directions Series, which is also presenting the concert.
"`THE GOOD Jew' is a work of extraordinary courage, of unflinching autobiographical exposure," wrote Debra Cash in The Boston Globe. "Lerman grabs 2,000 years of tradition by the throat and refuses to let go.''
Lerman is no stranger to controversy: She once created a dance that attacked the U.S. defense budget. "The Good Jew?'', which takes the form of a trial, was developed over the course of two years, with the bulk of the work coming last spring, she said. The setup features five large chairs with backs that suggest stained-glass windows. Using music, words and movement, she incorporates figures of a judge, a rabbi, the Biblical character Sarah and the Baal-Shem-Tov, the 18th century Polish Jew who founded the charismatic hasidic movement. Essentially, Lerman puts on trial her concerns about what makes a good Jew and whether Lerman is Jewish enough.
"IT'S A very horrifying idea, but most people feel that way," she said. "I find women don't feel they're women enough, gays don't feel they're gay enough, et cetera. You're supposed to be somebody who's part of an extended group with others, and initially it seems simple, but it turns out to be very complex. People who are very much into what they believe will see others as being less of a member of the group.''
In addition to "The Good Jew?", the group will perform "Still Crossing," which will feature local dancers, as well as solos and duets performed by company members.
One of the most striking aspects of Lerman's dances is her including older people onstage dancing with her younger professional company. The Dance Exchange, founded in 1976, includes a modern dance group for people 60 and older called Dancers of the Third Age, and she has written a book called "Teaching Dance to Senior Adults" that was published in 1983.
"REALLY THE challenge is in integrating the old and the young,'' she said. "Our society is so segregated, young from old, black from white, straight from gay, Jew and non-Jew. Essentially in rehearsal I wanted an exploration of ways they could come together in the company, and we've done that. The difference between the young and the old is in movement memory. It takes longer for the older people to learn a movement because they don't have the same movement vocabulary as professional dancers with experience.''
While she's in Lawrence, Lerman plans to lead a series of workshops with residents at the Lawrence Presbyterian Manor and Briarwood. She said she many people of all ages just don't know what modern dance is, and it's her job to open them up to the possibilities of movement.
"WORKING WITH people you're up against what they think dance is," she said. "A lot of them think of it as partner dancing, ballroom dancing or tap dancing, just like teen-agers think dance is what they see on television. When we go into a senior center, they show us what kind of movement they do, and it's frequently the Alley Cat, which is valid because it gets them moving.''
Lerman studied ballet as she was growing up in Milwaukee, and at 14 she danced with other students on the White House lawn, where they were greeted by John F. and Jacqueline Kennedy. But she weighed the difficulty of ballet in the balance and found it wanting.
"I had a wonderful ballet teacher in Milwaukee who had (Martha) Graham training, and she trained us in that tradition as well," she said. "We all wanted to be ballerinas, but when I got to be 15 I became less and less comfortable with the conformity imposed on ballet dancers. It was beyond what I could give, the pain of dancing on your toes. It was too much to give up.''
SHE WENT on to study dance and the humanities at Bennington College and the University of Maryland. Then in the mid-1970s she decided to settle in Washington, a city without an entrenched art scene.
"When I came here 15 years ago, I immediately loved the audience," she said. "I felt they were interested, but they were not up on the latest trends because they were outside the dance loop. There was an enormous vitality there because they weren't filled with expectations. New York audiences were up on this month's flavor, and their demands were different. It's not like that now in New York, but it was when I started.''
The Dance Exchange functions as an umbrella for a few dance groups, including Lerman's company. She would like to see it expand as her dancers mature and decide to choreograph themselves; instead of leaving the nest, these dancers can expand it and take advantages of the exchange's administration and financing.
"BEFORE, WHEN dancers got the urge to move on, they went off and formed their own company," she said. "But the environment has change. I think the Dance Exchange is a model for the future.''
Near the end of a composition, Lerman said, she starts to get new ideas for future works. And her next work may very well involve what happens next in human history. The piece promises to be just as politically charged as her previous works.
"I want to do a piece on how different people see the future," she said. "Young people see the future very differently than we did, what with the bomb and the ozone layer and the environment, and that's incredible for me to see.''