- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 12, 2002

Stories abound of artists who had to make their mark elsewhere before they became recognized at home. In a twist, however, the 26-year-old Liz Lerman Dance Exchange is so popular nationally and internationally that its touring demands overshadow its local appearances.
This weekend, however, company members of Dance Exchange are presenting their own choreography at Dance Place in Northeast. The entire Liz Lerman Dance Exchange will be performing in two weeks at the Danspace Project of St. Mark's Church in Manhattan.
These two events tell part of the story of what makes the Takoma Park-based Dance Exchange unusual. When Miss Lerman formed the company 26 years ago, she had her own idea of what dance should be: It should be inclusive her dancers have ranged in age from the late teens into the 80s and it should reach out to the community to mirror the concerns and lives of real people.
This led to a close collaboration with her dancers, in which each member of the company contributes creatively to the making of the work. As a result, her eight-member company consists of accomplished artists brimming with creative ideas. The program this weekend gives them the chance to step out on their own.
Miss Lerman is hands-off but supportive. "As much as I collaborate with the dancers in making my work," she says, "and as big a part of it as they are, it's still not the same as making your own. This is really great for them and for me because it helps me see where they're really trying to go and understand better the contribution they're making."
Company member Margot Greenlee will perform a solo, an excerpt from "Poultry." Miss Greenlee says she plays a "Grade B country western singer" in it.
"The piece chronicles my rise as a singer. Some of the songs are traditional and some of them I wrote. So it's also my debut as a singer and songwriter," she says with a laugh.
"Poultry" will have its first performance as a full-evening work March 1 and 2 at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop.
Miss Greenlee, an Ohio native, completed a graduate degree in dance at Ohio Wesleyan University and formed her own multidisciplinary theater company. She joined Lerman Dance Exchange three years ago after her husband, composer Todd Harvey, got a fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution.
"It's the best job in the country," she says with quiet enthusiasm. "I'm not kidding. For me as a dancer, because I was already doing community-based dance and very interested in dance and text, which Liz is, it was perfect. It's hard for me to think of any other company that supports its dancers the way Dance Exchange does and enables them to be not just dancers but administrators and be involved in the governance of the company and take on directing roles and choreograph."
Miss Greenlee offers a glimpse into the company's way of composing. "When we're working on a piece, I would call Liz the instigator and the editor. She'll give us thematic ideas or some sort of inspiration for creating movement. Her real genius is to be able to take our individual voices, craft them together and make something meaningful."
The dancer considers Miss Lerman "a champion of dancers' rights their rights to survive."
"She hires us for a 52-week contract, which is very rare in the dance world. This is our full-time home. We're able to concentrate highly on the work we do. When I was in Ohio, I had five or six jobs at a time," Miss Greenlee says.
The company's associate artistic director, Peter DiMuro, serves as project director for this weekend's programs and is also dancing a small solo from a work he calls "Standing on My Head."
This will provide a transition from the premiere by Elizabeth Johnson, which has a big trampolinelike set; Mr. DiMuro's dance will provide a distraction while the set is dismantled. He does not stand on his head at all in the solo it's part of his point that things we remember are not the way we remember them.
Another solo will be danced by Celeste Miller, who has been touring nationally for almost 20 years, and senior company member Thomas Dwyer will perform a new dance. Two larger group numbers have been choreographed by Kazu Nakamura and Marvin Webb. Mr. DiMuro sees the two works as very different but says they share an appetite for big, full movement and a keen sense of structure.
For its New York appearance later this month, the company will dance "Hallelujah: In Praise of Fertile Fields," commissioned by the Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival.
It all began by working with the gardeners at Jacob's Pillow and includes words from a diary of a cook that was found in the Pillow archives.
"Martha Wittman, from our company, plays the cook, and she narrates the piece," Miss Lerman says. "Most of the text is directly from the diaries, and it's beautiful. The whole piece is one of my favorite things."
The rest of the New York program is called "Uneasy Dances" and includes a solo by Miss Lerman, which she made on the occasion of her 50th birthday and the 50th anniversary of the founding of Israel, and a premiere created post-September 11.
Of the latter, Miss Lerman says: "I knew from my own experience, particularly around the death of my parents, how swiftly you can move from laughing to crying. One of the sections is to Spike Jones' laugh record, with the dancers moving exactly to the music of the laughter, but they're not laughing.
"If you take the sound out of laughing it looks like people are crying," she says. "I think the whole question of should we be laughing? When can we laugh again? is sort of subsumed in that. Ultimately, we take all that laughing movement and set it to some spiritual music by Alan Hovhaness. It becomes a kind of lamentation."
Ahead for peripatetic Dance Exchange this year are more tours around the country from Massachusetts to New Mexico, planned trips to Japan and Europe, and a major engagement at the University of Maryland in August.
WHAT: Annual dance concert choreographed by members of Liz Lerman Dance Exchange
WHERE: Dance Place, 3225 Eighth St. NE
WHEN: Tonight at 8, tomorrow at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.
TICKETS: $16 general admission, discounts for seniors and students
PHONE: 202/269-1600

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