- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 12, 2002

Liz Lerman, founder, director and choreographer of Dance Exchange, has been working in Washington for three decades, developing her unique artistic vision. Irreverent, provocative, feisty and inspiring, she has been dedicated above all to the proposition that dance is for everyone.

This innovative approach has just been recognized in a major way with a MacArthur Fellowship, the prestigious honor that carries with it a no-strings-attached $500,000 award.

"I'm glad I'm old enough to realize how special it is to get this recognition in your lifetime," the ebullient Ms. Lerman, 54, says. "I've heard from hundreds of people all over the country about what a difference I've made in their lives. People taking the time to let me know that has meant so much to me it makes the whole thing like a state of grace.

"I've heard from some of my rabbi friends around the country and one of them said, 'You have to understand the MacArthur is the most coveted of all the awards because it's about creativity and vision."

"Of course I've spent it a million times in my head already," Ms. Lerman says. "I think many people don't realize what it's like to dedicate your life to a small nonprofit organization. I've poured everything into the Dance Exchange and my own salary over these 25 years has been pretty meager. So, I need basic things like retirement and I don't have a savings plan for my daughter's college. Every artist I know, to a person, who has called me or written me has said, 'Put it into retirement.'

She also plans to give some of the substantial monetary award to Dance Exchange. "I want the people around me to get a little wind at their backs too," the dancer says.

This city has had the pleasure and privilege of watching Ms. Lerman's development, from her early experiment of enticing a boy's team at Sandy Spring Friends School to join her in athletic choreography, through her innovative work with a group of elders at the Roosevelt for Senior Citizens. A fervent belief that dance is for everyone has been a hallmark of her artistic exploration.

Through the years she has experimented with adding text to dance (words are still frequently part of a Lerman work). She has tackled big subjects political ones, moral and spiritual ones sometimes with earnest indignation, often with sharp wit, always with a view to opening up dialogue rather than shutting it off.

She has poked fun at Reaganomics (earning an article in the Wall Street Journal), examined her own commitment to religion in "The Good Jew?" and done an evening-long piece called "Safe House/Still Looking."

That work began with a commission to do a work about the Underground Railroad, the secretive effort to help slaves escape before and during the Civil War, and quickly expanded into a look at modern history, and the Holocaust, especially those who risked their lives to save Jews. It raised thorny questions about similar situations today.

Asking questions is one of the things Ms. Lerman does best.

"I think the art is in asking the question," she says. "When we start a project the planning is: What is the question to ask that is going to generate personal stories that have some depth but also some specificity, because the way to counter the general hugeness of anything is through specificity and also I think it's a way out of the maudlin."

For an artist of Ms. Lerman's bent, with her commitment to community-based work, the tragedy of September 11 was a particular challenge. The crucial question she posed to a group meeting a few weeks later was, "What would make you feel human again?"

The response that moved her was, "If I could just laugh I would feel a lot happier."

Out of that was born "Uneasy Dances," a work that skirts a thin line between uncontrolled laughter and images of stark sorrow.

Dance Exchange will perform "Uneasy Dances" next Thursday at the Library of Congress' Coolidge Auditorium. (Tickets are free but should be ordered in advance through Ticketmaster, 202/422-7328, or 800/551-7328.)

To begin work on "Uneasy Dances" Ms. Lerman relied on a Spike Jones record called the Laughing Record.

"The musicians are trying to do 'The Flight of the Bumblebee,'" the choreographer says, "but they keep sneezing and laughing. I played it for the dancers and assigned each of them a different voice of laughter in the music and said, 'You have to completely hit the music but I don't want the movement to look like you're laughing.

"It was a really hard assignment. All my dancers are fabulous but Martha Wittman is beyond amazing. She worked the whole weekend on it and she came back with this incredible beginning of a phrase that went exactly with her laughing track."

This unorthodox rumination on the horrors of last September was originally given as part of "Hallelujah," the most ambitious work Dance Exchange has created so far a three-year journey of community-based performances that traveled from Maine to California and involved hundreds of local participants.

The "Hallelujah" project and its extensive touring is part of the reason Liz Lerman Dance Exchange has recently been so seldom seen in its own hometown. There is irony to this Washington-based artist's winning such an important national award when her own company finds it impossible to find adequate performing space in this city.

The company's plight reflects a major crisis in the increasingly robust modern dance community here: a lack of venues. It is one of Ms. Lerman's pressing concerns.

"I love Washington audiences," she says. "I always find them really intelligent but not trendy, in the sense that in New York you have to contend with whatever anybody thinks is the next coolest hip thing. I think in Washington that's only true in politics, not art.

"But finding a place to perform is our most serious problem. Our last major engagement here was at the Shakespeare Theater in 1997," she continues, "and it was wonderful. But that space isn't available to us anymore, they need it themselves. Carla Perlo at Dance Place has been wonderfully generous to us but some of my recent works are too large to fit in that space. We love that we're going to be at the Library of Congress and hope to do more work with them."

The Kennedy Center has had limited time for Washington-based dancers on its traditional Terrace and Eisenhower theater stages. But Ms. Lerman says the center has an even better space for modern dance.

The best theater, she says, is the Theater Lab, where the gonzo audience-participation comedy "Shear Madness" has been playing for 15 years. "The center keeps saying they make a lot of money from "Shear Madness" but I can't believe they do. .. Maybe they could devote some time each month, or have a festival of Washington dance there for a month each year. That space would be unbelievable for a company like Dance Exchange."

Perhaps it is time for the Theater Lab to live up to the implication of its name and become a focus of ferment and experimentation once again.

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