- The Washington Times - Friday, November 3, 2006

The multicultural and multigenerational Liz Lerman Dance Exchange epitomizes its founder and namesake’s embrace of large ideas and challenging questions. The company started its 30-year anniversary season Thursday evening at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland with a program (repeated yesterday) that captured the group’s ardent humanism.

First came a little fillip: an amusing performance of “Man/ Chair Dances” in the center’s large symphony hall. Five performers behaving like mischievous elves scattered among the university’s fine student orchestra, sat on wooden chairs, twirled them overhead, gamboled among the woodwinds and kettledrums and crawled onto conductor James Ross’ podium — all to a John Adams score. It was a bright beginning, with musicians and dancers clearly having fun with the concept.

Then the audience moved across the hall to a smaller theater — the change of venue gave a party atmosphere to the event — to see the rest of the program.

The mood quickly darkened with Miss Lerman’s stark, thought-provoking “Small Dances About Big Ideas,” commissioned by Harvard Law School to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Nuremberg war crimes trials. The ideas were big, including genocide in its many forms — from the Nazis through stories in today’s headlines — bringing vivid images of war, cruelty and despair.

This was the first time I saw this 2005 work; it marks a striking growth in the group’s theatrical power. The dancing has never seemed so muscular: images of dancers young and old, felled by gunfire, crashing to the ground; the mute grief as inert bodies are cradled and mourned; the horror of rape.

Miss Lerman always has dealt with big ideas — what it means to be a Jew, to grow old, to find a way out of prejudice — and she has dealt with them in both movement and words. She loves words and uses them well. Sometimes they have been more telling than the movement. It is part of her DNA to be intellectually concerned in a profound way with the world’s woes and injustices.

In “Small Dances About Big Ideas,” she has given form to this with an unusually eloquent theater piece. Her collaborators’ sensitive contributions — lighting by Michael Mazzola, soundscape by Darron West and set design by Lewis Folden — all help bring her potent ideas to life.

Just while I was noting this, the action stopped. The house lights went up, and the group’s producing artistic director, Peter DiMuro, who acted as the work’s genial interlocutor, asked audience members when they had first heard the word “genocide.” He then sent the dancers out into the audience to ask for feedback, and when the dancers returned, he wove the reactions they reported into a little movement phrase the audience could perform while sitting.

Gathering everyone together to be active participants also has been a central part of Miss Lerman’s approach to art. However, this little exercise seemed to trivialize what had gone before. The dancers and other artistic contributors had labored long and hard to make a searing picture of what happens when we obey our demons rather than our angels.

However well intentioned, to make a childlike hand charade for the audience to join in felt somehow demeaning to the heartfelt work just witnessed.

The meaning and impact of art is frequently elusive, as illustrated when the poet Robert Frost was confronted with the statement, “A poem should lead to action.” His reply: “When?”

Miss Lerman’s current crop of dancers is the strongest she has ever had, and they follow a long line of remarkable multicultural performers. The dancers deserve mention for their conviction and selflessness: Thomas Dwyer, Ted Johnson, Karen Koyanagi, Dorothy Levy, Lesole Maine, Cassie Meador, Shula Strassfeld, Vincent Thomas, and especially Elizabeth Johnson and Martha Wittman.

The evening concluded with “Still Crossing,” commissioned for the celebration of the centennial of the Statue of Liberty. It brought together onstage Dance Exchange members and about 50 people from the Washington area, who looked almost as disparate as Dance Exchange itself. It was a fitting finale to a grand evening.

***.

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