- The Washington Times - Friday, April 20, 2007

Liz Lerman has been a pioneer and nonconformist dancer-choreographer throughout the 30 years she has led the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange. Five years ago, her heterodox views and the passion she brings to the stage led to a MacArthur “genius” award.

Deeply concerned about the human condition and fiercely determined to create dances relevant to those concerns, she has made pieces about what it means to be Jewish, to be homosexual, to be old, to be an outsider.

Her latest and most ambitious opus, “Ferocious Beauty: Genome,” has been touring during the past year, from Wesleyan University in Connecticut, which commissioned the piece, to the Mayo Clinic, to museums across the country.

Next week the Washington-based company finally brings this multimedia work here, with performances Thursday through April 29 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center sponsored by the Washington Performing Arts Society.

“Genome” grew out of the audience participation Miss Lerman encourages. Asked by a Seattle art museum to lead a discussion on its exhibit called “Genesis,” she plunged into a study of genetics and came to feel it would be a fascinating subject to tackle through dance.

“So much of biology is physical,” she says. “Cellular biology is really about movement.”

So began her unorthodox attempt to make bedfellows of science and art.

“A lot of scientists,” she discovered, “are incredibly passionate and want to communicate more with the public. There’s an interdisciplinary movement in science right now because the questions are so big they can’t be answered with a single discipline.” She took a similar interdisciplinary approach in assembling the artistic staff for “Genome.” “We needed a whole team of five artists for this show,” Miss Lerman says. “Me, a sound designer, lighting designer, videographer and animator.”

The collaboration with scientists proved to be fun for all concerned. “I would never have thought about whales,” the director says, “and I wouldn’t have thought about evolution if I hadn’t met Steve Palumbi. He’s also in the piece on video.”

Mr. Palumbi, professor of biological sciences at Stanford University, sounds as taken with the experience as Miss Lerman.

“Working with Liz was fabulous from a scientist’s point of view,” he says. “She has a bright and intense intellect — as powerful as just about anyone I know — but it’s geared to a completely different view of the world. What fun to see your own work absorbed and reflected back having passed through such a different lens. That’s what I valued the most — the chance to see things differently.”

Miss Lerman hasn’t made science entertaining, Mr. Palumbi adds, she has made science “an integral part of enjoying life.”

Laura Grabel, professor of natural science and biology at Wesleyan University, was an early supporter of the project and, Miss Lerman adds, helped other scientists become enthused as well.

Miss Grabel has been a dancer as well as a scientist and claims that “Genome” not only brought those two sides of her life together for the first time, but also gave her tools to use in the classroom — especially with nonscience majors.

“Genome” opens with a dancer taking a telescope out into the universe and then turning it on herself, internally. “The stars explode and it’s cosmic and, I dare say, spiritual, although I don’t often use that word,” Miss Lerman explains. “I decided early on I didn’t want this piece to be one more moment where people would leave the theater feeling, ‘This is terrible; the world is coming to an end.’ We have so much of that right now.”

Miss Lerman says that she began to realize this is not a new problem. “We’ve always wondered what to do with our knowledge,” she reasons. “Are you going to tell people not to pursue knowledge?”

The first part of the work, she says, “teaches some science by unscientific means while addressing the question of what we’re going to do with what we have learned in the process. It moves along fast,” she adds, “boom, boom, boom.”

The second part tells three stories. One is about aging, she says: “How old do we really want to be? What you do with people who are so old.” Another is about diversity and perfection. “What happens when you make choices to eliminate what’s seen as imperfect?” The third is about ancestry and ultimately about evolution. Miss Lerman didn’t expect to be so moved by that. “I had no idea that evolution has really been proved by genomics,” she admits.

Something else emerged from “Genome,” as well.

The choreographer feels that video makes the whole project much more accessible: “The audience is used to having a relationship with film. I think it makes them feel they’re in the midst of something big and wonderful and grand. And it’s pretty, there’s lots to look at, and they don’t have to like every single second.”

Miss Lerman insists she doesn’t want dance to be daunting for those who don’t know anything about it. “Who wants audiences to be afraid?” she asks, hopeful that Dance Exchange’s efforts to imagine the stage with film or projections will become “a whole new part of our vocabulary.”

WHAT: Liz Lerman Dance Exchange in “Ferocious Beauty: Genome”

WHEN: Thursday at 7 p.m., Friday and April 28 at 8 p.m., April 29 at 4 p.m.

WHERE: Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE

TICKETS: $37

PHONE: 202/785-9727

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