- The Washington Times - Friday, April 27, 2007

Over the 30 years since its founding, the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange has grown from a small, struggling modern dance group to a company capable of putting on a show as theatrically ambitious and vibrant as “Ferocious Beauty: Genome,” playing through this weekend at the Atlas Performing Arts Center in Northeast.

Like many of Miss Lerman’s works, “Genome” fits into no conventional niche but is a colorful introduction to the wonders of modern science, told through beautiful, sometimes funny, images of molecules and scenes of idyllic youthful love juxtaposed against those of broken old age. Talking heads — scientists from across the country — speak of the wonders of science in inspiring ways. Bright monologues are addressed to the audience by Gesel Mason (making a welcome return to the company) and sexy, come-hither ones by Elizabeth Johnson, gotten up in dominatrix fashion.

Sometimes it is just fun to see; sometimes it leaves us science-illiterate adults feeling inadequate when the names of dozens of science’s legendary figures flash by on the screen and we can identify just a few of them.

The first part is an engagingly lively, sugar-coated introduction to science. In the second half, Miss Lerman and her wonderful group of dancers return to their roots, giving us a deeper appreciation of what it means to be human.

Miss Lerman has earned the right to dare such themes; her choice of dancers bears witness to her deeply held beliefs. Her company includes old people comfortable in their skins. One of them, Thomas Dwyer, runs with the pack at times, as vigorously as any. But in one scene he sits in his underwear, his many years there for all to see, surrounded by “Rules for Old Folks”: “At 100, swim with real sharks,” “At 105, play Russian roulette.” Having a foretaste of the future, the gray-haired Mr. Dwyer exhibits the spirit that makes him an integral part of this company: falling to the floor and executing a defiant set of push-ups.

In one of “Genome’s” most memorable sequences, Martha Wittman, another senior whose career as a professional dancer is still evident in her onstage authority, walks around the stage talking about her love of apples. The store-bought ones today are colorful, she muses, but unlike the apples of her youth, they offer “no more tart surprises.”

As if in response to her pleasure in diversity, a delicate and moving scene follows. Suzanne Richard enters in a wheelchair, which she alternates with a skilled use of crutches to join the others onstage in an ebullient dance. What could be an obvious, posterlike message — “Include Everyone” — becomes much more because of her joyous interaction with the group. Like most of the evening, it left the audience with a lot to chew on.

The visual contribution to the performance was striking: the faces of scientists, eloquent in what they said; the projected bucolic scene against which the two young lovers fell sweetly in love; the walls that confined Mr. Dwyer as he contemplated what later years might bring, carrying the message that death is a natural part of life, embedded in our genes.

What was “Genome”? A dance, a science lesson, a message-show? It was all that and more — Liz Lerman doing again what she does best: pursuing the good, the true and the beautiful.

***

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

WHEN: Tonight at 8, tomorrow at 4 p.m.

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

TICKETS: $37

PHONE: 202/785-9727

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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