Liz Lerman crosses her hands, shifts to the side, crosses her arms, looks down, leans back and then forward over the back of her chair, hands out, grasping downward; she turns toward Paloma McGregor, her collaborator, and turns away; straddles chair, taps one hand on the table, puts her hand on her head; she nods, shifts, touches the massive fountain of hair atop her head, and crosses her legs all within a moment or two. Each of the movements of this MacArthur Genius grant-winning choreographer, performer, and writer are filled with such grace that I can't help but notice them. She is forcing me to notice her gestures, in the same way that she has forced our culture to think about movement and to really look at it for the last three decades, during which time she has exploded every notion of what dance might be.
"In any collaboration, whether it's with a director or with a scientist, one is being prodded to reconceive, because you have to," she says of working on A Civil War Christmas at Center Stage as part of her larger Civil War Project. It is telling that, to Lerman, it is natural that a choreographer might end up collaborating with a scientist just as easily as with a director.
"Welcome to the Liz Lerman spectrum," says McGregor, who is working with Lerman to choreograph the "gestures of longing" within Paula Vogel's musical play.
"It's not 'here's community and here's art,'" says Lerman. "But here's this whole idea of what it means to live in what I call 'the horizontal,'" which she defines as a way of seeing that doesn't recognize all of the usual boundaries between art, craft, science, and life.
McGregor has firsthand experience of the horizontality of the Lerman spectrum because, before collaborating with Lerman as a choreographer on this show, she worked as a dancer in one of Lerman's projects based on particle physics. "There's the Heisenberg," Lerman says, recalling the movements that McGregor developed to communicate an equation. "The whole Heisenberg shtick. I loved the movement that came out of that stuff, but also because Act 1 was in the theater and Act 2 was tea, and the audience had tea and sat around tables with scientists and dancers," Lerman says of The Matter of Origins, which she developed after a trip to the Large Hadron Collider at CERN.
But Lerman first became well-known when, as she puts it, she began to work with "old people."
"It was kind of a huge moment. I mean, I'd been pushing a little bit about how dance shouldn't just be about young 18-year-old people who all look the same, white, thin, hair pulled back, basically," she says, flicking a stray helix of hair from her face. It was truly radical to bring an 80-year-old onto the dance stage. "I mean, 1975 . . . we just didn't have any of the ideas that we have now about old people, you know, it was just a whole different world."
This is classic Lerman. She took the postmodern dance problem of finding the most interesting, unconventional movements possible and solved it with something very simple. "People wept just to see them move," she recalls. "Which I knew would happen because it's such interesting movement. But the other thing is they just signaled: This cannot just be about technique. It's not gonna just be about the steps, because look, they can hardly step! The work with the old people, it just paved the way for everything."
It particularly paved the way for her current work. Lerman-who moved to Baltimore with her husband five years ago, just before she retired from Dance Exchange, the enormously influential company she had founded and run in Takoma Park-has never worked on a play before. She decided to work with Center Stage on this play because of her larger endeavor, the Civil War Project, a string of collaborations with a number of different theaters, universities, and arts organizations around the world.
"I was delighted to get the call from Center Stage, and I hope they're happy they made the call," she says. "But I think that because I'd taken on the Civil War Project, I'm just really curious about the stories that are emerging. I think these big commemorative events are really about the present. I don't think they're exactly about the war."
This realization that commemorations are about the present rather than the past led Lerman to create her own new dance project, called Healing Wars, which will premiere next year at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. The dance shuttles back and forth between the U.S. Civil War and the war in Iraq. "I'm trying to figure out both, how to mix the time periods," she says. "After a while I want you not to care which war you're in. I want you to know at the beginning, We're in the Civil War, then at some point I want it not to matter anymore. So just figuring out how to do that. And also with this PTSD stuff, how to move, the speed with which one is overtaken by these images; can I create that in a theatrical environment?"
For Lerman, this is far more than an academic exercise. Just as she worked with the elderly, now she is actually working with veterans and their families to try to help develop the kind of vocabulary of movement that will express-and perhaps exorcize-some of this trauma.
"That's as close as I can get, right now, to my own exhaustion over," she pauses, slumping her shoulders. The silence hangs there like a cloud of smoke. "Like I think the public has PTSD. I don't think it's just about the returning soldiers. I think we all have it. My daughter's 24; we've been at war for half her life."
Lerman wants the movements she develops with her dancers-and with actor Bill Pullman, who has joined the show-to really mean something. She sits up and straightens her massive mound of hair, shaking her head a bit. "I really want to understand what I'm saying, what I'm trying to say to you, you know?" she asks. "Living, it's just not about making the show, although it's all about making the show."
Thanks to City Paper contributing artist Alex Fine's "Sophomore Illustration 1" class at Maryland Institute College of Art for providing 19 illustrations for this piece, one of which was selected to run in print.
To see all the student work, please visit citypaper.com/illustration1.