PillowVoices: Dance Through Time

The Body as Radical Canvas: Liz Lerman

Episode Summary

Ellen Chenoweth hosts this exploration into the work of influential dance artist Liz Lerman, including the voices of Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, James Frazier, and Pamela Tatge, as well as numerous passages in Lerman's own words.

Episode Notes

Ellen Chenoweth hosts this exploration into the work of influential dance artist Liz Lerman, including the voices of Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, James Frazier, and Pamela Tatge, as well as numerous passages in Lerman's own words.

Episode Transcription

[Music begins, composed by J.S. Bach, performed by Jess Meeker]

NORTON OWEN: Welcome to PillowVoices, a production of Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival with content from the Pillow Archives. I'm Norton Owen, the Pillow’s Director of Preservation, and it's my pleasure to introduce Ellen Chenoweth who will be your host in discussing the work of Liz Lerman. Lerman's career as a thinker and leader is brought into special focus through Ellen Chenoweth's years leading the Dance Exchange, the company that Lerman founded, through its transition and toward the community hub that it is today.

ELLEN CHENOWETH: The choreographer Liz Lerman has a long history with Jacob's Pillow, beginning in the 1980s, and continuing to the present with Wicked Bodies, premiering in the 2022 festival season. I was fortunate to work with Lerman at her company the Dance Exchange towards the beginning of my career in arts management, and I learned so much from watching her work and think and collaborate and question. Because of this past relationship, I will often refer to her as Liz in this podcast. To begin with, I wanted to give you a picture of what Liz looks like, in her own words, just so you can have a mental image as we're discussing her work today. She gave this description at the beginning of a virtual talk with choreographer Jawole Willa Jo Zollar hosted by Jacob's Pillow in 2021.

LIZ LERMAN: I’ll also describe myself. I'm in my office at school, so there are many books behind me, and I try to keep them organized according to books that have meaning to me or that I'm reading right now to help me with, well, with the piece that I'm making, which is usually a narrative piece. So, we get to the subject with what's behind this. Well, I'm a white woman. Older. My hair is turning gray. I'm shortened. My hair is on top of my head as it has been most of my life. I think the part of me that doesn't show in physical description is my Jewish heritage, which matters to me deeply.

ELLEN CHENOWETH: Liz is a choreographer, and a scholar and researcher, teacher and writer, among many other roles. She received a MacArthur Genius Award, among other prestigious honors. And she was awarded the Jacob's Pillow Dance Award in 2017. And she's known for a multitude of qualities and distinctions. One of the things she's known for is asking really excellent questions. Here she describes a few of the questions that have shaped her life's work.

LIZ LERMAN: I came back to Milwaukee where we were living when the Civil Rights movement was in full force. And I began really wondering what you, well, the major questions of the Dance Exchange, you know, who is dancing? What were we dancing about? Where was it happening? Why did it matter? And it's not that I had that language at that time. All I had was this disconsolate feeling that I wanted to be an artist, and I want to be as good an artist as I could be, but I also wanted to live in the world. And so began this, really, the quest of my life, I suppose.

ELLEN CHENOWETH: To give you a sense of the kind of work she makes, and the way she thinks about the body, here's the story that she shared upon accepting the Jacob's Pillow Dance Award in 2017. Her framing of the body as a radical canvas is one that I come back to often.

LIZ LERMAN: There’s another person here tonight I wanted to to thank but also sort of addressed generally, because I think she represents many of us here. Her name is Martha Minow. She's stepping down as the Dean of Harvard Law School, but she, yeah, she did an incredible job. But what the story I want to tell is when she was stepping up into the Dean-ship, we met down and had lunch in Lee, when she was interested in commissioning us to do a piece about the Nuremberg trials. It was the 60th anniversary of the trials, and she wanted us to consider making a work. But it wasn't just about that. It's that Harvard was holding an international conference of people who deal with genocide and human rights around the world. And this is what she said to me. She said, “Liz, these people think about this 24/7 for 365 days a year. But actually, they don't remember that it's about the body. That's why we need you.” And that's the thing. The body is still such a radical canvas. And of course, not the body like the mind-body split in the West. I don't mean that. I mean our bodies that are our bodies, our minds, our neurons, our traumas, our memories, our histories, our blood, our muscle, our bones, all of that. That's what's required of us, I think, to be in this world today. Certainly, we see how much we need it, and how grateful all of us are to have this beautiful place to work some of that out. So thank you. Thank you.

ELLEN CHENOWETH: One quality I admire so much about Liz is that part of her genius is assembling other geniuses. She has a knack for attracting collaborators who are incredible, and then coaxing out and highlighting their strengths. The most visible side of that is her work with dancers, but she also acts as a magnet for brilliant designers, researchers, production managers, administrators, it's a powerful orbit. I think of her approach as something I would call “precision-casting,” where if you change one person in one role, really the whole work is shifted. Liz has always been interested in the particular people she's working with, and in their stories and unique characteristics. In this passage from her 2011 memoir, Hiking the Horizontal: Field notes from a Choreographer, she describes the specific physicality of a number of dancers she was working with at the time. She writes, “each dancer has imparted a particular quality to the physicality of their colleagues. Being Sara Levitt makes the dancers find the swiftest and often the riskiest way to the ground. Being Ben Wegman means finding a quirky rhythm and a staccato torso lined up with free flying legs. Being Met Mahani means finding relationship to the earth that comes from his wrestling years in high school, but that matured through his long walks in the woods. When the others find it, they are changed. And although everyone has tried to be Martha Wittman over the years, we still have not quite found her musicality, and the way her weight shifts onto a beautiful foot that makes just walking, so achingly lovely and strange. For all the dancers who find their way to this company, this empathetic form of discipline, paves the way for physical dexterity and human attention, and for a set of beliefs that we all share. Uniqueness lives in the body, and our dances are enlarged by the contributions each makes.” I am struck by the way that Liz always manages to be relevant to the present moment and present to future moments at the same time. And I wonder if this is related to consistently working across generations. Things she's been saying for decades, still somehow seem exactly right for the moment, regardless of what year it is. With this in mind, I wanted to bring in the voice of one of my own recent students who wrote a response paper after reading Hiking the Horizontal for an assignment. This writing is from Celeste Brace, who is currently a BFA student in Dance at Columbia College, Chicago. She writes, “Lerman begins by posing the idea that, quote, not knowing something is fuel for the imagination, rather than fuel for humiliation. And that moments of not knowing are more like guideposts than endings. End quote. This feels like a radical idea for the crux of my youthful competence can frequently be attributed to some desire to be right about things. As I create my first group piece to be presented large scale on the Dance Center stage, I am rapidly learning that collaborating and creating dance is rarely if ever, about being right about anything. Creating dance lives on the questions, and the work itself does not often produce an answer. Truly, the work is yet another way to tackle the question.” Celeste goes on to describe an exercise that Liz led in working with multiple generations of dancers: “Lerman cultivated an exercise in which the younger and older students could dance together and found that shadowing older folks was an interesting form of partnering. Later, when the undergraduates exclaimed at how well they danced while their older counterparts watched Lerman, quote, decided that they were dancing so well because they were so loved. End quote. So, love enters the equation.” When developing large-scale works, Liz often has an extended development process, frequently taking 2-4 years. But Wicked Bodies has had an even longer development process due to the disruptions of the pandemic. In this clip, which is from a virtual Pillow Talk with Executive and Artistic director Pam Tatge and Liz Lerman from 2020. You'll hear Liz describe the origins of Wicked Bodies, and you'll hear Pam laughing at one point. I love this story because it illustrates how Liz's brain is always firing on multiple cylinders. She was in Scotland teaching and found this whole explosive new area of research while she was on a little break.

LIZ LERMAN: I was actually teaching, I was doing Critical Response process in Edinburgh and took a break and went to the museum and they had an exhibit up called Wicked Bodies. And it was 500 years of drawings of witches. And I was not that interested in witches. I was interested in older women for sure, but not interested in witches but when I went in, but by the time I walked out I was in shock. I was furious. I was laughing I was angry. I mean all kinds of emotions because depictions, pretty scary. Pornographic. I kept joking if I just, if I just made the pictures come alive it'd be the most pornographic work I ever made. The symbols and how they how most most of the drawings by, in fact famous Western artists, but mostly men. So I said, “Okay, I'm gonna I'm gonna work on this.” And so began the process of looking into why is it I mean, I, that was mostly Western art. But I realized as I thought about it, every culture has its witches, every timeframe has its witches. So what was it, about it? And that was what drew me in initially: what was it? And within a short amount of time, I began to articulate a couple of things. One, that knowledge knowledge itself, the knowledge that people hold, the wisdoms, the idea, the way people live with that knowledge, some knowledge is celebrated, some is erased, and some is criminalized. And the witches are persistently either criminalized or given a special space in some cultures for shamanic and sort of ritual and mystery. Not that (unclear) is real, but our culture, pretty much it's pretty negative. And, and it to some extent that drove me for a while, but then other things opened up.

ELLEN CHENOWETH: In this next clip from the conversation between Pam and Liz, you'll hear Liz discuss a little bit of what our process looks like in the studio. The dancer she mentioned is Ruby Morales, one of the cast members of Wicked bodies. Liz shares a story about meeting a person at a party, and I think what it captures so well is the way that choreography and research for Liz Lerman is a way of moving through the world.

PAM TATGE: Wow. So what I see in this section is your introduction of the notion of spells. And I'm really intrigued by how how you approach them. How did you decide what the spells would be and why? So could you maybe walk us through that, and how that leads us into the next piece?

LIZ LERMAN: Yeah, and you know I think this is one of those things, too, about the, you know, the wonder of getting to rehearse as you come upon something like a spell. And of course, they have a real history and a real meaning and for currently practicing witches, very important piece of texts, like a Torah might be to a rabbi. The the spells are really powerful. And we, I, was struck by them, however, as a way of giving the performers a chance to dive into material. So we wrote spells for all kinds of things. Spells for, we had to practice everybody was a witch for the day, like you could be, well you saw the witch of a library showed up for a minute in a screen, you know, you could be the witch of the, I could be the witch of zoom today or something. But we would write spells or spells for all kinds of things. But what turned out to become fruitful for me choreographically was the spell as a structure to hold the stories. And that, that was amazing. In the case of Ruby, you know, this beautiful story she brought from her great grandmother that she really wanted to use, and I was so happy that she wanted to tell it. But to put it in the context of a spell, I thought was just really a wonderful way to honor their, their histories. In the case of Spell for Fresh Air, which we just saw, it was an opportunity really to develop the character, but also to start looking at these relationships that the witches have with the world and actually, really, we have with the world. What do we want in relationship to the world. And we're gonna we're gonna get into one now. One more spell, Spell for Witches and their Familiars, which are, of course, the little creatures that that are usually, accompany witches in some lore. And it's also a way of telling how the stories came to me because you know, when I'm when I'm working on a piece like this, I'll just talk to anybody about it. And anybody wants to talk about witches. I met a guy from Gore-Tex you know, about, high in the corporation at a party. And I said I'm working on witches. It’s all he wanted to talk about. And we actually got into how Gore Tex is a new kind, I asked him if it was a witch fabric because they're using it for heart heart valves. And and he just totally into it. So just by way, it's just, again, a way to be in the world.

ELLEN CHENOWETH: Right now, I feel like so many of us are grappling with some really big questions as our democracy and our climate and our arts organizations are all facing big challenges. And it often feels like the ground is shifting beneath our feet, and often in some really unsettling ways. In 2021 Jacob’s Pillow hosted this conversation “What's on top?” that I mentioned at the beginning of the podcast, between Jawole Zollar and Liz, moderated by James Frazier, and I think is really helpful in are grappling with big questions and ground- shifting. I also want to mention the cloud of witnesses present in the lively chat of this virtual conversation streamed on YouTube. The conversation and the chat thread from the online audience is still available on YouTube. And it has just a wealth of incredible knowledge, and it's really worth watching the whole discussion. As artist Vincent Thomas said in the chat at one point, “the pulpit is hot.” But I wanted to pull out just one moment in particular, where artist Paloma McGregor typed a question in the chat that both Liz and Jawole responded to. And even though we're focusing on Liz today, Liz’s relationship with other artists like Jawole are so potent and so generative. And earlier in the conversation, they both talk about resisting the idea of a singular genius or hero. We will (unclear) hear Jawole’s powerful response as well. So here's James reading Paloma’s question. And then Jawole and Liz.

JAMES FRAZIER:This is such good stuff, and now the questions are pouring in. So we're going to have more than we than we have time to ask, but I'm going to start moving down the list. The first is from Paloma McGregor. “Can Jawole and Liz talk about the potentials imperative of this moment, and what they think needs to be supported, released to fill…fulfill those potentials?”

JAWOLE WILLA JO ZOLLAR: I don't know. I honestly can say I don't know. I think we all have to do a lot of reflection. And I think it's a, I think each person has to figure that out. On the collective side of it, it's these, it's how we're, it's, it's our work together, of reflection. It's, it's maybe the place where I'm spinning and in a quandary for myself. That sometimes makes me really sad, and sometimes makes me really joyous. So I don't know that I am equipped to answer that. But what I think that I am equipped to do is to talk with people in, in, in, in, in circles and on the phone and and that that that there's a support system of thinking that we can offer, and challenge, that we can offer one another to figure that to figure that out because what's needed like for me at this moment is going to be real different than what's needed in Minneapolis. You know, as one person, as Ananya was talking about, where you where you have National Guard walking around in your neighborhood. What we need to do is really different, yet the connecting threads are the refusal of this country to acknowledge its history, and its practice of white supremacy. That's, that's an organizing thread of patriarchy. That's an organizing thread, but what it looks like, as we start to pull these threads and unravel it, and sew something back together. That's that's our creative. That's that's our work. 

LIZ LERMAN: I, I believe in multiplicity, and that there won't be a singular thing. And that when we keep trying to find a singular thing that's part of the issue is, we have to be compassionate about the multiple ways in which we all may be addressing the very big questions that Paul was asking. I know for myself that, you know, I was trained in classical ballet for which I have the deepest regret. Because my body in a way my body has been colonized. And so when I went to improvise, I mean, before I was trained in classical ballet was an amazing improviser as a 5-6-7 year old, but then it all set in. And if I'm left to my own devices, and you said to me move, I'm going to, you know, my first snapback is going to be out of this classical form. And I have a whole bunch of routes that I have as creative tools is all about to not make me snap back. And this is the thing, what will make us not snap back? And how do we hold open, the, some of these things that are going to take us a while in how do we allow some mistakes to be made? And how do we work our way through that? Mostly to be compassionate, and to you know, in some ways, again, we're back to that genius question. Recognize the sheer genius and everybody. That there is a lot of cool ways to approach this and it will not just be singular. But…

JAWOLE WILLA JO ZOLLAR: The genius is always in the room.

LIZ LERMAN: Always in the room. But some things are going to have to go, and I always say with every innovation, there’s a loss. And our capacity to acknowledge the loss is what will help us stay with whatever the innovation is. You have got to address the mourning (unclear). And this is one thing we can, we are capable of aiding in every single place we are.

ELLEN CHENOWETH: Finally, as a closing thought to leave us with here's Liz talking about how choreographic tools might be useful in our current moment.

LIZ LERMAN: Sometimes I think I'm actually a tool-maker. I mean, I described myself as a choreographer, but, and I, I have off late been saying (unclear) its choreography writ large, because everything's in motion. Everything is in motion, because change is that, and that the more we share our choreographic tools, the more people might be able to manage this rate of change and the swirling nature of what's happening to us, our institutions, to our belief systems.

[Music begins, composed, and performed by Jess Meeker]

NORTON OWEN: That’s it for this episode of PillowVoices. Thank you for joining us today. Onbehalf of Jacob’s Pillow we look forward to sharing more dance with you through the films,essays, and podcasts at DanceInteractive.jacobspillow.org and of course through liveexperiences during our Festival and throughout the year. Special thanks to the NationalEndowment for the Arts for helping launch this podcast series. Please subscribe toPillowVoices wherever you get your podcasts and visit us again soon, either online or on site.