Liz Lerman Dance Exchange
Photo: Enoch Chan.
Modern dance, beginning with Isadora Duncan’s bare legs, uncorseted breasts and critical rants about women, socialist Russia, dancing children and free bodies, has always been political. Acknowledging the influence of formalism, minimalism, and various styles of abstraction, contemporary dance continues to engage social issues or pose socially resonant questions. But a dance about genocide and international law? Would it be doomed to disappoint or just depress? Despite Liz Lerman’s national reputation, I wasn’t surprised that they were giving tickets away in last minute email blasts to the local dance community. Who wants to see a dance about targeted mass murder? How can a dance meaningfully address horrors of this scale? With four free tickets, I could only convince one friend to accompany me. As I approached the theater I found myself repeating a new motto received from a UC Davis colleague Sampada Aranke, “Failure is generative.” Looking at failed utopian action as ripe with potential shifts the witness/critic role and encourages a more nuanced engagement with a performance or action.
Early in the piece, Lerman sits in a chair, her lap filled with notes, a mic in her hand, and begins to tell a story of being invited to make a dance for a conference at Harvard commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Nuremberg trials. She shared how she expressed doubt in the project, and how she was moved to request personal support and guidance to do the work. Charmed by this meta-performance that welcomed doubt and anticipated failure, I relaxed into my chair.
I have followed Lerman’s career as a choreographer, teacher, and thinker for over 20 years. Her projects inspire and facilitate social dialogue about ethically contentious issues, including refugees, genetic research, and now genocide. The dance company, Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, is diverse with respect to race/ethnicity and age. Lerman says that younger dancers dance better in the presence of older people, and she attributes this to love, the love that older people offer freely to youth. In Small Dances I was more often drawn to the two dancers that I perceived as the eldest, Thomas Dwyer, a tall lean white haired man and Martha Wittman, a long-haired woman who seemed to be the spiritual mother of the piece. Lerman is known in classrooms and studios around the world for Liz Lerman’s Critical Response, a methodology, which guides artists and teachers to give critical feedback without assuming culturally specific standards. The artist-centered process is based more in questioning than judging; it challenges the ideas of a common standard of artistic quality or aesthetic sense and supports cross-cultural collaboration. This multi-decade dedication to the art of social justice makes Lerman a likely candidate from whom to request a dance about the failure of international law to prevent genocide. Small Dances About Big Ideas premiered in November, 2005, at "Pursuing Human Dignity: The Legacies of Nuremberg for International Law, Human Rights and Education.”
In her opening monologue Lerman advocates a role for the body in political and historical discourse, especially in response to the often paralyzing impact of information and opinion. So what do the bodies do in this dance? Dramatic expression. Mimetic gesture. Representational images. The dancers line-up and get shot with staccato staggering and dense falls to the ground. They run in fear. Matt Mahaney represents Raphael Lemkin, who coined the term genocide and successfully advocated for a special class of international laws. The dynamic Mahaney/Lemkin jumps and waves, trying to get attention for his cause. When he fails, he falls repeatedly, almost violently. Stylistically the dancing and gestures recall socialist-inspired expressionist dance from the 30s, or the 70s ground-breaking feminist collective The Wallflower Order (which became SF’s Dance Brigade.) Ted Johnson, who plays the judge, could have done the same postures in Kurt Joos’ famed anti-war dance The Green Table (1932). Small Dances is postmodern in form but not in gesture, except when they fall, and here they release into the floor, spiraling to soften the impact. A younger man, Benjamin Wegman, shares the narrator role with Lerman. He introduces the characters represented by the dancers. There are the three mythical Norns (Shula Strassfeld, Meghan Bowden, and Wittman), Norse deities older than god, akin to Fates, who inhabited the waters in and under Nuremberg. Their natural hair, tattered scarves, long dresses, and a concern for the others, attempted to conjure a mythical feminine presence. There is Lemkin and the stoic, shiny bald, black robed Judge. Cassie Meador played The Bone Woman, based on forensic anthropologist Clea Koff who investigated atrocities in Rwanda. And there were two other characters that I called the man from Rwanda (Fiifi Abadoo) and the Bosnian woman (Sarah Levitt). I wanted more contact with these dancers, wanted to know which language they were actually speaking (as opposed to the languages I assumed for them), wanted to know even a hint of their personal story. How do they function, or identify themselves within the American-ness of Lerman’s perspective? Were they born here or there or where? The narrator played a reporter, a watcher. He seemed to speak both for Lerman and for us. What does genocide look like from across the gap of geography or generation? What does the witness do with the harrowing information and the implication of responsibility? The question was put before us, within us, and this alone validated the performance.
Lerman and her dancers wandered through the material like devastated archeologists, stepping over bodies, pausing to investigate the bones which hold all the memory of violence, daring to record the details of machete and sex. They touched bodies as if listening to their past. “Rape cannot be claimed as self-defense, ” someone claims. We have to think about that. Now. Lerman’s choreographic process led us on a difficult descent. She told us of being haunted by stories and bodies, but unable to stop the research. There’s too much to read. She lost the ability to remember in the evening a simple fact that she was told in the morning. And then she can’t sleep.
The most successful moment in the work led to its paradoxical disappointment. With all eyes looking forward to the proscenium stage, we were jolted by a loud sound at the back of the house. We turned to see the source of disruption, the narrator. He shook the protective aisle rail like it was a cage. Something fell and broke. It seemed dangerous, like maybe he had snapped, and had pushed the ‘play’ too far. The room was still, tense, charged. He told us that he was done listening, that he didn’t want to hear anymore. He questioned what was happening, and therefore he questioned our role, like his, of watching. He said, it’s good to talk about genocide, even to just try out the word, and that maybe we should just talk amongst ourselves. He was walking towards the stage as he spoke and we could now see that the other performers were watching him. No one was dancing. The stage was quiet. Lerman sat in the shadows, attentive. The house lights were up and we started to talk. I was with Neil MacLean, a researcher who has spent years on the questions posed by this project. I spoke about my resistance to the dancing and representational movement. I told him that the gesture of one arm chopping the other arm was done by David Byrne in the early 80s Stop Making Sense tour and I’ve thought it weird and undecipherable in too many choreographies since then. Neil sharped the focus and told me why he and many others find the term genocide problematic. He said that it should be ethnocide or something to indicate that it is not people (genus) but a specific family of people (ethnicity) that is under attack. We discussed how the politics of identity, including politics of naming and resisting genocide, often subvert potential solidarity by intensifying cultural and ethnic difference. And then our attention was guided back to the stage, and we were led in a group dance of mimetic gestures about pulling a story from the space around us, holding it, and then passing it to the person beside us. Although 90% of the audience participated in this follow-the-leader dance, I found it difficult to participate whole heartedly. It seemed to suggest a common experience and way of processing the intensity of the material, but really it served to pull us out of the intensity and back to dancing, as if synchronized dancing is a unifying experience, when Lerman and I both know that stories, bodies, and gestures are loaded with positions and identities that are more exclusive than inclusive.
The work continued for another 15 minutes or so, but I was still stuck in the break, in the disruption, in the moment of questioning what we were doing in a theater with this handsome group of sincere and talented people, and what good might come from speaking the word genocide aloud, together. Two weeks later, I’m still bothered, still asking.
After the performance, a World War II vet asked Lerman,“Is this adequate?” She acknowledged that it wasn’t. Of course the work failed to save lives already gone or rewrite UN charters or prosecute countries, including the US, who regularly shit on international law. I gathered with friends in the lobby. We were the minority who didn’t stay for the post-show discussion with Lerman & company. The lobby chat was lively and sharp. Although we had perspectives that resonated, no two of us had the same opinions about the work, about what happened, about what didn’t, what should have or might have. Respect for the work was our most shared experience. We were inspired to challenge or defend art’s role in addressing state violence. We felt pressed to reconsider historic atrocities and to strategize ways to prevent and recover from the kind of totalizing violence which permanently scars time, space, and community. This small dance, only 60 minutes long, idiosyncratic and maybe even trite, invited us to interact with history, with how violence, rape, and massacre are remembered and historicized. Lerman and company not only dared to accept this ethical imperative, but they held our hand and invited us to dance along, among the bones, which continue to haunt and to speak. Honoring a lineage of politically engaged choreographies, Liz Lerman’s Small Dances About Big Ideas touches people and helps us to listen.