Liz Lerman: Stepping Up
Liz Lerman creates dance with purpose that fosters engagement; but, like many great creative thinkers, doubt has always been part of the process.
(uplifting string music)
- [Jim] Liz Lerman is a mover and a shaker.
Who's never been content to sit still.
The groundbreaking choreographer
and Arizona State University professor
has spent more than four decades
expanding the possibilities of dance,
relentlessly pushing the form, herself
and new kinds of performers to tell stories
once thought too complicated for bodies to express.
But at the start, Lerman wasn't interested in speaking out.
All she wanted to do was move.
- I was enchanted by the physical
and happy to be in the midst of the physical.
- [Jim] Lerman was born in Los Angeles
on Christmas day, 1947 to Anne and Phillip,
an artist, mother and a social activist father
who quickly realized that their daughter
would need an outlet for her abundant energy.
The solution came at age five
when she took her first dance class.
Lerman danced through her childhood adolescence
and young adulthood,
ultimately earning a bachelor's and a master's.
Along the way, the influence of her socially conscious
upbringing began to show.
In her early 20s she decided that she needed not only
to perform, but to create dance
and not just for its own sake.
Lerman wanted to communicate,
to change notions of what and who dance was for
and what a dancer could look like.
- I'd been saying for a long time,
dance was over over-involved with technique.
And I had decided that one reason
the dance world valued it so highly
is because it was measurable
and because again, in the West this pressure
to measure, measure, measure.
Okay, this person's leg is this high,
and this one's this high, which one's better.
You can measure how high the leg is going.
You could do that kind of stuff.
And so I was really interested in countering that,
'cause I felt like we were missing so much
of what dance could be and what the,
it just, it seemed crazy to me.
- [Jim] Throughout her young life,
Liz Lerman had given scant thought to mortality
until when at age 27, her 60 year old mother
was diagnosed with cancer.
She rushed home to care for her,
but after a painful three months Anne Lerman died,
her daughter's world was upended.
To cope and to mourn, Lerman created
Woman of the Clear Vision.
In the piece she plays her mother
being welcomed into heaven by elderly angels.
Lerman understood that that young, healthy bodies like hers
couldn't know, much less tell
the truth about aging and dying.
In a world, obsessed with youth and athleticism,
these dancers broke the mold.
- Right away, out come these people.
You have to say to yourself, okay,
it's not going to be how high their leg goes
or how high they jump because they can't.
I was always so surprised.
You had people, I was working with people
who were never dancers,
who became dancers in their late 50s, 60s, and 70s
and I was also working with people
who had been dancers and were still dancing
in their 50s, 60s, and 70s.
They would both do the same movement.
One of them would be so happy
and the other one would be so mournful.
For the people who had been dancers,
you see what you can no longer do,
but the people who had never been dancers,
it's like, wow, same move.
- [Jim] For the first time, Lerman realized
how complicated the experience of aging could be.
And she set about challenging stereotypes
about what older people could accomplish
with their company, Dancers of the Third Age.
But this would not be the only way
she would reject received wisdom.
Hungry to tackle ever tougher subjects,
Lerman created a hybrid genre called docu dances.
These were thought provoking,
often satirical works about controversial topics of the day
like genetic engineering.
- So what I could imagine that dancers
would be, would just start out by
just laying dancers out end to end on the floor,
head to foot, head to foot, head to foot,
end to end on the floor.
- [Jim] The Nuremberg trials.
- [Announcer] The four great nations,
flushed with victory,
and stung with injury
stay the hand of vengeance
and voluntarily submit their captive enemies
to the judgment of the law
is one of the most significant tributes
that power has ever paid to reason.
- [Jim] The U.S. defense budget.
- In this dance, I play the Congress
of the United States.
He is Mr. Pentagon.
And this is Mr. Defense Contractor.
- The defense pieces were really
that's probably not quite the first,
but probably really the first major time
I had this idea that you could connect information
and feeling through movement.
I was on this kick that you were supposed to
get your information from the news
and you were supposed to get your feeling
from all I guess, poetry or something.
And I was thinking, why is that?
People watch the news and they're full of feeling
they're full of it.
So why would we separate that?
But it is true in that particular
there's one section in that piece,
it's about the M1 tank,
which by the way, we still use.
13 foot blind in front of that tank.
So in that one,
I sort of scurried around the floor
and I bumped my head consistently into the side of the stage
while this little voiceover was going on.
Laugh, laugh, laugh, laugh, laugh.
People are, you know, but afterwards,
oh, I mean, almost every time I performed that piece,
there would be a group of people waiting.
Is that true?
They want to know.
Is that really true about the tank?
- [Jim] These kind of responses were exactly
what Lerman was hoping for.
She wanted to get people thinking, talking,
questioning, and though she spent her life
using dance to address social and political issues,
today, she's still questioning herself.
- What have we done?
Where have we contributed?
Where have we been part of the problem?
Where did we not do a enough?
In fact, I would say the 60s is my being in your 60s
is almost entirely about regret.
It feels to me as you think back,
if I had taken a different turn,
what if I had stopped making dances
and said, I'm going to work entirely
on how this defense money's actually spent.
I mean what if I had done that?
- [Jim] What Liz Lerman has done is create
a body of work that has dissolved boundaries,
physical and philosophical.
Here latest work called Wicked Bodies
delves into the ways Western culture
has for centuries depicted women as unruly,
dangerous and grotesque as they blossom,
reproduce and age.
- But that piece is full of rage.
Yeah, I mean not entirely but oh yeah
and I'm not the only one dealing with it in that work.
- [Jim] Now in her 70s,
Liz Lerman has lived as long as many of the seniors
she discovered at the dawn of her career
and she's still innovating,
still pushing against convention,
- [Announcer] Articulate with Jim Cotter
is made possible with generous funding
from the Neubauer Family Foundation.