S6 E1 | CLIP

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.

AIRED: November 20, 2020 | 0:10:00

(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.

(dramatic music)

- 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.

(sentimental music)

- 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.

(suspenseful music)

- 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.

(suspenseful music)

- [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,

still kicking.

- [Announcer] Articulate with Jim Cotter

is made possible with generous funding

from the Neubauer Family Foundation.

(jaunty music)


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