Liz Lerman is a choreographer, performer, writer, educator and speaker. From a piece about her days as a go-go dancer in 1974 to a recent investigation of origins that included putting dancers in the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, she has spent the past four decades making her artistic research personal, funny, intellectually vivid, and up to the minute. A key aspect of her artistry is opening her process to various publics from shipbuilders to physicists, construction workers to ballerinas, resulting in both research and outcomes that are participatory, relevant, urgent, and usable by others.
She founded Liz Lerman Dance Exchange in 1976 and cultivated the company's unique multi-generational ensemble into a leading force in contemporary dance until 2011, when she handed the artistic leadership of the company over to the next generation of Dance Exchange artists. Now she is pursuing new projects with fresh partnerships, including a recent semester at Harvard University as an artist-in-residence; initiating the National Civil War Project which pairs theaters and universities to create new work and new research related to our civil war; the new work Healing Wars, an investigation of the impact of war on medicine (2014); the genre-twisting work Blood, Muscle, Bone with Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and Urban Bush Women; work in London with Sadler's Wells Theatre, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, the National Theatre Studio, and the London Sinfonietta; and an online project called "The Treadmill Tapes: Ideas on the Move." In 2013 she curated Wesleyan University's symposium "Innovations: Intersection of Art and Science," bringing together teams of artists and scientists from North America to present their methods and findings.
Hiking the Horizontal: Field Notes from a Choreographer, Liz's collection of essays, was published in 2011 by Wesleyan University Press and released in paperback in 2014.
Liz has been the recipient of numerous honors, including a 2002 MacArthur "Genius Grant" Fellowship, a 2011 United States Artists Ford Fellowship in Dance, and the 2014 Dance/USA Honor Award. Her work has been commissioned by Harvard Law School, the Lincoln Center, American Dance Festival, and the Kennedy Center among many others.
Born in Los Angeles and raised in Milwaukee, Liz attended Bennington College and Brandeis University, received her BA in dance from the University of Maryland, and an MA in dance from George Washington University. She is married to storyteller Jon Spelman. Their daughter lives in southeast Asia where she works as a photo-journalist.
I was a moving child, up giant slides before my parents could stop me, racing in the routinely flooded back yard to jump through the water, begging for dance classes which I was allowed to begin when the family left California for Washington DC in the early fifties. Classical modern with Ethel Butler until we moved away to Milwaukee where my primary teacher, an early pioneer of contemporary ideas, was trying out her Dance of Dimension, in which she willfully insisted that one could teach both ballet and Graham based modern along with a weekend labs she called "choreographer's workshop." This glorious approach filled me with discipline and joy and then came summers of ballet-only at the National Music Camp including a performance for President Kennedy for which I appeared in Life Magazine: I was on the last page, Marilyn Monroe on the cover. I returned home to Milwaukee, the civil rights movement, and the tension between making art and living in the world began. I was fourteen.
Since then it goes something like this: between the age of 14 and 27 there is lots of experimentation with taking dance classes of all genres at the highest level; testing higher education's approach to art at three institutions in which I learned more about the oppression of aesthetic hierarchies than I did about discovery; teaching at a Quaker boarding school that allowed me the freedom to engage students in every possible form of art-making while insisting that I communicate what and why I was doing these radical performances; looking for a relationship to my peers in NYC; settling in Washington, DC, to get a master's degree (and as a way to get a stipend) while I formed the basis of the Dance Exchange.
From the ages of 27 to 63 I made a dance company, which I came to describe as one holding equal commitment to concert and community; an environment for multiple artistic voices although mine was in charge; a place for deep investigation and research; an amoeba of shifting management structures in which the artist was always central. In these years we toured nationally and internationally, always making sure that engaging the public(s) was critically important to making the art and showing the art. We worked in shipyards and synagogues, on playgrounds and street corners, with geneticists and physicists, alongside health care workers and patients. The subject matter of the pieces swung wildly beginning with the death of my mother which forced me to find old people and completely change the way I thought about
technique and what a dancers body should be able to be, what it looked like and indeed even what we think of as beautiful. After confronting death it seemed that all subject matter was worth a glance and so I moved from stories of my restless relationship to Judaism, to contemplative dances about Bonsai tress and their gardeners. We made dances about local stories in cities and towns across the country, to private retellings of ancestry and grief. There are larger categories such as lyrical family, identity and justice, science's role in our understanding of who we are and where we come from. In this time period I received critical acclaim and critical bruising. I got awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, from universities, from journals and newspapers and cultural institutions and a MacArthur "genius" grant. I also received more rejections than I can count or list or remember.
At the age of 63 I left the Dance Exchange, my home of 34 years. I left it in the small hands but wide embrace of a group of young artists who are doing just fine. They have "composted" me and are taking the best of the values and underlying philosophy of the place and repurposing it for this world now. It is a great pleasure to observe their progress from a distance, and to let go of the routine, the caring, and the form of a not for profit organization. My brain is shifting as I reacquaint myself and discover new avenues of experimentation and the relative life.
In the few short months of my new life I moved myself to Cambridge for one semester as a visiting lecturer and artist-in-residence at Harvard University, was in a major car accident from which I walked away, rediscovered the enormous power of friendship, found a world in which I need to redefine my competitive self, fell in love with my family while traveling in Ireland, questioned the acts of teaching and guiding others while improving and challenging my own habits.
I came back home to Baltimore in December. I will be making new work in new ways in new relationships over the next few years. I will be helping others when they come to me and ask. I will be working in this country and abroad in settings that continue to forge my thinking, make me bolder, and let me interrogate next generations of artists. It is wide open at the moment. I am a little frightened, a lot more curious, and full of wonder and grief as I gaze around me.