D.C. DanceWatcher

2017: Not Pretty — A Year in Dance

Posted in African dance, Ballet, Dance, Modern dance, Tap dance, Uncategorized by lisatraiger on December 31, 2017

The year 2017 was no time for pretty in dance.

The dance that I experienced this year moved me by being meaningful, making a statement, and speaking truth to power. Thus, the choreography that excited or touched or challenged or even changed me was unsettling, thought-provoking, visceral. The influence of #Black Lives Matter, #Resist and #MeToo meant that dance needed to be consequential, now more than ever. Here’s what made me think and feel during a year when I saw less dance than usual.

cafe muller

Not merely the best performance I saw this year, but among the best dance works I’ve experienced in a decade or more was the double revival of Pina Bausch’s “Café Muller” and “Rite of Spring” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Alas, the company doesn’t perform in Washington, D.C., so my experience with Bausch’s canonic works are few, but I’m grateful for the opportunity to have experienced these two masterworks. Their significance cannot be understated. In “Café Muller,” the profound gravity of the performers in that closed café, with its scintillatingly scattered chairs, doorways and walls arranged in perfect disarray is humorless, just like the dancers, who arrive with their aura of existential loneliness. The bored banality of these slip-dressed sleepwalking women, the meaningless urgency of the red-head in her clickety clackety heels and green dress, the morose body-bruising couplings, as a slip-thin woman incessantly throws herself onto her male counterpart only to be flung, dropped, and sideswiped with as much care as one might give to a sack of laundry. “Café Muller’s” fragrance, with its snippets from a Purcell score, is heavy with the perfume of existentialism and the Sartrian notion that hell is other people. The work feels like life: a study of losses, regrets, and the unrelenting banality of existence. I’m glad I saw it in middle age — Pina understood it as the decade of disappointment.

A rejoinder to this nondescript yet vivid café of no exits, is the cataclysmic clash of the sexes that imbues Bausch’s version of “The Rite of Spring” with the driving forces of primitivism that jangle the nerves, raise the heart rate, ignite loins, and remind us of our most basic animalistic instincts for creation and destruction. The infamous soil-covered stage, populated with xx men and women elemental gravity in came from the It took a trip to Brooklyn, New York, because, alas, the Pina Bausch Dance Company doesn’t perform in Washington, D.C. The double revival of Café Muller and The Rite of Spring shook my world, reminding me what the greatest dance can do to the gut and the soul.

Mon élue noire (My Black Chosen One): Sacre #2A companion of sorts to Bausch, arrived later in the fall at the University of Maryland’s Clarice. Germaine Acogny, often identified as the Martha Graham of African modern dance, brought for just a single evening her taut and discomfiting Mon Elue Noire — “My Black Chosen One” — a singular recapitulation of “Rite of Spring” drawing, of course, from Stravinsky’s seminal score, and also dealing unapologetically with colonialism. The choreography by French dancemaker Olivier Dubois places 73-year-old Acogny, first clad in a black midriff baring bra top, into a coffin like vertical box, her head hooded by a scarf. A flame, then the sweet, musky perfume of tobacco smoke draw the viewer in before the lights come up. There she sits, smoking a pipe, eyeing the audience with suspicion. The drum beats and familiar voice of the oboe as the musical score heats up, push Acogny into a frenzy of sequential movements. The French monologue (alas, my French has faded after all these years) from African author Aime Cesaire’s 1950 “Speech on Colonialism” sounds accusatory, but it’s the embodied power Acogny puts forth — her flat, bare feet intimately grounded, her long arms flung, her pelvis at one point relentlessly pumping powers it all. As smoke fills the space, Acogny pulls up the floor of her claustrophobic stage and slaps white paint on herself, brushes it in wide swaths on this box, filled with smoke. Now wearing a white bra, her lower body hidden beneath the floor, her eyes, bore into the darkened theater. Mon Elue Noire’s bold statement of black bodies, of African women, of seizing a voice from those — white colonialists — who for centuries silenced body, voice and spirit rings forth both sobering and inspiring.

I was just introduced to formerly D.C.-based choreographer/dancer MK Abadoo’s work this year and I’m intrigued. Her evening-length Octavia’s Brood at Dance Place in June, time travels, toggling between Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad and a futurist vision of the world where women of African descent reclaim their bodies and voices in an ensemble work that takes inspiration also from the writings and commentary of science fiction writer Octavia Butler. The work begins with a bantaba — a meeting or dancing ground. The audience is invited onto the stage to encircle the dancers. The women, clad in shades of brown, fall to their knees, rise only to fall again to all fours. Beauteous choral music accompanies this section. Soon they stretch arms widely reaching to the sides. A sense of mysterious spirituality fills the space, a space once more enriched by the uncompromising presence of strong, graceful black women’s bodies. Octavia’s Brood is not simply about memory. It navigates between past, present and future while celebrating the durability of black women in America – there’s a holy providence at play in the way Abadoo and her dancers draw forth elemental, earth-connected movement.

IMG_2038They toss their arms backwards, backs arching, leg lifting, while a conscious connection to the floor remains ever present. Later, we see these same dance artists on stage, the audience now seated, on a journey that draws them to support and uphold one another. There’s a gentle firmness in their determination and a tug and pull in the choreography, underscored by a section where the women are wrapped in yards of brown fabric, a cocoon of protection. Then as they unwind it feels like rebirth.

In September Abadoo premiered a program featuring “LOCS” and “youcanplayinthesun,” commissions by the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage. Dramaturg Khalid Yaya Long wrote in the program that these pieces too draw inspiration from Afro-futurist sci-fi author Butler. But they also wrestle with intracultural racism. Poet Marita Golden called it “the color complex … the belief in the superiority of light skin and European-like hair and facial features” among African Americans, and others. The six dancers clad in white fuse a modern and African dance vocabulary, but more essential to the work are the smaller gestural moments. Like when an older dancer, Judith Bauer, proudly gray haired, sits on a stool and braids and combs Abadoo’s hair. She carries a rucksack, which slows and weighs down her gait. Later we see that the bag is filled with lengths of hair, locs, suggesting the burden black women carry on whether they have “good” — straight — or “bad” — curly or kinky — hair. But that quiet moment, when Bauer tends to Abadoo’s hair — it’s a maternal act, sacred and memorable for its resonance to so many who have sat in a chair while their mother, grandmother or aunt hot combed, plaited, flattened or styled unruly hair into something not manageable but acceptable to a society that has denigrated “black hair.”

Catherine Foster of Camille A. Brown & Dancers_ink_Photo by Christopher Duggan (2)Interestingly, in ink, Camille A. Brown’s world premiere at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater in November, also features black women’s hair — a subtext in a larger work that wrestles with African American identity. The evening was made more vivid by a live jazz percussion quartet helmed by Allison Miller. Structured with compelling dance vignettes that bring African American cultural and societal mores to the fore ink speaks an oft-silenced vocabulary through bodies, gestures, postures and poses. A solo by Brown feels like a griot’s history lesson articulated with highly specific gestures that vividly reflect what could be read as “woman’s work” — dinner preparations, wringing laundry, caregiving. Later Brown gives us a different story, of two guy friends — first they’re wonder-filled kids, then they hang ten, basketball their game of choice. But, unseen, unspoken, something hardens them. Later an intimate duet shows a loving couple behind closed doors. But that love belies the challenges outside that arduous nest. In ink, Brown has completed her black identity trilogy, which included Black Girl: Linguistic Play, by consciously asserting the beauty and bounty of black bodies, souls and spirits that inform, intersect and shape our larger American culture.

Other standouts for me during 2017 ranged from a new work for the Ailey company by Kyle Abraham, “Untitled America,” with its narratives of incarcerated citizens and their family members, and a simple yet powerful palette of pedestrian and gestural elements, to Lotus, a rollicking tap family reunion at the newly renovated Terrace Theater, upstairs at the Kennedy Center, that traced the home-grown percussive dance from early roots to a high-spirited finale, with plenty of meditative percussive and narrative moments in between — plus enough flashy footwork.

It was also a year of change at many Washington, D.C. dance institutions. Dance Place’s founding director, the indomitable Carla Perlo retired in the summer, along with her long-time artistic associate Deborah Riley, passing the reins to choreographer/dancer/educator Christopher K. Morgan. It’s too early to tell whether Dance Place will move in new directions, but it appears that the organization is in solid hands. Morgan continues to make his own work for his company, lending continuity to the profile of a working artist-slash-administrator-slash-artistic-director.

We also have a better sense of the direction The Washington Ballet will be moving toward under artistic director Julie Kent. It appears that predictions of a company that resembles American Ballet Theatre, where Kent spent her stage career as a principal ballerina, are coming true. Remarks that The Washington Ballet is now “ABT-South” are no longer facetious; they’re reality. Kent has brought in her colleagues Xiomara Reyes, school director, and her husband, Victor Barbee, as her associate artistic director. And her commissions, too, have been ABT-centric, from an atrocious tribute to President John F. Kennedy called “Frontier,” from her former partner Ethan Steifel to upcoming commissions by Marcelo Gomes (who recently resigned from ABT under a cloud of suspicion over sexual allegations not related to ABT). But Washington, which gets a surfeit of ballet riches with annual visits from not only ABT, but also New York City Ballet, the Mariinsky Ballet and other top ballet companies, doesn’t need an “ABT-South.” The city needs a ballet company that speaks to the needs of the District and its environs, not the international ideal of Washington. An ideal Washington ballet company would be one that nurtures ballet artistry that is unique and relevant to hometown Washington, not government Washington. Former artistic director had one vision of a ballet company and some of its works under his direction made singular statements. What the city and its dance audiences don’t need? More Giselles, Don Quixotes or Romeo and Juliet by a mid-sized troupe.

The region also suffered a loss in The Kennedy Center’s decision to shutter the Suzanne Farrell Ballet Company. While the company never, or rarely, in its 17 years achieved the notoriety or success one would have wished for an ensemble founded by choreographer George Balanchine’s elusive muse, the early December program hinted at missed possibilities. Her company’s farewell program, a tribute to Balanchine, was strongly danced, an aberration for a company that often looked ill-prepared and at times a bit sloppy on stage, alas hinting at missed possibilities in the loss of her directorship.

2017 was also a year where dance — particularly big name ballet companies — made the news, and not in a good way. Following in the footsteps of the #MeToo movement, well-substantiated accusations of sexual harassment and improprieties against New York City Ballet ballet master-in-chief Peter Martins, rocked the ballet world. It’s again too soon to know if systemic change can come to this male-dominated leadership model and the endemic hierarchical organization of most ballet companies; but change has been a long time coming to the ballet world where hierarchy and male power reigns supreme.

Let’s hope for a new year where that status quo will be upended as ballet companies — among other companies — strive for a more equitable, comfortable and safe creative and artistic environment. The dancers deserve it. The choreographers deserve it. The art deserves it. Let 2018 be a year of change for good.

December 31, 2017
© Lisa Traiger 2017

2015: A Look Back

For reasons that continue to surprise me, 2015 was a relatively light dance-going year for me. That said, I managed to take in nearly a top ten of memorable, exceptional or challenging performances over the past 12 months.

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, on its annual February Kennedy Center Opera House visit, brought a program of politically relevant works that culminated, as always, in the inspirational paean to the African-American experience, “Revelations.” Up first, though, was the restless “Uprising,” an athletic men’s piece that draws out the animalistic instincts of its performers. Israeli choreographer Hofesh Schechter, drawing influence from his experiences with the famed Batsheva Dance Company and its powerhouse director Ohad Naharin, found the disturbing core in his 40-minute buildup.  As these men, in street garb – t-shirts and hoodies – walk ape-like, loose-armed and low to the ground, their athletic sparring, hand-to-hand combat, full-force runs and dives into the floor, ultimately coalesce in a menacing mélange. Is it protest or riot? Hard to tell, but the final king-of-the-hill image — one red-shirt-clad man reaching the apex of a clump of bodies his first raised — could be in solidarity or protest. And, in a season awash in domestic and international unrest, “Uprising,” with its massive large group movement, built into a cri de coeur akin to what happened on streets the world over in 2015.

wash ballet-sleepyhollowThe Washington Ballet Artistic Director Septime Webre has been delving into American literary classics and on the heels of his successes with both F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, in February his fearless chamber-sized troupe unveiled his latest: a full-length Sleepy Hollow, based, of course, on the ghostly literary legend by Washington Irving. But more than just a haunted night of ballet, Webre’s Sleepy Hollow delved into America’s early Puritan history, with a Reverend Cotton Mather character and a scene featuring witches drawn from elements of the Salem witch trials, expanding the historical and literary context of the work. This new dramatization in ballet, featuring a rich score by Matthew Pierce; well-used video projections by Clint Allen; and scenery by Hugh Landwehr; focuses on the tale of an outsider, Ichabod Crane – a common American literary trope. Choreographically Webre has smartly drawn not only on the expected classical ballet vocabulary, but he also tapped American folk dances and early and mid-20th century modern dance influences to expand the dancers’ roles for greater expressivity and storytelling. Guest principal Xiomara Reyes played the lovely love interest, Katrina Van Tassel, partnered by Jonathan Jordan. It’s hard to say whether this one will become a classic, but Webre’s smartly and carefully drawn characterizations and multi-generational arc in his approach to the Irving’s story expanded the options for contemporary story ballets.

Gallim Dance, a Brooklyn-based contemporary dance company founded  by choreographer Andrea Miller, made its D.C. debut at the Lansburgh Theatre in April. Miller danced with Batsheva Ensemble, the junior company of Israel’s most significant dance troupe, and she brings those influences drawn from the unique methodology Naharin created. Called “gaga,” this dance language frees dancers and other movers to tap both their physical pleasure and their highest levels of experimentation. In “Blush,” this pleasure and experimentation played out with Miller’s three women and three men who dive head first into loosely constructed vignettes with elegant vengeance. With a primal sense of attack as they face off on the stage taped out like a boxing ring. Miller’s title “Blush” suggests the physiological change in a person’s body, their skin tone and during the course of “Blush,” transformations occur as the dancers, painted in Kabuki-like white rice powder, begin to reveal their actual skin tones – their blush. In so doing, they become metaphors for shedding a protective outer layer to reveal their inner selves.

copeland mackThe Washington Ballet continued its terrific season with the company’s much ballyhooed production of Swan Lake, at the smaller Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater in April. It garnered international attention for Webre’s casting: ballet “It” girl Misty Copeland, partnered by steadfast senior company dancer Brooklyn Mack, became purportedly the first African American duo in a major American ballet company to dance the timeless roles of Odette/Odile and Siegfried, respectively. But that’s not what made this Swan Lake so memorable, and mostly satisfying. Instead, credit goes to former American Ballet Theatre principal Kirk Peterson, responsible for the indelible staging and choreography, following after, of course, Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov. He drew exceptional performances from this typically less than classical chamber-sized troupe. The corps de ballet, supplemented by senior students and apprentices, really danced like a classical company. As well, Peterson, who has become an expert in resuscitating classics, returned little-seen mime passages to the stage,  bringing back the inherent drama in this apex of story ballets. My favorite is the hardly seen (at least in the U.S.) passage when Odette, on meeting Siegfried in the forest in act II, tells him the story of her mother, evil Von Rothbart’s curse and the lake, filled with her mother’s tears, as she gestures in a horizontal sweep to the watery backdrop and brings her forefingers to her eyes indicating dropping tears. Live music was provided by the Evermay Chamber Orchestra and made all the difference for the dancers, even though the company’s small size meant the act III international character variations were cut. While the hype focused on the Copeland debut, she didn’t own or carry the ballet, and here Mack was a solid, but not entirely warm Siegfried. This Swan Lake truly soared truly through the corps, supporting roles and staging.

June brought the Polish National Ballet, directed by Krzysztof Pastor, to the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater in lovely evening of contemporary European works. The small company – 11 women and a dozen men – are luscious and intelligent dancers who can captivate in works that push beyond staid classical technique. Pastor’s program opener, “Adagio & Scherzo,” featuring Schubert’s lyricism, twists, winds, and unfurls in pretty moments. There is darkness and light, both in the choreography and in designer Maciej Igielski’s illumination, which matches the shifting moodiness of the score. Pastor’s movement language is elegant, but not constrained, his dancers breathe and stretch, draw together and nuzzle in more ruminative moments, then split apart. In his closer “Moving Rooms” we first meet the dancers arranged in a checkerboard pattern on a black stage, each dancer contained in an single box of light. Using the sometimes nervously itchy score by Alfred Schnittke and Henryk Mikolaj Gorecki, the dancers, clad in flesh colored leotards, used their legs and arms in sharp-edged angles and geometries. But the centerpiece of the evening was a new “Rite of Spring” – yes, to that Mt. Everest of scores by Igor Stravinsky – this one is choreographed by French-Israeli Emanuel Gat. Danced on a red carpet, the five dancers ease into a counterintuitive tango of changing partners, always leaving one dancer as the odd one out. The smooth and slightly sensuous salsa is the basis for the work’s movement sinuous vocabulary, as it quietly builds like a slowly simmering pot put to boil.

HUANGYI_lightened-593x396Man and machine – or in this case – dancer and computerized robot – meet in Taiwanese-born choreographer and dancer Huang Yi’s 50-minute work. The evening presented in The Clarice’s Kogod Theater, its black box at the University of Maryland in September, provided a merging of art and technology. KUKA, the German-made robot, used in factories around the world to insert parts that build autos and iPads, has become a companion and artistic partner for Yi. Performing to a lushly classical score of selections from Bach and Mozart, Yi, clad in a dark suit, dances with, beside and around the singular movable robot arm sprouting from KUKA’s bright orange base. There are moments of serendipity, when the two seem to be communing in a duet of machine and motion, and others, in the dimly lit work, when each strays off on a tangent – robot and human, may move side by side, or even together, but only one inhabits a spiritual profound space of flesh, blood and breathe. That was my take away from this intriguing experiment in technology and dance. Yi is at the forefront of merging art with new technology and his experimentation – he programmed the robot – is on the cutting edge, but the work doesn’t cut to the quick. Still, orange steel and computer chips don’t trump muscle, bone, flesh and spirit. I would like to see more of Yi’s slippery, easy silken movement, in better light and with living breathing partners.

camille brown 0Camille Brown went deep in mining her childhood experiences in Black Girl: Linguistic Play, presented by The Clarice in the Ina & Jack Kay Theatre in October. The evening-length work draws on Brown’s and her dancers’ playground experiences, first as young girls playing hopscotch, double dutch jump rope and sing-songy hand clapping games. On a set of platforms, chalk boards that the dancers color on and hanging angled mirrors designed by Elizabeth Nelson, Brown and her five women dancers inhabit their younger selves, in knee socks, overall shorts, and all the gum-chewing gumption and fearlessness that seven, eight- and nine-year-olds own when they’re comfortable in their skin. As the piece, featuring a live score of original compositions and curated songs played by pianist Scott Patterson and bassist Tracy Wormworth hit all the right notes as the performers matured and grew before our eyes from nursery rhyming girls chanting “Miss Mary Mack” to hesitant pre-adolescents, fidgeting and fighting mean-girl battles, to teens on the cusp of womanhood – and uncertainty. The work is a vibrant and vivid rendering of the secret lives of the little seen and less heard lives of black girls. The movement is pure play, physical, elemental, skips and hops, the stuff of recess and lazy summer days, but there are moments of deep recognition, particularly one where an older sister or mother figure gently, carefully, lovingly plaits the hair of  one of the girls. Its quiet intimacy, too, speaks volumes.

The dance event of the year was likely the much heralded 50th anniversary tour celebrating Twyla Tharp’s choreographic longevity and creativity. For the occasion at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater in November, she pulled together a 13-member ensemble of some of her long-time dancers and some younger favorites – multi-talented performers who can finesse a quick footed petit allegro or execute a jazzy kick-ball-change and slide sequence or bop and rock in bits of freestyle improvisation with equal skill. For the two Tharp did not revive earlier masterpieces, instead she paid a sort of homage to her elf with a pair of new works – “Preludes and Fugues” and “Yowzie.” Each had elements of hat smart synchronicity that Tharp favors, her beloved little balletic passages that she came to embrace after years of more severe post modernism, and her larky, goofy wiggles, scrunches, and witty physical jokes, like pairing the “tall” girl with the shortest guy in the company, or little games of tag or chase and odd-one-out that are interspersed in both works. “Preludes and Fugues” was preceded by “First Fanfare,” featuring a herald of trumpets composed by John Zorn (and performed by the Practical Trumpet society). The two works, one a bit of appetizer, the other the first course, bled into each other and recalled influences of Tharp’s earlier beloved choreography, especially the indelible ballroom sequences and catches of “Sinatra Suite.” “Preludes and Fugues” is as staunch piece set to Bach fugues that Tharp dissects choreographically with precise footwork, intermingling couples, groups and soloists and her eye for the “everything counts” ethos of post-modernism where ballet and jazz, loose-limbed modern and a circle of folk like chains all blend into a whole.

“Yowzie” is brighter, more carefree, recalling the unbridled energy of a New Orleans Second Line with its score of American jazz performed and arranged by Henry Butler, Steven Bernstein and The Hot 9. Dressed in mismatched psychedelia by designer Santo Loquasto the dancers grin and mug through this more light-hearted romp featuring lots of Twyla-esque loose limbs, shrugs, chugs and galumphs along with Tharpian incongruities: twos playing off of threes, boy-girl couplings that switch over to boy-boy pairs, and other hijinks of that sort. The dancers have fun with the work, its floppiness not belying the technical underpinnings that make the highly calibrated lifts, supports, pulls and such possible. The carnivalesque atmosphere feels partly like old-style vaudeville, partly like Mardi Gras. In the end though, both works are Twyla playing and paying homage to Twyla – they’re both solid, smart and well-crafted. They’re not keepers, though, in the way “In the Upper Room,” “Sinatra Suite,” or “Push Comes to Shove” were earlier in her career.

Samita-atlas-ektaaraSamita Sinha’s bewilderment and other queer lions is not exactly dance or theater, but there’s plenty of movement and mystery and beauty in her hour-long work, which American Dance Institute in Rockville presented in early December. In a year of no Nutcrackers for this dance watcher, this was a terrific antidote to the crushing commercialization of all things seasonal during winter holidays. Sinha, a composer and vocal artist, draws on her roots in North Indian classical music as well as other folk, ritual and classical music traditions. Together with lighting, electronic scoring, a collection of props and objets (visual design is by Dani Leventhal), she has woven together a world inhabited by creative forces and energies from across genres and encompassing the four corners of the aural world. Ain Gordon directed the piece, which sometimes featured text, sometimes just vocalizing, sometimes movement as Sinha and her compatriots on stage Sunny Jain and Grey Mcmurray trade places, come together to play on or work with a prop, like a fake fur vest or scattered collected chairs and percussive instruments. There were eerie keenings, and deep rumbles, higher pitched vocalizations, cries, exhales, sighs, electric guitar and steel objects banged together, all in the purpose of building a world of pure and unclichéd  vocal resonance. It would be too easy to compare her to Meredith Monk and Sinha is far less artistically self-conscious and precious. She is most definitely an artist to follow. Her vision and talent, keen eye and gracious presence speak – and sing – volumes.

© 2015 Lisa Traiger

Published December 31, 2015

Paying Homage: Liz Lerman’s Choreography in Wartime

Posted in Dance, Dance theater, Modern dance by lisatraiger on April 5, 2015

“Appalachian Spring” with the University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra, Gildenhorn Concert Hall, Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, College Park, Md., May 4, 2014

“Healing Wars,” world premiere at Arena Stage’s Mead Center for American Theatre, Arlene and Robert Kogod Cradle, Washington, D.C., June 6-29, 2014

By Lisa Traiger

For decades now, initially as founder and artistic director of Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, now as an independent itinerant artist, choreographer and public intellectual, Liz Lerman has been pushing dance outside of its traditional boundaries. She has choreographed in train stations, at a naval shipyard, in art galleries, and in the red-carpeted grand foyer, the women’s rest room and the loading dock at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

Her dancers have long upturned expectations — ranging in age from their early 20s to well into their 70s and beyond. Some have been trained in dance techniques from ballet to Graham, Cunningham, and release; others are neophytes, maybe young children or residents of a retirement home who haven’t had a minute of dance performing experience. No matter, Lerman is a master of choreographing for a diversity of bodies, experiences, ages and expertise. She has a knack for making everyone look their best by allowing for gradations and careful pruning of movement material, often down to the simplest of gestures that speak volumes.

This past spring, two new Lerman works brought her back to her long-time home turf in Washington, D.C., and the Maryland suburbs, three years after she walked away from the company she bore and built beginning in 1976. The Dance Exchange remains active at its Takoma Park, Maryland, home on a more localized level than under Lerman’s guidance. On her own, Lerman has found more time to experiment and to delve deeply into projects that matter for her right now.

Her second collaboration with an orchestra, the University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra, proved a fruitful follow-up to the lovely, spare and unapologetically rigorous rendering in 2012 of Claude Debussy’s prelude for Afternoon of a Faun. There Lerman, along with the collaboration of conductor James Ross, pulled the chairs out from under the players and crafted movement sequences, groupings and even a few balletic steps that the instrumentalists could master while simultaneously playing the score to fine effect. Initial comments prior to experiencing this newly realized setting of an orchestral score, amounted to snide questions about violinists and cellists being equated to marching band musicians (who, by the way, are no slouches in either musical proficiency or embodied movement).

"Appalachian Spring" with choreography by Liz Lerman for the University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra

“Appalachian Spring” with choreography by Liz Lerman for the University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra

This past May 2014, Lerman and Ross tackled a 20th-century American classic: Aaron Copland’s vibrant score for Appalachian Spring. Of course, much historic resonance accompanies the work. Copland’s commissioned work, scored for a chamber-sized orchestra, premiered at the Library of Congress in 1944 with Graham’s choreography. This piece of Americana, which blends national values of independence, manifest destiny and the communal spirit, could not have been more prescient coming out as the United States was entangled in World War II, with its native sons stationed across three continents from Europe to the Far East.

Copland titled his 30-plus minute dance score Ballet for Martha, while Graham took inspiration from Hart Crane’s poem “The Dance.” Lerman’s take on the work includes homage to the Graham original, an acknowledgement of its inherent American melodies and rhythms and, most distinctively, a deeply contemplative regard for the mystery and reward of artistic inspiration. It’s as if the ballet has riffed on itself and on the juicy and productive thought processes of its original creators – composer and choreographer Copland and Graham – in seeking a higher level of inspiration and communion.

In Lerman’s piece, Copland’s work opens with soft arpeggios and the musicians, freed from their chairs, enter; first a chamber-sized group walks and plays the clarinet, oboe and other instruments contributing to Copland’s thematic material. Clad in denim and khaki, shades of blue and beige, some players barefoot, others in sneakers or boots, they walk, sway, skip, dash and fall into formations.

A quartet of string players lifts their bows into the center of a circle as they suggest a living carousel. The cellists have their instruments strapped to their shoulders so they can still maneuver the steps of the Gildenhorn Concert Hall stage. A bass player hoists his instrument high above his head a few times during the piece. There are nods to Copland’s Americana themes: do-si-dos and allemands without the hands, lines and circles weaving in and out like a reinterpreted square dance as the instrumentalists play and maneuver.

The work’s centerpiece though, both visually and morally, is long-time Lerman associate Martha Wittman, who possesses more than a half-century of dancing, teaching and performing experience. She sits initially at a small desk, channeling the creative artist in her element as she simultaneously pays an homage to both Copland and Graham, the two highly opinionated creative forces behind this quintessential American work. And Wittman with Enrico Lopez-Yanez, a graduate student in conducting, serve as the work’s drum majors or pied pipers, leading lines and circles, spirals and whirling vortexes of string players and woodwinds, brass and drums around the stage, which has been carefully and lovingly lit in evolving shades of cool blue and warm yellow to compliment the mood and tenor of the musical passages.

Lerman also pays a sense of tribute to the staunch and angular canvas that Graham crafted in telling her tale of a frontier marriage and the complex psychological forces that spurred her inner turmoil. In Lerman’s hands, though, the movement loses this mid-century modernist gloss for something far more lyrical, democratic and (Lerman’s calling card for decades now) easy to read and render, by dancers and non-dancers alike.

Lerman, with creative co-choreographic input from Vincent Thomas, another former dancer in her now-defunct company, has drawn upon multiple talents of these mostly graduate school-level musicians. Not only can they play, but some (a violinist at one point) can play bars while dancing a jig, a flutist can skip upstairs and not miss a beat, and a trio of men can lift up a bassoonist on another student’s back in a circus-y moment that underlines the sense of play that Lerman has drawn from these otherwise serious musicians.

lerman app spring 2

Thomas (who has a perfect background as a choreographer for college flag teams) and Lerman have been able to draw out a surprisingly rich, varied and daring palette of movements from these budding orchestra professionals. The risks they have taken to play and maneuver do not seem to have taken much toll musically on the Copland score. And if there were glitches from time to time, they were more than made up for by the liveliness and intensity of commitment these musicians had for the project.

Once the piece arrives at the “Simple Gifts” theme, with its moderatos and crescendos, it’s hard not to be sold on this project. Then in a final act of spiritual offering, as the theme wanes and returns to its sparest melodic lines, the musicians step to the edge of the stage and place their instruments – flutes and French horns, clarinets and basses, violins and oboes – lovingly on the floor before stepping back and leaving the final notes to the clarinet and xylophone and final movement to Lopez-Yanez and to Wittman. Wittman recapitulates a simple hand gesture: her open palm held aloft, balancing and tossing the unseen.

Wittman has held the orchestra and audience in her thrall. Within that softly executed moment is a world of creativity. It’s the magical life force of how music and dance, poetry and song, come into being. Lerman’s Appalachian Spring gifts us with the drama of the creative force itself in all its glory, mystery and spirituality.

Among Lerman’s ongoing creative projects is her continuing experimentation in what she has called “non-fiction dance” or “non-fiction choreography.” Many of her works spanning her more than four decades of dancemaking have drawn deeply from her personal experiences, along with those of her dancers (whether professionally trained or not) – her chief collaborators. In complex, multifaceted evening-length works she has addressed the mapping of the human genome (Ferocious Beauty: Genome), the origins of everything (The Matter of Origins), the harrowing Nuremberg trials (Small Dances About Big Ideas) and the massive reach of Russian history (Russia: Footnotes to History), to name a few of her large-scale, intensively researched pieces. Lerman’s latest work deals – emotionally, viscerally, practically and historically – with war and its aftermath on individuals.

Healing Wars, which made its world premiere in June 2014 at Arena Stage’s Mead Center for American Theatre in Washington, D.C., alternates both effectively and ineffectively between two American conflicts: the Civil War and the present-day wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Under Lerman’s directorial influence, these events, separated by history and 150 years, are both equated and contrasted so that in an 80-minute evening, the build-up of concepts and ideas becomes overwhelming.

At times it’s easier to shut down than take in one more sound-bite, revelatory confession or factoid about war, medical advancements, healing and return home. One way Lerman accomplishes this is by examining and exploring the smallest of details – the incremental overrides the universal. One doctor’s story of a surgical incident, one soldier’s experience with the ramifications of an exploded IED, one woman’s tactics to survive on the home front, knowing her partner is far from home with danger close by, are told and meant to be instructive and didactic in result.

Lerman’s biggest pieces work through accretion – the additive nature of these vignettes; narratives performed in words and gestures; images, ideas, confessional passages; choreographic tidbits; and other viscera she accumulates. They often finally overwhelm, yet simultaneously they unfurl, with effective and salutary results. Dance, movement, narrative, individual experiences are universalized and by documenting them they become something greater than the one. In Lerman’s hands they become representative of the man, and universalize (in this case) our (and others’) experiences of war and its aftermaths.

She does this with the able choreographic assistance of one of her long-time affiliates, dancer Keith Thompson, as well as co-artistic collaborators Heidi Eckwall creating lighting; Darron L. West, contributing sound; Kate Freer providing the multimedia and video elements; and David Israel Reynoso crafting the unobtrusive sets (including the most compelling, a chandelier-like mobile of hanging military cots) and the simple but effective costumes that draw on Civil War and modern military garb.

As much devised theater as it is dance, the performance begins before the audience even enters Arena’s most-intimate space, the Cradle. Led in the back way via the stage door in groups of about 12 to 15, one walks through a museum-like collection of life-sized, living dioramas, each populated with a performer recreating a moment from the Civil War era or from today.

There’s Alli Ross, perched on a high stool-like bicycle seat, a woman disguised as a Confederate soldier. She is glimpsed through a broken window, a closed room with an off-kilter bed hung from the ceiling (foreshadowing Reynoso’s set). And Tamara Hurwitz Pullman, properly clad in a hoop skirt, portrays Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, as she sifts through thousands and thousands – 63,000 according to a museum-like placard nearby – of letters requesting information about missing Civil War soldiers.

Ultimately, the final vignette both dramatically and morally becomes, the centerpiece in the 70-minute work. Hollywood actor Bill Pullman (Independence Day) shares a bench with Paul Hurley, a former U.S. Navy gunner’s mate and graduate of Duke Ellington School for the Arts in Washington, D.C. They chat casually about Hurley’s wartime experiences. I overheard his telling of an epic bar fight between Australian, German, Dutch and Greek soldiers. The Aussies started it, he claimed. Unspoken, at least in the snippet I heard, but later revealed, is the narrative detailing how Hurley lost his leg in Bahrain and how he faced an arduous recovery.

As the audience files into their seats, Samantha Spies meanders the stage, lantern in hand, her rough-cut burlap dress indicating her slave caste – but her presence more otherworldly spirit and angel than downtrodden slave. Her guise provides an elemental and earth-centered connective thread to root African movement traditions, while suggesting to an ephemeral spirit’s presence. Spies helps the viewer switch between present and past, between realistic and otherworldly realms, between the Civil War and Afghanistan and Iraq, between modern-day operating room and deathbed. It’s hard to misconstrue her true role once she completes her monologue – she’s an angel leading characters to their deaths, gently or gruesomely.

Actor, and here monologist extraordinaire, Pullman serves as the work’s core: he’s both guide and example, playing a military surgeon who lectures before a group of patrons back on the home front. In Hollywood films Pullman has played an American president, so his authoritative demeanor almost steamrolls some quieter, less specific moments. But the evening’s centerpiece arrives when Pullman and wounded vet Hurley converse. Hurley removes his prosthesis and performs a duet giving himself over to dancer Thompson, who has crossed over from Civil War to today as a supportive partner in the wounded man’s healing. The compelling moment – undeniably, ultimately self-sacrificing and draining — demands that attention be paid.

Our wars – American wars – are fought in distant lands. Lerman’s goal with this project was to bring the present-day wars and their aftermath home, just as, in its time, our nation’s largest and most divisive war, the Civil War, touched nearly every household and life as citizens witnessed battles and the tragedy of the wounded and dead in their midst.

Lerman’s work in drawing together these disparate but not dissimilar moments of history, along with the science, medical advances, politics and, of course, personal experiences, forces contemporary audiences to pause and consider that as individually painful as war traumas are, the suffering that results is our nation’s burden to bear. Lerman, here, through the compelling forces of dance theater, underscores the gravity of that burden.

© 2015 Lisa Traiger

This review originally was published in the Spring 2015 print edition of Ballet Review (p. 20-23). To subscribe, visit Ballet Review.