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We Need Liz Lerman Now More Than Ever
In these times that are scary for artists and immigrants, it's good to be reminded that dance does not have to ignore politics. Maybe that's why more than one organization recently decided to honor Liz Lerman, an American choreographer known for working toward issues of social justice. This summer Lerman will receive both the Jacob's Pillow Award (a $25,000 prize) and American Dance Festival's Distinguished Teaching Award.
As Editor in Chief Jennifer Stahl pointed out the day after last fall's presidential election, dance has a long history of responding to social issues, and Lerman is part of that history.
At a time when dance artists are seeking ways to engage in the questions of the day, Lerman provides a roadmap. Passionate about issues of social justice, she's found ways to incorporate social issues, from poverty to environmental protection, into her dances. These are not simple "message" dances but fully layered works that care about craft as much as statement.
One of Lerman's persistent questions is, Who gets to dance? She founded Liz Lerman's Dance Exchange in 1976 to explore this and other questions. Six years ago she left the company to spend more time on freelance projects. (The Dance Exchange, as it is now called, is still going strong.)
She has activated a wide range of populations toward movement, including senior citizens, ship builders, construction workers, clergy members and classical musicians. For each project she engages different communities with a different purpose. In a press release, Jacob's Pillow director Pamela Tatge said about Lerman, "She has paved the way for a whole generation of dance makers to discover the power of social change through community engagement."
Last year Lerman was named the first Institute Professor at the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University, where she focuses on creative research, connecting dance to physics, history and other areas. One of Lerman's guiding ideas, as expressed in an ASU promotional video, is: "Turn discomfort to inquiry." It's challenging advice, but useful—and inspiring—for dance artists who don't want to separate their art from their response to what's going on in our government. What she calls "art at work" is art, or dance, helping to bring crucial social issues into daily lives. As Leah Cox, dean of ADF, says, "Lerman teaches people how dance operates as a way of understanding the world."
My dance coach wants my word that I'll keep competing under his school's name for the next year and not audition. I'm 18 years old and already doing lead roles and winning medals. I love his teaching, but shouldn't I be ready to go out and get a job?
—Gil, Las Vegas, NV
How do we make ballet, a traditionally homogeneous art form, relevant to and reflective of an increasingly diverse and globalized era? While established companies are shifting slowly, Richard Siegal/Ballet of Difference, though less than 2 years old, has something of a head start. The guiding force of the company, which is based in Germany, is bringing differences together in the same room and, ultimately, on the same stage.
Before she became the 20th century's most revered ballet pedagogue, Agrippina Vaganova was a frustrated ballerina. "I was not progressing and that was a terrible thing to realize," she wrote in a rough draft of her memoirs.
She retired from the Imperial Ballet stage in 1916, and for the next 30-plus years, devoted herself to creating a "science of ballet." Her new, dynamic teaching method produced stars like Rudolf Nureyev, Alla Osipenko, and Galina Ulanova and later Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov. And her approach continues to influence how we think about ballet training to this day.
But is the ballet class due for an update? Demands and aesthetics have changed. So should the way dancers train change too?
For many dancers, a "warmup" consists of sitting on the floor stretching their legs in various positions. But this strategy only reduces your muscles' ability to work properly—it negatively affects your strength, endurance, balance and speed for up to an hour.
Save your flexibility training for the end of the day. Instead, follow a warmup that will actually help prevent injury and improve your body's performance.
According to the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science, a smart warmup has four parts: "a gentle pulse-raising section, a joint mobilization section, a muscle lengthening section and a strength/balance building section."
Claude Debussy's only completed opera, Pelléas et Mélisande, emphasizes clarity and subtlety over high-flung drama as a deadly love triangle unfolds. Opera Vlaanderen and Royal Ballet of Flanders are commemorating the 100th anniversary of the composer's death with a new production of the landmark opera that is sure to be anything but traditional: Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Damien Jalet are choreographing and directing, while boundary-pushing performance artist Marina Abramović collaborates on the design. Antwerp, Feb. 2–13. Ghent, Feb. 23–March 4. operaballet.be/en.
Black History Month offers a time to reflect on the artists who have shaped the dance field as we know it today. But equally important is celebrating the black artists who represent the next generation. These seven up-and-comers are making waves across all kinds of styles and across the country:
When a new director began transforming Atlanta Ballet a couple of years ago, longtime dancer Alessa Rogers decided to finally explore her dream of dancing in Europe. "I always had this wanderlust," she says. She wasn't set on a particular city or company, but thought learning French would be fun. She began her research that September, making note of repertoire and the number of dancers as well as which companies employed foreign, non–European Union dancers. "I saw that Ballet du Rhin was looking for dancers," says Rogers. "They also had a new director coming in, so I thought it could be an opportunity." After sending a video, Rogers traveled during her layoff week to take company class. She was offered a job on the spot.
Uprooting and moving out of the country, far away from your support system, language and customs, is not something to take lightly. While it can push you as an artist and be an exciting opportunity for personal growth, working as a dancer in a foreign country comes with its challenges. Lots of research and an adventurous spirit are required.
Justin Lynch is surprisingly nonchalant about the struggles of being a full-time lawyer and a professional dancer. "All dancers in New York City are experts at juggling multiple endeavors," he says. "What I'm doing is no different from what any other dancer does—it's just that what I'm juggling is different."
While we agree that freelance dancers are pro multitaskers, we don't really buy Lynch's claim that what he does isn't extraordinary. In fact, we're pretty mind-boggled by the career he's built for himself.
At the annual Gala de Danza in Los Cabos, Mexico, the lineup of performers is usually pretty typical gala fare: You can expect celebrity performers like Lil Buck, reality stars like Ballet West's Beckanne Sisk and "So You Think You Can Dance" finalist Tate McRae, plus principals from top companies like New York City Ballet's Tiler Peck and Daniel Ulbricht.
What's absolutely not typical? The venue.
At 5'10" I felt like an ant in the studio with Alonzo King LINES Ballet. The San Francisco-based company is full of statuesque dancers whose passion is infectious. Every story was told not only through their movement, but through the expression on their faces and their connection to one another.
We talked to artistic director Alonzo King about his love of collaborations and why he thinks politicians need to dance more.