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."
We knew that New York downtown dance darling Okwui Okpokwasili was a big deal. Critics and audiences have been raving about her dance-theater works for years, and the new documentary about her, Bronx Gothic, has attracted the attention of the larger arts community.
But never in our wildest dreams did we imagine she'd show up in a Jay Z video, along with flex dancer Storyboard P. Though we're slightly less surprised to see Storyboard in Jay Z's "4:44" video than we were to see Okpokwasili, we're jazzed that two of our favorites are featured on such a huge platform. (We're also feeling #blessed that we didn't have to subscribe to Tidal to watch this.)
Throughout the years, choreographer Seán Curran has worked with a diverse array of talented collaborators—from Kyrgyz music ensemble Ustatshakirt Plus to the the Grammy Award–winning King's Singers. But perhaps none are as meaningful as his most recent group of co-choreographers: At-risk teens from the after school program and nonprofit The Wooden Floor.
Curran has been in residence with The Wooden Floor since June, where he's worked with students to build choreography based on their lives and communities:
Their creation will be shown July 20-22 at The Wooden Floor Studio Theatre in Santa Ana, California.
"Besides the stage, baking is my other happy place," says New York City Ballet corps member Jenelle Manzi.
Four years ago, she thought her baking days were over when she was diagnosed with gluten intolerance. Manzi had been dealing with pain, frequent illness and joint inflammation for nearly 10 years. Once she cut out gluten, Manzi gradually started to feel better, noticing a transformation in how her body felt and functioned. She found her joints were less inflamed, and she got sick less often.
New York City Ballet soloist Unity Phelan and American Ballet Theatre soloist Cassandra Trenary spend every day making their hard work look effortless and graceful both in the studio and onstage. That's exactly what makes them the perfect spokesmodels for the dance-inspired activewear line, Belle Force.
To celebrate our 90th anniversary, we excavated some of our favorite hidden gems from the DM Archives—images that capture a few of the moments in time we've documented over the decades.
This image was captured during a 1978 New York City Ballet tour that took the company to Copenhagen—home turf for Adam Luders (right), who trained at the Royal Danish Ballet School and briefly danced with the company before joining NYCB as a principal dancer in 1975. Next to Luders is (of course) George Balanchine, in conversation with ballerina Suzanne Farrell. And looking on with a smile? NYCB's current ballet master in chief Peter Martins.
On March 8, 2016, Rami Shafi found himself inspired to film an impromptu dance video of his best friend, Aaron Moses Robin, improvising on Gay St. in New York City's Greenwich Village. Thus was born Pedestrian Wanderlust, a collection of dance videos that has grown to include a monthly improv jam.
Shafi works with anyone who wants to take part in the project, filming videos in locations chosen by the dancers and later adding music. The videos are shot on Shafi's iPhone in one take and, other than the starting and ending points, are entirely improvised. The editing afterwards—including the music choice—is minimal. "I don't like to edit too much. It's just what it is," says Shafi. "I usually can do the editing on the train ride home."
Many people see dance and choreography as separate pursuits, or view choreography as a dance career's second act. For some dancers, however, performing and choreographing inform one another. "That's just the kind of choreographer I am. I feel things so deeply in my physicality. I have to do it to know it," says Jodi Melnick, who is a prolific performer of her own work. She also maintains an active practice as a performer for other choreographers: Throughout her career, she's worked with Trisha Brown, Twyla Tharp, Tere O'Connor and Donna Uchizono, to name a few.
Though a dual career can be fulfilling, simultaneously inhabiting the roles of dancer and choreographer requires focus, organization and a great deal of energy.