Liz Lerman Dance Exchange

April 26, 2007

Liz Lerman Dance Exchange
Atlas Performing Arts Center, Washington, D.C.

April 26–29, 2007

Reviewed by Elizabeth Zimmer

Liz Lerman calls her 31-year-old, multigenerational, mixed-ability ensemble the Dance Exchange with good reason. Her projects, especially the recent Ferocious Beauty: Genome, tend to be exchanges between dancers and specialists in other fields. Four years in development, Ferocious Beauty: Genome involved 34 scientists, researchers, and professors from around North America, as well as a changing cast of performers (we saw Thomas Dwyer, Ted Johnson, Matt Mahaney, Gesel Mason, Cassie Meador, Suzanne Richard, Shula Strassfeld, Ben Wegman, and Martha Wittman) and a crew of 13 designers and managers. Twenty of the scientists appear on video in the course of the piece, and perhaps my favorite moment is a video sequence in which the dancers, who range in age from 25 to 72, visit labs and office buildings and throw themselves into the laps of startled researchers.

Thousands of hours of work, in laboratories and offices as well as rehearsal studios, went into preparing this piece, and all of it is evident on the stage, especially in the elaborate video special effects. When seven dancers are in motion on the stage, and other personnel are talking and moving on four separate video screens, the general effect is total chaos, but somehow it all winds up making sense, and you come away thinking you’ve learned new and interesting things. “A theory is a story to make data make sense in your mind,” one of the talking-head scientists tells us. And Ferocious Beauty is a set of interlocking stories that send us away with data and an upwelling of powerful feeling. What if scientists succeed in turning off the gene for cell death? Do you really want to live forever? The piece dramatizes the consequences of such a possibility.

The dancers are fluent speakers, whether playing characters very like themselves, as Mason does, or historical figures like Gregor Mendel, as Johnson does. They create believable personas, and use tactics from burlesque to Powerpoint in this fully staged lecture-demonstration of complex biological material. Many costume changes keep the cast as busy offstage as they are on. One scientist explains the genome as resembling a zipper, so elaborate arrangements of zippers are used to reveal “traits” that have been written on the dancers’ bare skin.

This is all clever and funny and beautifully paced, but what gets relatively short shrift in the mix is actual choreography. The video, the ideas, the personalities, the scenic elements and the language compete with it, and often win. You’d probably only notice this if you were looking for it, as I was. As a show, I thought it was practically flawless, developing characters we genuinely miss when it’s over, and providing complex information in easy-to-absorb form. Dance becomes a divertissement in a story primarily told by other means.

Ferocious Beauty: Genome
, which had its world premiere at Wesleyan University in Connecticut in February 2006, can be seen in coming months in Pittsburgh, Toronto, Tempe, Arizona; Montclair, New Jersey; Easton, Pennsylvania; and Burlington, Vermont. See