at MoMing Dance & Arts Center

May 12-15

We’re not used to seeing little old ladies adored by attractive young men, but that’s how Liz Lerman sees them. At least, in part. In a section called “War Bride: When It Was Good” from the multifaceted Sketches From Memory, a lanky, boyish man steps onstage cradling a white-haired, delicate, elderly woman, his eyes locked with hers. As the man sets her down ever so gently, her legs slip around his waist to finally touch the floor. He runs his hand over her stomach, down her leg; she echoes his caress, tracing his rib cage, his thigh. The man lies on his back and reaches up to her; she bends and tumbles over his head, her dress sliding up over her slender bare legs. They roll over and over on the floor, a scene straight out of Romeo and Juliet. But the joy does not last; he leaves her prone, pulling on a military coat and cap and slowly walking off. She is still, staring at the ceiling as if preparing herself for a long, long wait–knowing she will get through it.

The performances by Lerman’s two troupes from Washington, D.C.–Liz Lerman/Exchange (the professional company) and Dancers of the Third Age (the seniors)–were some of the most impressive dance works to come to Chicago this season. Lerman’s choreography, in this piece and in three others on the program (Ms. Appropriate Goes to the Theater, Atomic Priests, and Still Crossing), is exquisitely crafted. She uses crisp, taut movement like bold strokes of a pen. Her dances often ring with the humor that arises from seeming incongruities, such as dancer Beth Davis’s Betty Boop approach to dispensing advice on tropical fish maintenance in Sketches. More than technically innovative, however, Lerman’s art is politically and socially resonant–she speaks on the hazards of nuclear-waste disposal, on coping with modern-day emotional trauma, on the process of immigration and finding one’s home. But the most beautiful aspect of her work is the weave of ages–the use of young, lithe, athletic dancers and old (aged 62 to 90), faintly stooped, wrinkled but solid, quietly expressive dancers.

Lerman has been a lonely proponent of the rightness of the elderly in modern dance. Her book on the subject, Teaching Dance to Senior Adults, was published in 1983. She began teaching dance to the aged in a senior citizens’ home in 1975, a year before she established the Dance Exchange in D.C., and founded Dancers of the Third Age as an outgrowth of her classes. A few of the company’s members danced long ago with now-legendary modern dancers, such as Ruth St. Denis; others had their first experience in dance with Lerman and Third Age director Don Zuckerman (who is also a member of Liz Lerman/Exchange). These dancers embody Lerman’s credo: that dance belongs to all people as a birthright; that dancers who, as she says, “look like people dancing, not dancers dancing” belong onstage; and that we all have much to learn from our elders.

Lerman’s senior dancers are nothing less than inspiring; they force us to question our conceptions of what the elderly can do. In one section of Sketches, old and young women alike stand, preening proudly, in bras and ruffled petticoats; later, arrayed in prom gowns, they join forces for a teasing, slumber-party romp. In the second half of Atomic Priests, they rock the young, bewildered dancers on their laps and soothe them.

Lerman’s recurring use of words with dance links dance, a social ritual, with story telling, and in the two-part Atomic Priests she returns the elderly to their natural role as storytellers, conduits of the past. In the first half, Atomic Priests: Coming Attractions, the Exchange dancers (Jeff Bliss, Debra Caplowe, Beth Davis, Amy Dowling, and Zuckerman) are buttoned up in business suits. Reverently they intone circuitous bureaucratese (excerpted from actual Department of Energy reports, and incredibly funny–if one forgets the sad fact that this is really what our public officials are up to). Spastic twitches and tics accompany their dialogue. The matter at hand: how to ensure that future generations do not disturb underground repositories of nuclear waste. Pictograms are proposed, to demonstrate that food growing above the dump site will be diseased and deadly.

Atomic Priests: The Feature brings us into the not-too-distant future, where the elders (Louise Haskin, Judith Jourdin, Seymour Rosen, Charlie Rother, and Bea Wattenberg) have taken the place of the young officials. The discussion is the same: Will the younger generation stay clear of the sacred burial ground? They decide to create a myth, a set of superstitions to steer the uninitiated away from the site forever–the power of dance and ritual in shaping culture is held high, exalted. Solemn, ceremonial imagery and whispered words mesh to form a mystical tale told to the younger dancers. The force of the presentation, as the younger generation is brought into the elders’ fold and they are bonded together by their shared awe of the waste, nudges us to question our own familiar canon of fables and stories–is the myth of Icarus, for example, an ancestral form of mind control, a way to limit and restrain successive generations?

Still Crossing, commissioned for the Liberty Dances festival celebrating the centennial of the Statue of Liberty, takes a poetic look at immigrants. One of the most moving elements was the score, Mark Isham’s “Times of Harvey Milk,” with additional music by Teddy Klaus. The recurring theme brought to mind Pachelbel’s Canon; it had a gently urgent force, instilled with hope and majesty. While the Exchange dancers engaged in a struggle to cross the stage, helping each other over difficult spots, turning back, then pushing on with renewed determination, the Third Age dancers rolled in ceaseless waves across the floor, like the ocean and like the ongoing tide of immigrants. The young dancers’ trek accomplished, the ensemble comes together in a plain, powerful chorus of gestures, symbolizing both the triumph of arrival and everlasting restlessness. In the end, the young replace the aged in rolling waves across the floor.

Each evening’s program opened with a different solo; I was able to see two: Davis’s To Make and Lerman’s Ms. Appropriate Goes to the Theater. Davis is a dizzying dancer–her solo involved ecstatic jerking and bouncing, playing up her crisp, biting technique. Yet its continual building up and loss of momentum made for an unsettling experience.

Ms. Appropriate, performed by Dowling, combined evocative choreography, an outspoken dancer, and a disturbing message. Dowling starts out primly poised in a lace-necked dress; she introduces herself as the one with all the answers to our etiquette questions. What did we do with our programs? she asks, and scolds us for letting them slip beneath our chairs. We are also told how to properly set the table for a formal dinner. In between lessons, she spins about the stage, nose in the air, pausing frequently to wag a knowing finger at the audience. Tape-recorded voices pellet her with questions: “My friend is dying of AIDS–what should I tell my parents?” “My friend just had an abortion–how do I let her know I think she did the right thing?” Dowling lashes herself into a fever, her eyes popping, breathing heavily, reacting like some system that’s been overloaded. “Oh, it’s death you want to talk about? Why didn’t you tell me?” she cries, tearing open her dress with frantic hands. We haven’t yet developed rituals, Lerman seems to say, to carry us through our most disturbing dilemmas. What use is Emily Post if she can’t tell us first how to deal with the painful, universal aspects of life and death?

Lerman is certainly cerebral, but her dances are in no way obscure, nor do they seem to harbor hidden references to her and her alone. Her work is clear and approachable, even to those unfamiliar with dance. Indeed, one of the most gratifying aspects of her performances was the significant number of elderly in attendance, watching their stereotypes blasted onstage.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Rob Sugar.