Hiking the Horizontal
Field Notes from a Choreographer
Publication Year: 2011
Published by: Wesleyan University Press
Title Page, Copyright Page
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To the dancers who have found their way to me and to the Dance Exchange, I am indebted. I list those that stayed awhile, but even those not mentioned here brought their hopes, their ideas, their bodies, and their histories to our mutual endeavor: Harry Belanger, Marty Belin, Jeff Bliss, Kimberli Boyd, ...
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I am interested in remembering why I started to dance and how happy I was at that moment; in what we dance about; in who gets to do the dancing; in performers who look like people dancing, not dancers dancing; in the idea that dance is a birthright; in keeping professional dancers alive as human beings; ...
Questions as a Way of Life
Fueling the Imagination
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I was visiting with my friend, the biologist Bonnie Bassler at Princeton, when she took me down the hall to meet her colleague Eric Wieschaus, a Nobel laureate who works with fruit flies. By that time, my dance Ferocious Beauty: Genome had already premiered, and I was eagerly fixing it. ...
Asking Questions as a Way of Life
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Twice when I was growing up I asked questions so stupid that they brought the class to an absolute standstill. The first time I realized what I had done almost instantly. The second time I was clueless until the laughing started. You would think that after experiences like that I would never ask another question. ...
Two Dances: The Oldest and One Not Yet Made
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My nephew, who is among many other things a writer, asked me about the difference between my earlier work and my newer work. After thinking for a long minute, I said, “I am cursed to always overreach. But in the later work the gap between my ideas and what I am capable of actually producing is smaller. ...
Wondering about Books
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I was to teach one week of a three-week course on creative process during the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Bates Dance Festival. Cassie Meador, a wonderful dancer and choreographer from the company, was joining me in the endeavor. We had first met her at Bates in a previous summer, ...
The Sounds of St. Albans
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Like most things, the act of asking questions has a shallow and a deep end, by which I mean that you can think about inquiry carefully (take small steps into the water) or you can find yourself in the middle of a muddle and realize that asking questions is the only way out (throw yourself into the deep end and learn to swim, ...
Was Einstein a Choreographer?
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All the biographies of Albert Einstein eventually tell the story of his “thought experiments.” In this seemingly unusual manner of thinking, the scientist would ask himself a question, then picture intently in his mind a series of imaginary events in a cause-and-effect sequence. Given what he was asking, the pictures he created ...
Influence, Inquiry, Action
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By the time we laid my father’s stone in the spring of 2000, I thought I had heard every story about him. But as people came to share in their experience of his life, I was overwhelmed with the number of people and incidents that spoke to his grand mission in life. One in particular stands out. ...
Who Gets to Dance?
Manifesto (in the form of a Village Voice help wanted ad recruiting artists for the Hallelujah project, October 1999)
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The Roosevelt, Dancing
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My life changed when my mother was diagnosed with cancer. Only in my mid-twenties, I was able to go home to Wisconsin and be with her. The end was swift. I was propelled into an emotional period of loss and reflection. Although still fairly new to choreography (I had at that time made one formal piece ...
The Shipyard, Dancing
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There is a symbiotic relationship between choreographing in community settings and for the stage; in my artistic practice, the way they inform each other at the deepest levels keeps both evolving. In the beginning, I taught people in community settings a dance that I had made for them. The most successful of these dances ...
Speech and Silence: The Who Matters
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After thirty-five years of dancing in communities, one way I have come to see our projects is as a precursor to reality TV. By bringing onstage people who live in the local community and who have a look about them that is far from that of a professional dancer, the possibility for truth-telling is intensified. ...
A Liberation in the Gallery
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When I got the idea for In the Gallery, it came with the beginning and ending right from the start. A living nude woman would be onstage, beautiful, young, slowly shifting so that you really couldn’t see the change, but when you looked again she would be in a new position. There would be a large line-drawing of a body, ...
Being Another: One Kind of Technique
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Getting the physicality right is a delightful challenge, a kind of devotional for professional dancers. People who use their bodies as both research and outcome know that nuance matters and that with effort the tiniest change can make a difference in how movement feels, looks, and is to the dancer, the audience, ...
What Is the Dancing About?
Finding the Fish: On Meaning, Narrative, and Subject Matter Dancing
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I had only been at the Sandy Spring Friends School for a few days. I could look out of one tiny window of the tiny bedroom they gave me as part of my first-year teacher’s salary and just barely see the little pond and dock that was within several hundred yards of the science building that shared a wall with my living quarters. ...
Dancing on Both Sides of the Brain: An Essay on Text and Movement
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During a residency sponsored by the Wexner Center on the Ohio State campus in 1994, several of the dancers from my company and I went to speak to a class of general-education students. They had been required to see our concert as part of the survey course they were taking on dance and theater in the twentieth century. ...
Justice and Genetics: Two Program Notes
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Preparing a program note is a particular kind of challenge. It is an art to design ideas and data in a way that satisfies people’s curiosity and increases their appreciation without being redundant to the actual experience. It’s not just that some audience members crave more information than others; ...
The Problem of Abstraction
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Last year I visited the large Edward Hopper exhibition that was touring the country. I saw all the old paintings that I loved, the ones I used as the basis of scenes and images in an early piece, and the ones I had rejected for that work but still found curious and magnetic. Just before turning the corner to exit the exhibit, ...
Two Ways to Be an Angel
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I learned over a long period of time that meaning is wonderful but sometimes it isn’t. We danced the piece about my mother’s death for several years. We would be asked to come to small conferences for hospice workers or gatherings of people concerned about the elderly, and we would do the dance. ...
Portfolio of Site-Specific Dances
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Where Is the Dance Happening?
Scene at a Bedside
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I was in Milwaukee, where I had grown up, because I was to be the keynote speaker for the Theater Communications Group’s annual meeting. I decided to stay with my stepmother, whose own mother, Kathryn, was in the last stages of her life. We went to her bedside and spent the last night of her life with her. ...
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As a choreographer, I have learned to take great pleasure in the demands of unconventional space. I mean “unconventional” both in terms of where dance usually happens and in terms of the space itself: the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the bathrooms and loading dock of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, ...
My Favorite Night at Temple Micah
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I never expected it to happen. When I first began to take my work as a choreographer into religious institutions, I imagined many possibilities for connected dance and congregational life: dance thriving in religious-school workshops, study retreats, or women’s gatherings. And indeed, all these events did come to pass. ...
The Stage and Why It Matters
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The auditorium was dark, the dancers were onstage, the tech crew was at work. Everyone was working, but there were still a few moments to go until we would be all together. The lighting designer was testing yet again a look for a particular moment; I was sitting back observing some small detail as the dancers rehearsed. ...
Three Places, Three Stories
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Luckily for me, the Dance Exchange made regular visits to a part of Arizona near my uncle’s home, enabling me to stay in touch with him. As it turned out, I was in the state when he went into a coma as he neared the end of his life. I went to visit him and to see my aunt, who was sitting by his bedside as I entered the room. ...
Structures and Underpinnings
A Brief Conversation with a Friend
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Yes we are. Always. Twisting a bit here or there, being opportunistic at times, stubborn at others. Shape-shifting and reinvention are daily activities. They grow from the improvisational structuring that informs choreography. Make enough architecture or “local rules” as the scientists would say, ...
What Happens on a Residency?
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In my particular part of the performing arts and art-making world, “residency” is a word we use with some frequency. Occasionally I’ll get a look of incomprehension or the outright question “What’s a residency?” which reminds me that the term might need some explaining. ...
Dilemmas of Practice in Art and Healing: Response to an E-mail
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Do you remember the question that I asked when I met you two weeks ago? I have worked for four years using dance and movement with women suffering domestic violence, and for one year with persons in addiction rehabilitation. In both experiences I felt that I was on the thin line between therapy and community-based work. ...
Structure: The Container That Holds the Dance
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At one time, when I thought I was clever and knew a lot, I would say with a slightly knowing attitude: “The structure might be in the content.” It was a good idea, and sometimes in small sections of dances it would even be true. But a lot of times it wasn’t. Here are some examples: ...
What Is the Toolbox?
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Many of us catch on early to the fact that teaching is a great way to discover what you don’t know and what aspect of what you do know is worth passing on. The dance field is fortunate in its unique awareness that we have to keep learning, studying, and thinking throughout our professional lives. ...
Rehearsal, Defined and Redefined
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They have it partly right on So You Think You Can Dance—the part about laughing and hugging and falling down while trying difficult physical feats. And the worry. But rehearsing is so much more: a weird mash-up of sacred time with shared rituals, emotional dynamics that race forward with undercurrents barely expressed, ...
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My first job out of college was a teaching position at the Sandy Spring Friends School in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. I had always loved history, a legacy from my father, and I got the job because they needed a history teacher but wanted a dance program too. I was the perfect candidate. ...
Portfolio of Stage Dances
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Calling the Ancestors
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There were two of us asked to open a statewide conference on arts and education in Hawaii: Hula master Raylene Jackson, a beautiful woman in her sixties with hair down to her waist, and I, standing before a large room filled with expectant and passionate conferees. She went first and began chanting an ancient melody ...
In Defense of Creative Research
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Once I had made the dance Journey in 1980, I had acquired at least one choreographic method that aided my interest in subject matter choreography. I hadn’t yet codified it, but I knew that if I took one word at a time and found one movement or a series of movements to represent or simply parallel it, ...
Onward with Petichta
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I love my postmodernism. I don’t like the word for it, but I love what it is. For me it means to take things apart and put them back together in new ways, bring unlikely things together and see what you get. And when you do bring them together, put them next to each other in odd ways at random, ...
Fresh Readings: Reviewing Books on Tango and Nureyev
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A key concept in transdomain practice is that of multiple outcomes emerging from the same research. A corollary to this is that ideas and movement get tested on multiple stages. So when the Washington Post Book World asked if I would like to review two books on dance themes, I jumped at the chance. ...
Ruminations and Curiosities: A Series of Anecdotes and the Questions That Follow
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As I write this, I am teaching a creative process class at the Bates Dance Festival. I hardly ever use the word “creative.” Over the years I have found that it has too many bad connotations. It makes many people feel less than themselves, and for reasons that are difficult for a teacher to overcome. ...
Partnering and People
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It is ironic that I enjoy being by myself. As my husband, Jon, likes to say, we each like our own company, which is a good thing since we both spend a lot of time alone. Alone time has a particular quality. It reminds me of a big dog rummaging happily through familiar and unfamiliar habitats. ...
Seven Paths to Creativity
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I had been asked to speak about creativity at the American Bankers Association’s big conference, but I had also been placed on the “spouse” track. So everyone was surprised when over fifty bankers showed up for the session. We covered a lot of ground that day, including making a dance that was performed by the bankers, ...
A Return to Inquiry
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What do we mean by “social” and what do we mean by “action”? If we change those words to “art in the world,” does it change the outcome? What do we mean by art that values being part of the world, or in the world, or affecting the world? Does the meaning of art change if being social and being active are part ...
Activism, Professionalism, Purity
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Once, years ago, I was on a panel with choreographer Bella Lewitzky, one of the great exponents of modern dance on the West Coast. We got to talking about our shared concerns. She told me that she loved teaching and doing teaching residencies, but that she never put them on the same resume as her concert work. ...
It Is Easier to Be against President Bush Than It Is to Change Small Dynamics in Our Own Field (Even in the Arts Where We Think We Are Radical but in Fact We Are Not)
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It was an unusual opportunity. I was asked to come to the North Carolina School for the Arts to give a lecture as part of the Kenan Writers’ Encounter at the Thomas S. Kenan Institute for the Arts. I was to be the last speaker in a series that had gone on for five years and had included folks such as Angela Davis and Brian Greene. ...
A Job Swap and Slow Banking: Two Op-Eds
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Some mornings I just wake up angry, probably from watching too much cable news the night before. I get up early and go to my desk. I think I am going to tackle my ever-full e-mail inbox. Instead, inexplicably, I begin to write. Often, on certain ornery, cranky days, the words come out feeling like an opinion piece for the paper. ...
Pushing Back: A Rant in Three Movements
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I am at heart a reformer, not a revolutionary. Over the years, I have often wondered why. I suspect the comfort of a middle-class upbringing made it especially hard for me to throw everything out. But also, I have been sufficiently lucky—or cursed—to understand at a visceral level that there is almost always ...
Small Righteous Angers
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The first time I noticed the problem was at a retreat for choreographers held at Jacob’s Pillow. We were all gathered as part of some funder or organizer’s idea that we in the dance field should be talking to each other more and that a few days together would be a good thing. There were other gatherings that summer ...
To the Attendance Monitor at Sligo Creek Middle School
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Anna Spelman was absent from school on Friday because she went with her father to the National Storytelling Convention in Jonesboro, Tennessee. This is an annual trip for the two of them. They get very important personal time together and reconnect with storytellers from around the world. ...
Motherhood: Stories and an Interview
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I need family. Yet I always rejected the idea that the Dance Exchange was a family. I didn’t like the references to my being “the mother.” (I let only Marvin Webb—a dancer whose infectious cheer was unstoppable—call me Big Mama, and even then I permitted it with some chagrin.) It wasn’t only that ...
Representation Found and Lost
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When Anna was a baby and just developing language, we had a delightful period of time before all of her letter sounds were secure. She particularly liked the sound of the letter B, and she used it for her own entertainment in its purest form. She could spend long minutes just basically moving her lips in a steady stream of B’s. ...
Critical Response at Home
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One consistent theme in this book is the use of artistic practices in life and the awareness of how that use emboldens art-making back in the studio. Some of this crossover comes from the simple fact that certain behaviors already exist in both worlds, such as giving and getting feedback. ...
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I am going to try to explain yet again why some of us love movement. I want to try to make it clear that it has value even though it is hard to measure. I want to make it impossible to be dismissed ever again. I am so sick and tired of people calling the work that my colleagues and I do “touchy-feely” ...
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Choreography is a way of thinking. It is a way of gathering evidence, laying out the pieces, organizing the trail. Choreography is a way of seeing the world, the things that move against each other and then back into their own places. Choreography can happen in less than a second as a vision appears, ...
On Being Nimble
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It is a rare opportunity to work with choreographers from other parts of the world, so I jumped at an invitation from Emma Gladstone at Sadler’s Wells in London to participate in a gathering they call the Big Intensive. We spent the first day working with our Critical Response Process as well as with tools ...
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About the Author
Liz Lerman is a choreographer, performer, writer, educator, and speaker. She founded Liz Lerman Dance Exchange in 1976, and has cultivated the company’s unique multigenerational ensemble into a leading force in contemporary dance. Liz has been the recipient of the American Choreographer Award ...
Page Count: 332
Publication Year: 2011