Liz Lerman, renowned choreographer and HUC-JIR/NY's 2007 Priesand Visiting Professor of Women's Studies, is featured here in the Jerusalem Report - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
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Liz Lerman, renowned choreographer and HUC-JIR/NY's 2007 Priesand Visiting Professor of Women's Studies, is featured here in the Jerusalem Report

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Monday, January 8, 2007
Daily Acts of Creation: Art, Imagination, and Hope in the 21st Century

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The Jerusalem Report
January 8, 2007, pages 36-39 

Moving prayers 

Laura Silver
(Copyright (c) 2007. The Jerusalem Report)

Liz Lerman has Judaism on her mind and in her body. 

Raphael Lemkin, the young lawyer who coined the term "genocide" at the Nuremberg War Trials, gesticulates wildly. Raising one arm as if hailing a life-saving taxi, he opens his mouth to call for help and hurls himself to the ground with full force. Then he, represented by dancer Matt Mahaney, gets up and repeats the sequence six times with increasing fervor. The congregation, or in this case, the intimate audience assembled in lower Manhattan for a production of Small Dances About Big Ideas, is silently riveted. 

The energetic, full-body benediction takes place near the end of a performance in Dance New Amsterdam's second-floor black box theater, but choreographer Liz Lerman believes the intensity and passion can be translated into social and cultural happenings, including Shabbat services across North America. 

This fall, Lerman is teaching "Moving the Synagogue," a course that invites rabbinical and cantorial students at New York City's Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion to explore the intersection of movement with Jewish texts and ritual. It is not just about what happens on the bima. The teachings are designed to get the next generation of Jewish leaders to think about how to interact with congregants and people of all walks of life, thus reverberating in sanctuaries, around Shabbat tables and in class- rooms and boardrooms. 

Everyone is welcome in the land of Liz Lerman, a place where creativity and conversation defy the boundaries of the stage to create hallowed ground equally accessible to the trained dancer, the senior citizen, the uninitiated and the skittish.

Lerman, born in Los Angeles and raised in Milwaukee, studied at Bennington College and Brandeis University and received bachelor's and master's degrees in dance from the University of Maryland and George Washington University, respectively. Now based in Washington, D.C., Lerman is a choreographer and performer as well as a teacher, writer, speaker and woman of the world. 

Her work as founding artistic director of and driving force behind the multi-generational Liz Lerman Dance Exchange has garnered widespread acclaim including a 2006 National Foundation for Jewish Culture Achievement Award and a 2002 MacArthur "Genius" Fellowship, which recognizes artists whose significant track records in creativity and promise of future innovative contributions to society are rewarded with a $500,000 grant in unrestricted funds. 

Lerman's work has been commissioned by the top names - New York's Lincoln Center, Washington, D.C.'s Kennedy Center and the Harvard University School of Law - but she remains down to earth, easy to talk to and focused on finding solutions in the realms of dance and human communication. She's quick to smile and wears her curly chestnut hair piled in a loose knot on top of her head, with wisps framing her slender face and inquisitive eyes. She is limber in body and words, removing her glasses to make a point or listen more closely and using hands, fingers and her entire self to articulate goals, which include expanding the vocabulary of Jewish movement well beyond the convention of hoisting honored guests in chairs above the dance floor during the hora. Her performances highlight her company's signature inquiries such as: Who gets to dance? Where is the dance happening? What is it about? Why does it matter? 

Wait, don't even try to answer those questions just yet. It makes more sense to experience the questions - and the ever-evolving responses to them - at a performance, a post-show discussion or a dance-making workshop, such as the one held in mid-November at the dance exchange's headquarters in a converted post office in the Washington, D.C. suburb of Takoma Park for "Prayer as a Radical Act." Lerman's latest work, set to debut next spring at Newark's New Jersey Performing Arts Center, has the lofty, but grounded goal of using the body to tell first-person stories of activism and to heal rifts, including those made more difficult by differences in faith and worship. 

Lerman, 58, has waded in religious waters before, deeper and more expansive than a mikvah. Her 1991 "The Good Jew?" was a pioneering look at faith, identity and ethnicity. Her 1993 composition was named for the blessing for joyful occasions, "Shehe-cheyanu" - which she translates as "Isn't it amazing that we've all come through our different histories to be together in this moment?" The work delved into historical animosities and ancestral grudges with vignettes tethered to the 1904 World's Fair, a modern-day shipbuilding town and a futuristic skin museum. 

Ten years ago she became involved with Synagogue 2000 (which has since become Synagogue 3000), a North American cross-denominational institute convened to examine and revitalize congregational life. Here she learned to sing Hallelujah to a Sufi melody popularized in Argentina, and the experience helped spark a two-and-a-half-year project that involved 15 communities of diverse ethnicities and walks of life, including fishermen, Native Americans, and Hmong women, from Maine to California, in explorations of praiseworthy events close to home. 

Lerman's work may be influenced by a curiosity with spirituality, but it doesn't shy away from human complexities such as DNA (in "Ferocious Beauty: Genome") or atrocities, like the death camps. "Small Dances for Big Ideas," commissioned by Harvard Law School last year as part of a conference on the 60th anniversary of the Nuremberg Trials, evokes atrocities and human rights abuses in Auschwitz, Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur and invites audience members to enter the conversation by talking about the first time they heard the word genocide. House lights go up and the dancers descend into the audience to introduce themselves and lead small discussion groups. 

Ten minutes later the dancers regroup on stage, where Peter Di- Muro, the company's artistic director and a dancer in the piece, synthesizes the stories culled from the house and extracts accompanying gestures to form a sequence of movements that epitomize the anecdotes. He demonstrates and invites the audience to stand up and join in the just-developed choreography: Head turns to left, right hand comes up to the side of the face as if warding off flies, hands clasp together in front of the body, right hand moves from stomach to lips, flattens over face to mask right eye, then covers the mouth. Right hand slices through right thigh. Feet come together as whole body sways backward and then forward. Right hand floats to waist height and, as if holding a pencil, writes on left palm, "the name of someone who has stood up for you." 

The theme of standing up resurfaced at the five-day "Prayer as a Radical Act" dance-making workshop. The participants, including a singer, a dance critic, an actor, and a veteran wheelchair dancer, were mostly women in their late twenties to sixties. They came especially for the workshop from Chicago, North Carolina as well as the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. Working with several members of Lerman's seven-member company, they stretched each other - mentally, emotionally and literally, physically dragging partners across the studio floor in a contact improvisation warm-up that had people massaging a partner's stomach and sacrum, cradling a cranium and urging the stress out of arms with brisk downward motions. 

The workshop also featured opportunities for sharing personal stories, choreographing solo works and participating in group improvisations and exercises like "bulking the image," which reinforces Lerman's notion that "you don't always have to initiate something new to be good." 

Here is an example of how it works: One woman sits on the floor facing forward with a leg outstretched. Another sits next to her in the same posture, but on a chair. A third comes and aligns her body the same way, several paces behind her to the right. The technique is one of Lerman's signature processes documented in an on-line tool kit designed for leaders, educators and human beings in all areas of creative endeavor. "No more than three," Lerman calls out, referring to the maximum number of people allowed to assume the same posture at the same time. 

A man walks to the center of the stage, turns to face front, slowly lifts both arms skyward, looks up, and brings the arm in front of him in a flurry. A woman slides to the front of the stage, sits cross-legged and echoes the movements of his arms with her own. Other dancers waft on and off the stage, initiating gestures or mimicking them. Elizabeth Johnson, the company's associate artistic director and one of its dancers, walks on the stage, stands still and tells about "a time when I stood up," an introduction which unleashes a series of vignettes that detail dancers' experiences voicing support for an ailing grandmother, a disenfranchised neighbor or oneself. 

"We have a plan for the day," says Lerman, "but we're also open to input and diversion," which explains the active huddle of company members in one corner of the room at the end of the bulking the image sequence, reviewing next steps and plotting some subtle detours. 

Lerman is eager to demystify the process. "Someone will come up and say, 'What about this?' or 'Do you think we could try that?'" explains Lerman. How do they maintain a semblance of order amid the creative chaos? "One person is the synthesizer. We trade off." There is an underlying, creative tension to the give-and-take, which involves balancing competing loyalties - a commitment to "the development of these artists," the ones suggesting the changes in plan, a commitment to developing the work and a desire to "arrive at a certain place by lunchtime." 

The method is as important as the dance-making; it has implications for a range of creative endeavors and is documented in "Liz Lerman's Critical Response Process: A Method for Getting Useful Feedback on Anything You Make, from Dance to Dessert," a volume she wrote with John Borstel, the company's humanities director. 

After workshop participants find 15 different ways to sit down and stand up and document the mechanics of one of those ways, Johnson asks everyone to reflect, in writing, on what the experience was like. She encourages honesty and attention to physical sensations and wanderings of the mind, the likes of " I got distracted" or "my left side hurt more than my right." 

Ever the optimist, Lerman interjects, "How about 'I loved it?' " 

The following Monday finds Lerman, barefoot and wearing loose gray pants, in a carpeted basement classroom at the Reform Movement's Hebrew Union College in Greenwich Village, where she is the Rabbi Sally J. Priesand visiting professor of Jewish women's studies. A gaggle of male and female rabbinical students put their shoes on before heading off. Twenty students volunteer to forgo their lunch hour each week so they can partake in the course, which emphasizes communication - with texts and people - through movement. 

A student with an orange kippa stays behind to ask about how he might tweak the body-based interpretation of a certain prayer. Lerman nods slightly, her gaze riveted on him. "Try it," she says with conviction. "Open eyes." He nods and as if propelled by the feedback, hoists a knapsack over his shoulder, lets loose a huge smile and exclaims "Metzuyan" - Hebrew for excellent - while making a beeline for his next class. 

Lerman may not speak Hebrew, but she is fluent in the languages of the body and the heart and the impediments people face in accessing them. She greets her next group, mostly cantors, by name and gathers them in a circle. After a few minutes of rehearsal, pairs of students are invited to present the duets they have been choreographing to illustrate and accompany the prayers they chose. In a sequence about Tzur Yisrael, Rock of Israel, a third-year cantorial student includes a verbal improvisation in response to Lerman's request: "Regarding God as a rock? I don't really get it most of the time," the student confides out loud. 

The duet begins as two students, slightly hunched and facing each other in the middle of the room, recite the prayer in Hebrew and make their way toward a floor-to-ceiling partition that separates the space from an adjoining classroom. The twenty-somethings do not always mirror each other's movements, but they follow parallel trajectories and rhythms and slap their hands against the partition in sync. 

"It feels really good to slam against something," says the cantor- in-training, "I wouldn't have anticipated that." 

Not all of the students are as forthcoming, but Lerman isn't surprised. "If you want everybody to get across the river, some people can just jump. Other people need big, flat stones. Others need long stones," she explains. She is also prepared to pave whatever stone paths are necessary for collective success and understanding. "I want everybody to get across." 

The journey is not just external. Lerman is intent on drawing out students' stories, fueled by the collective reticence she experienced in the earlier class. When her sweatshirt slinks down her shoulder, she pays it no mind and lets it dangle, like the questions she poses to her students. "Why don't you want to tell a personal story?" she probes, answering her own question as if she were one of them: "'It's too personal.' What does that mean?" 

The choreographer-visionary is not certain she believes in prayer, but she is determined to help mold these students into effective congregational leaders. "Your personal experience matters," she tells them, "because we care about you. And if you can tell us very personal things in a way that doesn't make us seem like your therapist, then it can move everyone forward." 

"There are hateful things that people can do with personal stories," says Lerman, alluding to gossip that can escalate into conflagration. But she insists that revealing the personal is "one way we may be of use [to the organized Jewish community] and help share who we are." 

No, she's not suggesting that rabbis and cantors should let it all hang out on the bima. Rather, Lerman believes that carefully chosen anecdotes can put a human face on issues of biblical proportions. To illustrate the topic at hand - when to speak out and when to remain silent - she shares a recent dilemma about whether or not to approach the nurses' station with a question about her brother, following his recent surgery, but doesn't reveal what she did. 

Not everyone is convinced that peeling back the layers on their personal lives is relevant in communal spiritual life. "I want to push you on this," she asserts, "because you're going out in the big world and you're going to find people are terrified of being personal or they're too personal." But that's no reason to back down, according to Lerman. 

"We still have choices about how much to tell." 

Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's leading institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates leaders to serve North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, museums, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding.