presented by The Culture Project/Impact Festival and Dance New Amsterdam-
Last performance of the Choreographer’s Commentary Version of this work-
Sunday October 8th, 2006
Article by Christine Jowers October 16,2006

Liz Lerman has been told that she would never get any critical support because she isn’t confrontational. It is something she was told long ago and it has stuck with her. “But I want to keep them in the theater, not chase them out”, she says during a question and answer period after last night’s show, “I love this”. (She is referring to the sense of community one can feel after a shared theatrical experience.)

In her, “ Small Dances About Big Ideas” Liz was commissioned by Harvard Law School to dance about Human Rights Law from the Nuremburg Trials forward. My first question: “Has there ever been another commission like this?” As an avid believer in the potential of dance to communicate, I think, “ How forward thinking of Harvard.” Even in New York City, a sophisticated place, often called the Dance Capital of the World, dance artists can feel an irrelevant part of our culture as they struggle (not only to do their actual work) but to convince dance presenters, arts funders, critics and new audiences to support their work. Much of having a dance company nowadays involves teaching people why they should care about the art form at all. Then Harvard Law School, of all places, commissions a choreographer and her dance company to tackle law, genocide, and human rights. Fantastic!

In the choreographer’s commentary version - a smaller version of the Small Dance About Big Ideas (the DNA theater was too tiny to contain the larger one)- Liz talks to the audience about the commission and reads various emails between herself and her legal muse at Harvard, Professor Martha Minow. Martha wanted Liz to illuminate human rights law on a deeper, less cerebral manner. Perhaps dance, an art form of the human body, can help people to feel something about these issues in a way that resonates within them, down to their bones.

One of the powerful stories in the evening is that of a woman (a forensic scientist) who analyzes bones to determine whether or not there has been an act of genocide committed. The scientist’s voice is heard via tape softly and clearly speaking of her job and her strategy to mark victims by placing red flags beside tortured bodies. Soon enough she discovers that she does not have enough flags to work with. On an almost bare dark stage one dancer lays down red flags and lovingly caresses the limbs of limp figures. It is quiet. She is listening to the stories of the bodies. Their bones whisper to her wordlessly, “I was hit here” “on the left side” “ on the right side”. Here is another aspect of genocide– the beauty and commitment of people who fight for the victims.

Many stories overlap in this performance, some danced- at times simply and at times with great energy and technique-others vocalized. The company works as a chorus morphing from people suffering, into war criminals, from loud protestors beating tables, into witnesses gesturing emphatically among floating legal papers.

Singular characters also emerge and evaporate. Raphael Lempkin, the man who coined the word genocide, is portrayed by a dancer that constantly jumps and surges, agitated and agitating, desperate to be heard. A Narrator leads us verbally through many parts of the evening, his tone a combination of gravitas and folksiness…it is soothing. A stiff and straight-backed Judge looks as if he doesn’t always hear or understand everything that is before him. A petite blonde delicately muscled, with dread locks, hurls herself repeatedly and violently into a desk before the Judge, her body screaming. She has been raped. Her solo is alarming, at times, unbearable, made even more so when we discover later in the piece that rape was not always considered a human rights violation. A Norse Water Goddess with flowing silver hair is ever present. She is one of the goddess that live in the water under the city of Nuremburg- her dominion -clarity and truth. The performance begins, with this luminous spirit holding the hand of the spectacled, high-heeled Choreographer, steadying her so that she will not trip over heaps of bodies as she attempts to grapple with her vast subject matter.

Lerman’s dance artists are a mix of ages, looks, genders, strengths and talents. And they are used very well. We should appreciate seeing grown-ups, and seniors (or as Lerman calls them Dancers of the Third Age) on stage, as well as a mix of colors of skin, body types, and abilities. Modern dance is not just for 20 some year old athletes. Dance belongs to “every” body. (Isadora Duncan would be proud.)

Just as the pictures, movement, and speaking absorb us, the Narrator, breaks the spell, “When did you first hear the word genocide?” he asks. And he would really like the answer, in fact, RIGHT NOW. The House lights go up and “we” are on.

The dancers break character, walk off the stage, and introduce themselves to members of the audience. They want to talk. YIKES.

The people behind me were quiet at first, not knowing how to take this, but gradually one woman began to speak about being a child hearing about the Holocaust and another gentleman spoke of his family from California being interred for being Japanese during World War II. There were many conversations going on and for those of us not involved with the dancers directly there was time to reflect or eavesdrop.

The cast returned to the stage to one by one to share bits of stories they were told. Each accompanied their reflection with a gesture that the original teller unconsciously performed. We were asked to perform these gestures with the cast, in a simple phrase of movement.

It can be awkward when performing artists ask the audience to be part of the show. “Hey we came here to watch you” is what the little voice in our brain says, “Leave me alone, on my side of the stage.” But on this evening, moving together is transcendental, a shared prayer, reminding us that no matter what boundaries may exist–WE ARE CONNECTED,OUR PARTICIPATION MATTERS.

Is confrontation necessary if the artist wants to be taken seriously? If grappling with issues of our violent times does the artist need to respond in kind? Anything is valid if it has integrity - if the challenge is not posturing but part of telling the story. It’s just that we are confronted everyday. Politicians, pundits, TV, Radio, 24/7 talking at us, opining, urging us to take sides, and there are only two sides don’t you know, and if you are on the wrong one, you are an idiot. Blah, Blah. Blah. How can one hear, or for that matter listen, or consider, when being shouted at? What should the creative artist do with this? Should they match the culture and jump in to the work sparring? Is there room for subtlety, introspection, and questions? Does confronting someone really wake them up to act, or does it desensitize them, or just piss them off?

Perhaps its time for a good old- fashioned conversation. Artists have the potential to start many.

Liz Lerman engages. She gets us to see, to feel, and even better to wonder. Like her Norse Goddess, she guides us gently, but persistently, revealing and reminding: We are in this together. We are here to help each other. We are here to bear witness to our fellow man and to make it right.

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