Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, photo by Dennis Deloria
Hallelujah! It is a word impossible to exclaim without lifting the breastbone, expanding the chest, stretching the mouth, expelling one’s breath in a burst of excitation. The very utterance of the word, in fact, incites a dance of the internal organs. This physicality of pronunciation demands uplift, ensures an energized delight, begs for more. To sing out praise brings its own rewards.
A Hebrew word, "hallelujah" is variously translated but always implies thanksgiving for light in the midst of darkness. To give praise, then, is to celebrate with mindfulness, in awareness that praise acknowledges why praise is necessary—that is, that our ability to recognize what is laudable sustains us through hardship and desolation. This understanding is at the basis of the three year Hallelujah project of Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, in which the company is conducting workshops resulting in performances at fifteen sites in the United States, from Eastport, Maine to Tuscon, Arizona. At each site, the company explores the community, meeting as many people as possible, unearthing their personal and community histories, and asking them what they are thankful for. At Eastport, for example, it was the town’s fishing industry and the way of life it engendered, which is threatened by ecological disaster; at Tuscon, it was the unrecognized prophets in our midst; at Burlington, the contentions over Vermont civil unions became a focus. Using these stories and the gestures with which they were told as source material, the company then works with the residents to create dances that celebrate their communities.
While the methods for creating the Hallelujahs seem to honor the everyday in a way that seems quite unusual in concert dance, it is business as usual for choreographer Liz Lerman, who has spent her career challenging assumptions about who gets to dance, where it is made and takes place, and what are its fit subjects. Just entering its twenty-fifth year, Liz Lerman Dance Exchange is regarded as a pioneering organization in contemporary community activist dancemaking. Beginning with Woman of the Clear Vision, a 1975 work about her mother’s death which included residents of a senior citizens home as dancers, Lerman has embraced nontraditional performers in her dances, and in so doing, has almost singlehandedly waged ongoing war against ageism in dance.The company created an even more expansive definition of dancing in 1980 with its Fanfare, which was performed by 800 people at the Lincoln Memorial. Beginning in 1983 with her series of "docudances," works which incorporated spoken text in engaging in political commentary, Lerman declared herself a voice for art addressed at social change. Since then, the Dance Exchange has engaged in a series of projects that involve creating dances that are built around particular—often underserved—communities, based on the textual and gestural materials provided by the inhabitants. Hallelujah is the latest in this series which has been going on for more than a decade.
Tonight’s program includes performances of two of the Hallelujah projects, including one commissioned by the Bates Dance Festival. Created in a concentrated three-week residency with members of Lerman’s Creative Process class, Associate Artistic Director Peter DiMuro’s Text and Movement class, and composer Robert Een’s The Singing Body class, In Praise of the Creative Spirit is unique in the Hallelujahs in that its community is also its audience is also its performers. And in making this dance for and about a community centered in artmaking, the Dance Exchange sought out those moments of joy experienced by Festival participants in their daily quests for artistic expression. What is it, they asked Bates dancers, choreographers, teachers and support staff, that makes your creative life worth celebrating?
If it seems odd that a community engaged at every moment in the business of creativity must actively seek out and create opportunities for praise, consider the rareness of the Bates experience in the life of a dancer. As a three-week moratorium from the pressures of artmaking within the confines of a world directed at commerce, those at the Festival well understand the idea of shuttling back and forth between the sacred and the profane. It is, all too often, the central struggle of their lives. And for this situation, Lerman has found a potent song of praise.
Central to In Praise of the Creative Spirit is "A Crown of Shoes," a Hasidic story from eighteenth-century Eastern Europe that Lerman first heard from a Rabbi in Los Angeles. It is a tale about a Rebbe dancing so wildly that his shoe flies off and is sent hurtling into the Garden of Eden. There, it comes to earth among many other shoes, which are gathered by angels and given to Gabriel. The Archangel then uses these shoes, flung from the feet of those who dance with ecstatic purity, to make a crown for the Holy One.
For any dancer, this is an extraordinarily resonant metaphor, this idea of dancing so purely that, in making rapturous contact with the earth, you actually attain heaven. It is, in fact, that kind of beatification, that kind of ennoblement, for which a dance artist strives with every step. In creating her own version of this story in which the religious context is stripped away, Lerman honors dancing as a means to a more expansive version of Paradise.
Also on this program is In Praise of Fertile Fields, a Hallelujah story that was developed at a sibling New England dance festival, Jacob’s Pillow in Becket, Massachusetts. Founded by Ted Shawn, a seminal figure in American modern dance, Jacob’s Pillow is the oldest and most comprehensive dance festival in the United States. This work acknowledges the history of the Pillow as the soil in which American dance took root, and blends this material with stories praising the gardeners of the Berkshire mountains who similarly coax beauty and nourishment from the unprepossessingly rocky soil of that region. Encircling these twinned themes is the story of Jacob’s dream, the biblical account that provides the name for the ground on which Ted Shawn and His Men Dancers built their haven for dancing. Genesis 28:10-19 tells of Jacob, who, laying his head on a pillow, falls asleep and dreams of a ladder on which angels travel between heaven and earth, "going up and coming down," as the Bible has it. In her research materials for the project, Lerman quotes Lawrence Kushner, who, following Rabbinic tradition, suggests that, contrary to our expectations, the angels ascend first because they are actually "ordinary human beings. And like ordinary human beings, they shuttle back and forth," retaining on earth knowledge of the heavens.
The story of Jacob was also the source for a 1933 work by Shawn, "Jacob’s Ladder" (from his Negro Sprituals I series), whose choreographic notes for the dance (along with bits of other Shawn dances, including Labor Symphony (1934), Olympiad (1937), and Polonaise(1923)) provide text and movement sources for In Praise of Fertile Fields. Other materials from the extensive archives at the Pillow, including journals, photographs, poems, letters, choreographic notes and film clips, were used as background and source information, as were interviews with gardeners who attended workshops hosted by the Berkshire Botanical Gardens. These two strands of materials come together in another of this work’s primary sources, a diary kept by Esther Miller, who was the Pillow’s cook in 1942 and keeper of its kitchen garden. Combining in her person as she does the themes of gardening and of nourishing dancers, Miller (as portrayed by Dance Exchange member Martha Wittman), serves as a kind of unifying presence through the episodic work.
In Praise of Fertile Fields and In Praise of the Creative Spirit are both dances made on ground dedicated to dancemaking and both celebrate that pursuit. Where Fertile Fields looks back to where we have come from and the sometimes stony soil from which creativity has been coaxed, Creative Spirit looks to where dance is now, to where it is going. Both urge us to shout our praise for the power and pleasure of dance, for its potential of creating a kind of heaven on earth. Hallelujah, indeed.
© Suzanne Carbonneau 2001
For further reading:
Lawrence Kushner. God Was in This Place and I, i Did Not Know: Finding Self, Spirituality, and Ultimate Meaning. Jewish Lights Publishing, 1994.
Norton Owen. A Certain Place: The Jacob’s Pillow Story. Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, 1997.
Jane Sherman and Barton Mumaw. Barton Mumaw, Dancer: From Denishawn to Jacob’s Pillow and Beyond. Wesleyan University Press, 2000.