Choreographer Liz Lerman on the ups and downs of aging


Liz Lerman, center, dances “Swan Lake” in 1982 with women of varied ages. (DENNIS DELORIA)
June 3, 2013

As a choreographer in her 20s, Liz Lerman did something unusual: She put residents of a senior citizens home in her productions.

“In 1975, when I first started dancing with old people, it was completely weird,” Lerman said. Yet, “I’m not the first person to dance with old people. Old people have been dancing for thousands of years as part of ritual.”

Lerman, who has won numerous honors, including a MacArthur “genius” award in 2002, went on to create the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange in 1976, mixing older dancers with highly trained, young ones. The troupe, based in Takoma Park, has performed around the world.

Now 65 years old, Lerman is approaching the age of those elderly dancers. How does that feel? “Very strange. On the one hand, I feel like I should resign the field to the people coming up, like our children, be a guide, a mentor, help them make what they’re going to make. There’s another part of me that just doesn’t want to do that. I still have so much to say and do.”

Lerman left the Dance Exchange in 2011 and is now working on “Healing Wars,” a dance that explores the impact of coming home from war. The work is set to premiere at Arena Stage in the summer of 2014.

She talked about her life and work, and the movement of time, during a recent interview in Baltimore, where she lives. Here is an edited transcript:

What is your day like?

I get up early. I love getting up early. If I am home, I take care of the dog and go to my computer, check e-mail and all that. Some early mornings, I’ll go to the health club or take a walk. I try to walk as much as I can. I don’t take dance classes. I’d like to, in a way, but I haven’t found any lately. It has been years. I find myself in my aged body missing a certain thing I haven’t missed in a long time. I don’t know if it’s because I have left the Dance Exchange. I don’t know. I keep looking around, but I haven’t found anything I like.

Because?

I get bored.

In a regular dance class?

Yeah. There is something that is not quite there. What I am interested in — but I haven’t done this yet — I am interested in trying to figure out if I can learn what is at the base of hip-hop and street dance. It is completely different from my [classical ballet and modern training].

I just talked to another artist the other day, a Baltimore dancer: Would he consider [working with me]?

I could never accomplish it on my own. It’s like a classical form. People who do that do it because they practice it a million hours. It is a completely different construct. In ballet, in my form, you are all up, and that [hip-hop] is all down. I might be all about flow and release. [Lerman extends her arm in an arc.] They are all about absolute stop and tension. [She juts out her arm.] It’s completely different.

When did you feel a big change in your body? When did a plie become more difficult, for
example?

I know the joke is dancers are dumb, but actually dancers are super smart because we work our brains really differently. Just before you came in today, the music playing was some piece I was in when I was 12 at the National Music Camp — Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony. I was a serious classical dancer when I was 12, 13 years old. I couldn’t believe what was happening as I was just listening. My heart was racing a little bit while I was just sitting here because the music was going. I was remembering the little pirouettes that I had to do flying in from the sides. Even now, the solos I performed in my 20s and 30s — most of them, not all of them, parts of them — I could step up right here and show you and I wouldn’t have done them for 30 years.

I do think there is a big distinction between 50s, 60s, 70s. I definitely feel a big difference in my body now that I did not feel before. My body is not as nimble, supple, willing. It hurts a lot more of the time. That’s definitely changed.

Is there a more vibrant life for an older choreographer than an older dancer?

It is a different world than when I started. Now, you have a tremendous number of dancers who are not quitting. You have a huge pool in their 50s. In “Healing Wars,” I have three dancers in their 50s, and I don’t think of them as older. I think of them as absolutely let’s-go-to-work. I am not treating them specially because they are older, the way I would have treated older dancers before.

Is their range of movement different, though?

It is, but they’re smarter. There are some things I wouldn’t have them do, it’s true.

Such as?

I wouldn’t have them fall to the floor 50 times, although I think they would know how to do it and they could. I don’t expect or want them to. And I make sure they warm up enough and really take care of themselves that way. Young people just pop up off the floor and go to work.

My friend Wayne McGregor in London, he works with dancers now who take their legs up in the air and it’s not just straight up, it’s over past 180 degrees. That is interesting to him. I don’t need that. I need something different.

Who is your audience? Who are you choreographing for now?

I am hoping to be able to make a duet for two older women, because I think it would be the most conscious attempt to go back to some of the questions of aging that prompted my earlier work, which after a while I stopped thinking about because everybody is different ages, so what?

Can you imagine a life not doing what you do?

Not very well.

I was just wondering this yesterday: Could I do nothing for a while? I’m not very good at that. I love my work. But I like also that I get to teach, get to think, get to give these talks, try to make sense of the world. I have chosen to make sense of the world, both physically and intellectually.

I have a sense about the limited amount of time I have in front of me. I don’t feel I have the same endless amount of time to experiment. I have to be a little bit better at focusing sooner.

I was just saying to my husband this morning, “The boomers are never going to let other people be on stage. The boomers are going to be on stage their whole life,” and it’s true. They’re not retiring. Boomers are saying, “No, this is my world.”

Tell me about your work with
older people.

The work with old people paved the way with everything in the beginning. Then everything I learned from that came with me [into the next phases of choreography, which had other focuses]. I have that period of time when I am doing all that identity work and all the work in the religious community. I had a political period. All that [past] work came with me. I got into the science work. That came with me. It kept accumulating. That essential work with the old people was a major way for me to begin learning.

What about this “genius grant”?

The MacArthur is huge. It has helped with my work with scientists. I can go to them and say I have a MacArthur. Well, I don’t say that, but they say that about me. It makes a difference. What I hope it mostly does is make people take a second glance or decide if they see something that seems strange to them or wrong or different to take that one extra moment: “Maybe she means it.” Or “I wonder why it’s there.” As opposed to “It’s bad.”

As you get older, how do you deal with loss? The loss of your mother instigated a huge body of your work.

One of the things I actually talk about with people: With every innovation there’s loss. It doesn’t matter whether the innovation comes about because of a political change or because people get smart or there’s technology.

If you want to support change, like I do — change is not only the way the world works, it is essential to all growth — it is good to know how to partner loss. If you partner it, you know it’s coming and is part of what is happening all around you.

This is where dance is so interesting. It can be as simple as what I learned to do at the senior center in those early years: When one of the people died, we would make a little dance phrase about them.

[But] there is true loss that comes too soon, like my brother’s death this fall. [David Lerman was 56 when he died in October.]

There’s nothing good about that. Nothing.

Hambleton is a freelance writer and documentary filmmaker who lives in Chevy Chase.

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