Liz Lerman Dance Exchange explores the universe in 'The Matter of Origins'

Choreographer Liz Lerman rehearses "The Matter of Origins," her new work on physics, "the Big Bang" and life, at the University of Maryland's Clarice Smith Center. It premieres Friday, Sept. 10.
By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 5, 2010

The physicists have arrived in the rehearsal studio, slightly rumpled, sharp-eyed. They're quick to pick up on the rules.

"Take your shoes off," one chides another.

Hands on hips, they stand expectantly in their socks. Now the dance can begin.

"We were thinking it'd be fun to just throw you into the deep end and do a little partnering," announces Liz Lerman, the veteran choreographer of ideas, who has spent three years piecing together an unlikely alliance of science and art, brain and body, called "The Matter of Origins."

A meditation on physics and life, the dance-theater work was inspired by Lerman's visit to the particle-accelerating Large Hadron Collider at the CERN laboratory near Geneva. It will premiere Friday at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland. The production, which will be repeated next Sunday, is part performance by her dance company, the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, part tea party (the old-fashioned kind, with cake) and part floor show.

The three physicists -- all professors at Maryland, including Drew Baden, chairman of the physics department -- are part of the floor show.

"But don't worry," Lerman tells them soothingly. "We have zero expectations of you."

What are they doing here? What is she doing here? For that matter, what is any one of us doing here? These and other weighty questions might or might not be answered in this work. But Lerman is not typically after answers. It's the asking that moves her.

"There are some enduring questions that are dogging me," she says in an interview. "How do we really sustain ourselves as human beings? What makes us able to get through the worst of it? I am really interested in what makes us able to get up every day and try again. And I think the nature of these particular scientists -- their inquiry, passion, commitment, their poetic imagery -- in some ways mirrors my own. It mirrors an artist's path."

Lerman has cut herself a large piece of the existential pie here -- not to mention that she's placing her methods on the same plane as those of the scientific elite -- and she knows it. She's a little fearful that this will be an overreach. It's been a few years since Lerman, 62, was in college (the longtime Washingtonian was a Maryland grad), and she acknowledges that science was never her strength. But the field intrigues her; in 2006, she created "Ferocious Beauty: Genome," prompted by genetic research that is changing everything from what we eat to who gets born.

Now that she's latched onto particle physics and the Big Bang, she imagines the eyeball-rolling: " 'Oh my God, now she's talking about the universe.' " Lerman pauses. "But it actually doesn't feel big to me. It feels more personal."

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