By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 23, 2011; 7:57 PM
Choreographer Liz Lerman has taken on the origins of the universe and the human genome project, made dances about pets and prayers. Now, as her internationally known dance company nears its 35th anniversary, Lerman, 63, is taking another new step: She's resigning as artistic director of Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, the company will announce Monday.
Starting July 1, a somewhat downsized version of the longtime local institution will be led by Cassie Meador, 31, who has danced with the troupe for nine years.
Meador will oversee fewer full-time dancers than the current roster of seven, though the exact number has not yet been determined. The news is not unexpected, as Lerman had been grooming Meador over a period of years for a leadership position.
Lerman, who will be an artist in residence at Harvard University in the fall, plans to pursue independent projects. Among them is a collaboration with the Hirshhorn when the museum opens the bubble-covered pavilion it is planning to build in its courtyard.
"I have this old joke: When somebody comes into the Dance Exchange, they're on their way out," Lerman said Saturday from James Madison University, where her company was performing "Ferocious Beauty: Genome," her genetics-themed work. "It's just a matter of time. It's true for me too."
Lerman's pioneering work in including elderly dancers in her troupe and in making site-specific dances in shipyards and other communities (such as Eastport, Maine, one of the easternmost points of the United States and site of the mainland's first dawn of 2000) earned her a MacArthur "genius" grant in 2002.
"I think that Liz is one of the most important choreographers and thinkers about dance working in the United States today," said Pamela Tatge, who as director of the Center for the Arts at Wesleyan University has presented Lerman's work since 2004. "Particularly her research and engagement with communities, as well as her exploration of dance as a research tool for knowledge-making and gaining."
But the financial pressure of sustaining her company had limited the kind of work she could do, Lerman said, and she made the decision to step down more than a year ago. The change will give her and the dancers more artistic freedom, she said.
"I'm really happy watching the enormous creative energy that's going on around me because of the decision," said Lerman. "When I said, 'Let's imagine I'm not there,' you could just feel the ceiling blow open. Their own visions began to take up space. . . . I don't think I've been a tyrant, but I do think I've been an obstacle."
When Meador takes over, the company, founded in 1976 and based in Takoma Park, Md., will drop Lerman's name and simply be called the Dance Exchange. Lerman will still collaborate with the group on occasion, for example, to tour "The Matter of Origins," a multimedia work that premiered at the University of Maryland last fall and tapped local physicists to explore the beginnings of matter and life.
"At the core, the organization will remain much the same," said Meador. "Most significantly, the company will not be led by a single artistic voice. I'll be a leader among that group of artists."
Meador, who joined the troupe after graduating from Bates College, has choreographed for the company as well as danced.
In September she will embark on "How to Lose a Mountain," a 500-mile walk from her D.C. home to the West Virginia source of its electricity. Along the way, Meador will stop for performances and "chance encounters" in a quest to collect 500 stories, and viewers will be able to follow her progress online.
It's the kind of project she sees other Dance Exchange members, or "resident artists" as she termed them, being able to launch. The collaborative creative process that Lerman favored will be expanded even further, Meador said, adding, "I think Liz has really created an environment where everyone gets to grow, not just the person at the top."