Seven of them stand watchfully in a row, five women and two men. Slowly, eerily, they move, their mouths open as they sing almost inaudibly. The sound rises, the melody grows and divides into harmonies, the dancers flow into new patterns, surrounding one young woman with huge eyes who does not sing but speaks with sinuous gestures, the silent center of the circle, the mystery.
The sonorous fifths of the song turn into words, phrases, fragments, and the movements become angular and dissonant, no longer fluid but urgent and literal, conveying some message. The figures jerk about like robots. "I." "I-move-parts-of-my-body." "Became-conscious." "I. I. I." Then silence and again the melody and the lovely slow turnings and windings and pairings, a tai chi for lovers . . .
"I STARTED using words with my dances in '74," Liz Lerman says. "I didn't realize how important it would be to my work."
On Tuesday Lerman's Dance Exchange, a performing and teaching company, will appear at the Kennedy Center for the first time, taking a giant step from the downtown lofts and college studios where they have always worked. They don't dare talk about what it might mean. They hate to be told that they are about to be discovered.
This dance, "Journeys," has been developing for years. It begins with a solo by Lerman, in which she seems to invent a sign language for the whole body and with it narrates lines from Peter Handke, the brilliant German writer and filmmaker. The music is by composer-dancer Don Zuckerman, 27, a graduate student at George Washington.
"I did some work at Gallaudet College for the Deaf," Lerman said recently, "but this didn't come from that. It isn't really a sign language, literally, it's a combination fo expressive and utilitarian and arbitrary movements. It's hard for an audience to integrate words and dance, they're so separate. I'm a content dancer, the content is very important to me. That's not chic these days, but my work is full of it."
In another work, "Docudance: Current Events," she speaks about political art while the company dances. Another is about her mother's death, and another about Three Mile Island. She is working on a full-length ballet, "Songs and Poems of the Body," which will draw on sources from the Song of Songs and the Code of Jewish Law to the Beatles' Sergeant Pepper. It is about people in an art gallery surrounded by living nudes, about "the embarrassment of Marilyn Monroe," a pageant of human attitudes.
In a recent workshop performance at Mount Vernon College, part of "songs and Poems" was shown. It features old women and small children as well as the regular dancers, who one by one reveal the yearnings and joys and furies beneath their mundane gallery-goer selves. The group also showed part of "Power," the TMI piece, which begins in silence with spasmodic movements.
"Dance Exchange does not discriminate on the basis of race, creed, national origin, sex, age or shape." -- COMPANY BROCHURE
Lerman wears her strong feminism comfortably, one feels, but the anger comes out in her work. One solo depicts a cocktail waitress and other working women. It is funny at times -- there is always humor in her dancing -- but it stings.
"When I first started, I wanted people to be entertained. To be touched, moved to tears. People used to cry a lot at my performances. These days I want them to be angry. Which is very hard, because people have been trained for so long not to express their feelings."
Some other artists are trying to make connections with audiences about Cambodia and Watergate and so on, she added, but the result usually looks naive and superficial -- "abstract pieces with long, complicated titles" -- because the artists don't know hot to get anger across.
No one ever accused Liz Lerman of being abstract. She brings dance into the community every week: at schools, at Children's Hospital, at the Roosevelt Hotel, whose senior citizen's dance troupe, Dancers of the Third Age, has attracted much attention. One notable piece with the elderly group, "Memory Gardens," features 59 dancers of all shapes and ages, plus puppets.
"We had one extraordinary person who had this crazy way of dancing, it was all he coudl do, so we used that one thing. If you had 59 like him, you'd have an amazing 60 minutes of dance. I believe it's the choreographer who has to find that thing people have. Of course, the risk you take with nonprofessionals is that you never know what'll happen in performance."
One old woman took off in the wrong direction in a recital, but a troupe professional skillfully danced over and got her turned around again as though it had all been planned.
Some of the Roosevelt Hotel dancers will appear at the Kennedy Center event, probably in "Songs and Poems."
"It would be incorrect for us to be there without them," Lerman says.The troupe will dance Tuesday and Wednesday at the Terrace Theater in the Dance America series.
Liz Lerman was always going to be a dancer. She started in Ethel Butler's classes in Washington at age 5, and when the family moved to Wisconsin three years later she took up with Florence West, "probably the greatest dance influence I've had," a veteran of the liberating techniques of Martha Graham and Ruth Page.
"I'd climb the stairs to her third-floor office in downtown Milwaukee . . .
and she'd sit me down and tell me her visions of a new dance form. She had me touch fabrics and Formica and minerals. She knew I wanted to be a ballerina and put me on points, but she also insisted I do this other modern stuff."
Then Florence West moved to New York, and at 15, "growing in ways I didn't understand," Lerman quit dancing.She went to Bennington College in 1966, got more from majoring in history than from the famous Bennington dance program, learned from a gifted teacher to trust her own responses, later studied mime and had two very useful summers with Twyla Tharp.
"Beggington corroborated my ideas about how bad dance was, and I still question teaching dance in college. But I went to Brandeis, and in the late '60s Merce Cunningham got me dancing again. At the same time I was heading into community organizing. Dance and community organizing is what I so."
She is 33. One of her two brothers, Dick, is an electronic musician and is working on "Power" with her. She has a close friend, an actor in Florida, who introduced her to the work of Handke. Peter Brook's "Midsummer Night's Dream" moved her at a crucial moment. Ann Halprin's work with nondancers inspired her at another point. Lerman says that if she had time to study now, it would be with the wonderfully gifted Melvin Deal, of the African Heritage Dancers.
A dozen gravely ill children in wheelchairs, some of them dying, watch the wild-haired woman in sweat pants sitting in the corridor at Children's Hospital. "My name is Liz," she says, "and I like to dance with my fingers . . ." Soon she has them moving their hands and arms and heads, inventing little dances. "Can you spell your name with your foot? . . .Now we're going to be very cold, and we shiver . . ." A young man accompanies her on an old upright piano. Gradually even the sickest ones, the ones whose eyes don't seem to see, feebly begin to move their fingers and even wave a bit and watch the woman with the kind face.
Dancers in hospitals . . . nontrained dancers on the stage . . . these things cause a lot of grief in some parts of the dance community, Lerman observes.
"They expect to see nothing but young, skinny bodies, and not heavy bodies or old bodies. I'm trying to get that changed. People also get confused about the hospital work. They say it's therapy and I'm not a professional therapist. But it's not therapy at all, it's the same kind of thing that goes on in the creation of a dance."
Giving dancers great freedom to create may put them in conflict with Lerman's own needs in developing her ideas. The tension often leads to a successful synthesis, but it also means that dances tend to change over the months and years. Certainly, nobody gets stale in a role.
In "Memory Gardens," for instance, dancers playing a family of children move out of a house to represent their growth, but one woman is left behind.
"But I didn't know if she was going to do it because of what was happening in her own life. Artistically I wanted her to stay in the house, but on a human level I wanted her to get out. We left it ambiguous, and as the curtain falls she is about to leave."
Lerman values these qualities in her dancers, the differences in body and spirit, even though it's harder to work that way. In rehearsal or exercise classes she works with a light touch, suggesting and taking suggestions, and yet she is very definitely in charge. She runs her many lives with an easy efficiency and you don't realize how busy she is until you get a look at her appointment book, whose myriad pencil scrawls carve up her day into tiny bits.
The rush of her daily life reflects her work. Critics write about her "unbridled imagination and conceptual range," calling her "one of the brightest, strongest, most adventurous dance spirits Washington has ever nurtured." The breadth of her vision dazzles in the 90-minute "Elevator Operators and Other Strangers," which has been called "an entertaining, probing cabaret of the eternal human condition," a rich mural of satire, wit, social comment and drama.
At the latest workshop she tried out the fifth version of her satirical comment on spectator sports, "Who's on First." It is danced by Zuckerman to a very funny monologue about fans ("You can hate entire cities! . . ."), followed by a smoothly coordinated quartet that has evolved over the last three years. Like most artists who are busy inventing a language, Lerman does tend to let things run on a bit at times, to rework endlessly. In this case it paid off.
The Dance Exchange, now housed in a loft at the Lansburgh building, lives hand-to-mouth on small grants and student fees, with a $1,000 monthly deficit. The members are paid by the performance. There wasn't enough money to videotape the last series or to formally notate the dances.
The community work brings in a little cash. Cafritz Foundation money pays for the twice-a-week hospital sessions.
What if someone came up with some real money? She's so ready for the question she must have been lying awake thinking about it.
"If I had money, I'd make a good home for us first," she says in a rapid burst of words, "with a $15,000 salary rate and six dancers and our classes, elementary and advanced, and time for community work and rehearsals for two or three seasons a year. We'd need one administrator, a secretary to handle bookings and run the school. And a contract of some sort with the city, or a hospital, or school, or jail . . . it could be anything. We're not talking that much money. It could really have an effect. We have so much to give . . ."
Two women in tights are striding across the plastic practice floor in precise unison, spinning, swaying, twisting together, their arms windmilling down and behind them. It's a bit like Martha Graham, but sexier. One woman misses a turn, stops and they both laugh. They start again. Suddenly Lerman, who has been watching with almost maniacal concentration, checks them by a slight motion of her hand. She runs up and shows how she wants the arms to swing down and back, far back, suggesting a full circle. They do it that way. The movement now is just slightly larger and more sweeping, just a little bit more of a shape. It is better.