Liz Lerman, who's offering a program of solos as part of the "History as Content" exhibition at the Washington Project for the Arts this weekend, has been a force to reckon with on the Washington dance scene for more than a decade. A major reason for her prominence hereabouts has been her determination to use dance as a means of grappling with contemporary social and political issues. In an era when many choreographers have devoted themselves to "pure," abstract dance, taking pains to purge all traces of storytelling, psychology or literalism from the art, Lerman has stuck steadfastly to her polemical guns.
In the tradition of the socially conscious modern dance pioneers of the '30s, she has never shied away from "messages" in her work. She's made dances about ecology and the environment, about the meaning of work, about religious experience, about aging and death, about war, and in all of them, her personal viewpoint comes through loud and clear.
The leitmotif of her work also pervades her life. Community involvement has been one of her watchwords, and her commitment to the idea of making dance experience available to all people has led, for example, to her innovative work with senior citizens and the formation of her "Dancers of the Third Age" group.
All this made Lerman preeminently suited to the WPA's "History as Content" theme. Thursday night, for friends of her Dance Exchange organization and WPA, she presented the same program that will be performed publicly at WPA tonight and Sunday evening, sampling those parts of her past, present and future work that exemplify the idea of historical content.
For openers, Lerman revived her "New York City Winter" of 1974, in which the history is largely her own -- it's a tragicomic portrait of a young woman, aspiring to the noble ideals of Martha Graham, who gets her first taste of the real world when she takes a job as a stripper in a suburban Jersey bar. The mixture of tacky, honky-tonk squalor and bitter disillusionment serves as a perfect platform for the impishness, wit, intensity and irony of Lerman's performance. As do most Lerman works, this solo involves recorded music, props and extended spoken text (composed by Lerman); also, as in much of Lerman's choreography, the length is far beyond what's needed to make her points.
The choreographer and members of the Dance Exchange performing troupe then talked about and illustrated Lerman's method of researching and constructing new dances, using the raw materials of a projected dance about the history of Russia (to be premiered next June) as a springboard, and improvising fragments of the work under Lerman's supervision.
Next came "Nine Short Dances About the Defense Budget and Other Military Matters," the second in Lerman's "Docudance" series dealing with current political subjects. After a satirical ballad about bloated weapons expenditures (sung by Don Zuckerman), Lerman used movement, gesture, mime and speech, abetted by music and voice-over commentary, to hurl choreographic invective at military cost overruns and inefficiencies, the collusion between defense contractors and military bureacracy, an out-of-control arms race, and the threat of nuclear arsenals.
Last, Lerman performed a new, 1984 installment of "Docudance," using a coffin-like bed, ghostly lighting, excerpts from Beckett, scientists' reports on "star wars" policy, and electronic Bach, along with a shadow play of her own hands and legs mimicking missiles and satellites in combat, to attack the impending escalation in space weaponry.
For all her lightness of touch, Lerman's broadsides sometimes get pretty heavy-handed. And her choreographic means don't always measure up to her intent: at one extreme, the movement reduces to simplistic charades or rebuses; at the other, we get a generalized modern dance argot that discloses little relation to the subject matter. When all's said and done, however, there are few choreographers in Washington as bold and rampant in imagination as Lerman, and fewer still as daring in purpose.