Liz Lerman's Dance Exchange, an umbrella for artistic creation and performance, has always taken an all-encompassing stance. Nothing could have better illustrated this than the program last night at the Sidwell Friends School's cozy Caplin Theatre. Collaboration was a watchword -- visual, musical, literary, choreographic and theatrical arts were merged in sundry ways. The performing forces spanned several generations and diverse backgrounds. And the program's three works each represented a different artistic genre.
In impact and trenchancy of expression, the evening's pie ce de resistance was the finale, "E. Hopper," choreographed by Lerman and seen last spring at the Dance Place as a "work-in-progress." It's a collage in which one identifies the moving figures on stage -- some sooner, some later -- with personages in the artworks of the celebrated American painter Edward Hopper. Slides of Hopper's paintings, posters and drawings are projected on a wide screen behind the performers -- the dance space becomes a living canvas.
Though this revised version looks far more cohesive than the earlier "draft," some things remain problematical. The music of the Modern Jazz Quartet still often feels askew for a painter who wasn't particularly jazzy, though Lerman makes the bluesy sections work well with the bleaker sides of Hopper's imagery. Much of the dancing -- Don Zuckerman's solo, for instance -- is difficult to connect to Hopper; the choreography might be as apt for any number of subjects. And the verbal commentary at the start is an unilluminating distraction.
The conception, however, is a strong one, and in an overall way, the piece really registers. Indeed it achieves an emotional thrust rare in the annals of Washington choreography. The section leading up to the final tableau has the force of an epiphany, and it captures the haunting resonances of Hopper's art. Credit belongs not only to Lerman and the cast -- especially Anne McDonald, Jeff Bliss, Jessica Rea, Charlie Rother and Mary Buckley -- but also to the technical staff, which has pulled off a remarkable coup.
"Ives and Company" -- a collaboration between Lerman and storyteller Jon Spelman originally produced at the National Portrait Gallery -- is a "picture" of another sort, using Charles Ives' music and his own tartly colloquial, autobiographical writings as a base, and mime, gesture, movement and audience participation as ancillary elements. What emerges is a multilayered, sometimes overly pat sketch of the composer, with emphasis on his wit, acerbity and iconoclasm.
Less successful was Tish Carter and Nancy Galeota's revised "Travelon Gamelon." The engaging idea of accompanying a largely circular dance with music (by Richard Lerman) generated by bicycle wheels was partly sabotaged by the stylistic disarray of the dancing, and partly by tacky costuming.