During the 1960s, modern dancers began to break rules, testing the definition of dance (could it use speech? did it need music? could one stand still?) and often the patience of audiences. In the last 20 years, many dancers have progressed beyond that -- or regressed, depending on your point of view -- to use old rules in new ways, often making dances that have no meaning beyond their movement.
The works Liz Lerman chose for her concert as part of the Smithsonian Salutes Washington Dance series Friday night at Baird Auditorium showed a '60s artist grown up. The social consciousness was there as well as the desire to keep an open mind, but the tone was mellow and, most revolutionary of all, the works were accessible.
The seven dances represented a creative autobiography of Lerman, showing her as dancer, choreographer and social worker. Lerman introduced each piece and her warm, chatty manner set the tone for the evening. Without ever being preachy or pretentious, Lerman explained what esthetic problems she had faced in each dance and what it "meant" to her and, she hoped, to viewers.
Lerman often mingles speech with her dances, and two excellent examples of this aspect of her work, "Who's on First?" (a commentary on the less appealing side of sport) and excerpts from "Docudance" (on geopolitics and the arms race), were spoken and danced by Lerman and other members of her Dance Exchange, most notably Don Zuckerman, whose vocal delivery was as clear and expressive as his movements.
Sometimes, as in "Granny's Piece," the words -- the story of life in a mill town in the '20s -- are far more interesting than the movements, which provide a sort of background for those who need to watch something while listening. But mostly Lerman manages to concoct a gesture or movement phrase as piquant as the verbal one -- depicting Central America by having the dancer struggle to maintain his balance in "Docudance" is but one example.