The dancers, in loose gray trousers and tight colorful leotards, surround the pianist in the Glen Echo studio, listening carefully as he plays the unfamiliar notes that have just come from his pen. Slowly, one dancer matches the sounds with movements representing forest trees. Another joins him, and then another, until all five move quietly, leaning heavily, waving their arms, slow-moving thick boughs, wiggling their fingers, swishing their hands, leaves shaking in the wind. In a corner of the room Liz Lerman, dancer, choreographer and prime mover of the Dance Exchange, talks earnestly with four dancers, explaining her ideas, asking for their input.
They have just run through most of Lerman's "Russia: The Transparent Apple and the Silver Saucer," a full-length production premiering tomorrow night and Friday. Known for using dance to shed light on social issues, Lerman has this time taken all of Russian history and culture as her subject. Recalling the adage "If you want to know a person, know his grandfather," she says, "To know a country, know its history."
Exploring the writings of Russian leaders and dissidents, histories, commentaries and folk tales, Lerman selected a skeleton to be artistically fleshed out. "When I began researching a year ago, I thought I'd find we were the same," she says, noting the "burgeoning women's movements, trouble with jobs," family relations. "It's a cliche' idea. We are incredibly different from the Russians, and that's what this piece is about. I didn't know when I started."
"Russia" opens with rapidly moving historical excerpts, rendered viscerally clear by the dancers who plunge energetically and evocatively into scenes focusing on prominent personalities, achievements and scientific advancements, repeatedly punctuated by invasion, carnage and destruction.
"1095," Don Zuckerman narrates. "The streets are paved with lumber." Suddenly the dancers move from upright to horizontal, rolling like logs on a river.
"1535. Ivan the Terrible begins his Reign of Terror." Propless, one dancer slashes another's thigh and kicks her as she rolls into an angular, anguished form. A woman supports a wounded man in her lap and arms. Figuring prominently in the background, a dancer represents Mother Russia, whose bottom half, an enormous skirt and apron, becomes a screen for a series of slides produced by eight computer-controlled projectors linked with the music.
To understand the implementation of the concepts for this largest single project tackled by the Dance Exchange, emphasize the word "exchange." The dancers, loosely gathered in a circle, explain the creative process. "We improvise on Lerman's ideas," Debra Caplowe says, "either using her movement or coming up with our own." "This is the first time we've rehearsed with video equipment," Zuckerman says. Eric Bobrow, his dark hair plastered on his forehead after the workout, says, "It's made for a wider range of improvisation. We could cull and pick out the best things."
The group contributions and Lerman's direction have given the work great variety. Jeff Bliss as Peter the Great appears with a toy box, setting up wooden toy soldiers. He looks behind as he marches at their head, stamps and kicks them aside. Lying prone, he raises a book, then slides a pencil down its sloping surface, capturing the huge man's (he was 6 feet 7 inches tall) childishness, power and curiosity. Bobrow leaps, squatting and long-armed, an ape in the story "The Zoo." Peasants die, disdained during the opulent age of Catherine the Great, who sentences the first Russian radical to death for "arousing among the people resentment to authority."
"The Russian relation to authority is vastly different from ours," Lerman says. "The peasants had a feeling the czars would take care of them, and people are still trusting grand authority." Citing Stalin's purges, she says, "Americans question authority. There's no way so many Americans could have been so docile . . .
"Americans view everything individually, and are mostly interested in the moment. Russians see everything in terms of history." She refers to an American-Russian game-playing study done at Esalen in California. "The basic premise in any negotiating game," she explains, "is that we're still ourselves. That's very hard to change."
Lerman concludes her work with two present-day families, Russian and American, using performers ranging in age from 10 to 83. Each family creates different endings to a fairy tale enacted by the core dancers and five senior citizens, members of Dancers of the Third Age, the performing group sponsored by the Dance Exchange. "I see the families as historical," she says. "It just happens to be our lives, not our grandparents'." And, recalling the repeated stage deaths, she says, "At any moment our governments could choose to litter the stage with corpses."
The Dance Exchange will present "Russia" in the Caplin Theatre, Sidwell Friends School (3825 Wisconsin Ave. NW), 8 p.m. tomorrow and Friday night.