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Participatory Art-Making: Choreographer Liz Lerman's Populist Dance Activism

Unpacking 'Hiking the Horizontal,' Lerman’s book on performative dance and community activism.

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Now about the criticism–from within and outside the dance field–about whether Liz Lerman is a choreographer. Granted, she’s no Mark Morris or Bebe Miller. When you’re incorporating performers over age 60, shipyard workers, and little kids, you’re not going to be pushing the limits of athleticism. “One of the challenges of participatory art-making is that you frequently have to teach people the skills they need to make the dance while they are doing the dance,” she writes. If the goal of her community work is the way its participants will feel and the conversations the storytelling and thematic juxtapositions engender, formal choreographic criteria take a back seat. The merit of that work is not primarily proven in its final, staged presentation. The value is in the doing.

When Lerman’s stage work is created with her professional troupe, which pioneered the combination of youthful dancers and those well into their senior years, the results are less impressive and arguably less important. Like Bill T. Jones, the Dance Exchange’s work takes on big, politically-charged topics. But it’s the topics, and not formal values, that give her company’s work its choreographic juice. Given that Hiking the Horizontal is a book and not a video retrospective, a reader unfamiliar with the Dance Exchange will have a hard time telling why. That is why Lerman’s defensiveness is disconcerting, even when exasperated, as she finally spells out her complaint that “accessibility is not the same thing as dumbing down.”

But as far as I’m concerned, Liz Lerman shouldn’t be any more defensive than a gifted community muralist should be defensive that she’s not a famous plein air painter. If the art world was indeed more horizontal, there wouldn’t be any need for this important and generative public intellectual to feel that she was required to be anything other than what she is.

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Hiking the Horizontal: Field Notes from a Choreographer by Liz Lerman. Wesleyan University Press, 288 pages, $29.95

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