You don’t have to know Liz Lerman’s name to know her work. For 34 years, she’s been Washington’s most visible choreographer. Didn’t seek out her projects? There’s still a good chance you’ve been mildly inconvenienced by one. Lerman is, after all, the woman who closed streets to create “dances” for construction vehicles, held summer choreography camps in parking garages, and staged flash mobs at the Lincoln Memorial, years before anyone knew what a flash mob was and years before courts ruled you could get arrested for grooving to music at a national monument.
It takes friends in high places to (legally) pull stunts in the name of making art, and Lerman has them. Many were on-hand at the AFI Silver Theatre Wednesday for a tribute to the choreographer. On June 30, she steps down from the helm of the Takoma Park-based studio and company that bears her name: Liz Lerman Dance Exchange.
There were so many local VIPs in the audience, you would think the topic at hand was not modern dance but some hot issue in Montgomery County politics. County Executive Isiah Leggett wasn’t present, but his wife Catherine was, as were state comptroller Peter Franchot, Delegate Tom Hucker, and Maryland State Senator Jamie Raskin. Tamara Pullman, a dancer and wife of actor Bill Pullman, served as emcee, segueing among the academics, politicians, and PowerPoints all praising the experimental choreographer.
Lerman, a Milwaukee native, moved to Washington in the mid-1970s and began teaching dance classes to “old people” long before doctors regarded such work as legitimate therapy. Lerman never viewed her work that way, either. From the beginning, she cast gnarled older or disabled dancers alongside lithe and limber younger ones. She earned a MacArthur genius grant for her work in 2002, and has maintained a slow and steady touring schedule with her company for the past decade. Her work is so often collaborative, calling on experts in fields like genetics and quantum physics, that she tended to book gigs at universities rather than high-profile dance festivals. Academia beckons in her retirement as well—she’ll be an artist-in-residence at Harvard University this fall.
Yet Lerman is just as at home bringing art to the people as to the ivory towers. Video clips featured Wednesday showed her teaching non-dancers to perform in nontraditional spaces, including a Detroit church and a New Hampshire shipyard.
The narrow stage at AFI afforded live dancing, too. Three men, including septuagenarian company member Thomas Dwyer, dressed in iridescent body suits, reenacted Lerman’s ode to a dead goldfish.
For those not performing, “festive attire” was recommended—and at a dance soiree that generally means formal dress optional but killer shoes required. Lerman herself wore a grey, drapey Tencel number, suede peep-toes and her hair in its trademark frizzy updo. The new director taking over at Dance Exchange, Cassie Meador, wore a tailored gold dress and sprig of flowers in her professionally rendered, flaming red French twist, a sure sign of change, at least follicle-deep.
Meador, 31, wasn’t born when Lerman, 63, founded studio, and during a tearful passing of the torch (in this case, a shoebox), the elder choreographer assured fans that the studio passes to steady feet. Pictures of Lerman and her dances will adorn the walls, but her name is coming down from the building’s façade.
“I have had 34 years of happiness being not Liz Lerman, but the Dance Exchange,” she said. “Now you, and your beautiful people, get to be the Dance Exchange, and I get to go be Liz Lerman again.”
The program ended with 20 current and former dancers standing in their seats, gesturing to music like crossing guards, beckoning in slow motion. Lerman may have performed in some of Washington’s grandest venues, but waving farewell in movie theater made more sense.