A few weeks ago, Washington, D.C.-based choreographer Liz Lerman sat in a writing class at the Saint Paul Jewish Community Center, chatting with an intergenerational group and brainstorming material for the Twin Cities version of her 17-city, site-specific Hallelujah project, to be performed this Sunday in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. An older gentleman started questioning Lerman, then demanding: Can you choreograph disorder? Do you think you could? How would you do it? Lerman replied, Hmmm...very interesting--and went on to the next topic.
But the persistent fellow had planted a seed in Lerman's fertile mind. By the next morning, she was ruminating on his questions. She began to ask everyone she met: When was a time in your life you experienced beauty and disorder? They replied with stories about birth, death, compulsive love. One dancer in Lerman's company spoke of the Buddha creating human beings by dropping a diamond that broke into millions of pieces. "We're all different," Lerman explains by telephone, "because we reflect light in different ways." A theme was born.
Lerman, who has led her acclaimed Dance Exchange company since 1976, launched Hallelujah, the troupe's most ambitious dance/music/theater project to date, at daybreak on January 1, 2000, in Eastport, Maine, the first city in the United States to experience the dawn of a new millennium. Since then, Lerman and members of her company--who range in age from 25 to 67--have traveled from the Arizona desert to the historic Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival in Massachusetts, saluting the grace, praise, and good humor of humankind.
It has been a grueling schedule, but Lerman thrives on the challenges presented by the work. In each community, groups are united by a common idea. The presenters here--Minnesota Dance Alliance, Intermedia Arts, and Walker Art Center--connected Lerman with members of the Southwest Senior Center, students from North High School, teen dancers from the Association for Advancement of Hmong Women in Minnesota, members of Young Dance, and a host of other local talent, including Wendy Morris, David Harris, and Maria Genne. All focus their particular viewpoints around Lerman's nucleus of ideas, but the final work will be more like controlled chaos than a concert event. "I'm basically responsible for the editing," says Lerman with a laugh. "We don't have a lot of editing in the dance world, and we need it."
Hallelujah is a piece "for an audience [that] can't sit still," Lerman continues, explaining that viewers of the work will follow the performers through the Sculpture Garden, at times viewing grand-scale group efforts and at other times participating by telling their own experiences to fellow travelers. Lerman allows that the entire performance will be unpredictable, but she prefers it that way. "As long as we're not in a theater and we can't control things, we may as well mess things up a bit," she explains. Associate artistic director Peter DiMuro adds, "Dance Exchange sets a plan, goes into the community, and then changes that plan when, say, this woman can't go up the stairs, or this man just told a great story. We're always going deeper into the work, but never veering from the subject matter."
Aside from offering a celebration, Lerman also envisions Hallelujah as a wakeup call for modern dance communities across the country, a compelling reason for keeping in touch with people. "Modern dance is a little depressed now," she observes. "My solution is to continually connect dance to all these other things, [to] the rest of life. That makes dance alive to me. We live in a multicultural world now, and modern dance has to find a place within that. That's the reason why I wanted a lot of people to come through this project with us. I think as soon as you start partnering with unlikely partners, your world opens up."