Liz Lerman Heals My Wars
I saw this picture a long time ago. The Rockettes, as seen from a different perspective on the female body and the aging process. I had no idea who the dancers were—the only thing I knew was that I loved the person who had thought to put them together.
It was, of course, Liz Lerman, the anchor at the center of this group. The choreographer who dared to match old and young, fat and skinny, professional and amateur. She knew what dance had been and what it might be in future. She asked questions about the nature of movement, and how it relates to everything in life.
I was privileged to meet her last week at the National Conference on Creative Aging, where I had come to present a poster on performance and older dancers. Her new piece (masterpiece), “Healing Wars,” had just opened at Arena Stage in Washington, and she was conducting a workshop the following morning with a variety of the advisors who had helped her throughout the years she’d worked to mount this show. The dance-theater piece is a commentary on war, but it is also a paean to those who given sustenance and comfort to the wounded and dead. It has in it the representation of a soldier-woman who dressed as a man to fight alongside her brothers in the Civil War; a military surgeon who worked in Iraq; Clara Barton, who “discovered” over 22,000 missing soldiers after the Civil War and corresponded with their survivors; an actual Iraq vet who has only one leg but dances nonetheless.
Watching Liz Lerman talk is a lot like feeling your way through new choreography when you are first learning it. She sits onstage with 4 men and passes the hat as they explain their contributions to her work. But she is looking at and sensing the audience the whole time. She stops to ask, “What did that piece of information do for you just now? How did it change you?” This is part of the process she uses with her dancers (and probably why it takes so long to create a new work.
The director of a Civil War museum talked about how regiments were created out of families, so that when a line went “over the hill,” entire generations were wiped out in a period of minutes. “What are you thinking right now?” Liz Lerman asked the audience when they heard this. One woman who had seen Healing Wars the night before, raised her hand and said, “An empty place at the table.” Liz beamed at her. “Exactly. It’s about what’s missing and how everyone is wounded by it.”
Over the hour of the workshop, I found myself having a dialogue with myself and sometimes with her and the people onstage about what it means to dance about pain with people who are in pain. I explained that I, too, worked with unconventional dancers, and although I had been aware of their restrictions, I had never seen our work together as parallel to what happens in war. The unexpected; the terrible; the emotional; the shredding of old skin and then, the patching up.
At the end I came up to her and she opened her arms to hug me. “Who are you?” she asked, “You are a kindred spirit.” I told her that we had mutual friends; I told her I had been using her picture for decades. She smiled asked me to keep in touch.
My dream is that we will write back and forth for years, and finally, when I am very old, she will need me in a show of hers. And I will go running, hobbling, waltzing – however I can get there.