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Liz Lerman likes to ask questions. Over breakfast at Junior’s Restaurant last November, the choreographer and community activist pondered, “What is the role of the professional artist in the life of the community? Who gets to dance? Where do they dance? Who cares that they dance?”
Philosophical ruminations such as these have driven Lerman for the past 25 years, and informed the work she creates for her intergenerational company, the Maryland-based Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, as well as a range of participatory projects she hosts with nontraditional community performers -- fishermen, shipyard workers, veterans, seniors, children with terminal illnesses. “When I was growing up,” she said, “my first dilemma with dance as an art form was that out of all the reasons why people dance, we were only allowed a couple -- beauty, pure expression, some kind of objectified pattern, something on stage that stood for itself and that‘s all it was. It seemed that we were precluding hundreds of other powerful reasons.”
Lerman’s current three-year, 12-city initiative, the Hallelujah Project, engages diverse communities across America in a workshop and performance process that addresses the question “What are you in praise of?” at the turn of the millennium. This weekend the culmination of the Los Angeles Hallelujah Project premieres at the Skirball Cultural Center‘s brand-new Cotsen Auditorium in Ahmanson Hall. Titled Stones Will Float, Leaves Will Sink, Paths Will Cross, it fuses an eclectic cross section of L.A. culture, including Japanese obon dancers, Buddhist reverends, Jewish rabbis, an African-American gospel choir, and the local modern-dance community. The evening will include a blessing of the new performance space, as well as Bebe Miller’s Blessed and Lerman‘s The Gates of Praise, a “prologue” of sorts the company performs at every Hallelujah site.
That morning at Junior’s, Lerman was eager to discuss the week of intensive community workshops she had just completed for the Los Angeles Hallelujah. With primary collaborator Nobuko Miyamoto and Skirball associate program director Jordan Peimer, Lerman and a team of company members traversed the city, holding dialogue and movement workshops in synagogues, Japanese-American Buddhist temples, Christian churches and the UCLA Department of World Arts and Cultures. At each site, Lerman asked questions while the team listened for recurring themes, locating the issues that were important to each group. Central to the process, Lerman explained, was careful observation of how participants told their stories (the metaphors and images they chose, the spontaneous, telling gestures they made as they spoke), which she will translate into movement for the concluding performance. She asked the Gwen Wyatt Chorale at Wilshire United Methodist Church about the “small hallelujahs” of daily life; from the UCLA dance students, Lerman wanted to know how they had arrived there -- at the studio that morning, in Los Angeles, in America.
At one of the very first community gatherings here more than a year ago, Lerman asked members of an interfaith think tank on religion and civic life, “What do you miss? What do you wish for?” Peimer remembers answers ranging from something as quotidian as missing the smell of fresh blueberry muffins to the heartfelt desire to see a grandmother‘s smile again. A woman from Diamond Canyon Christian Church spoke about wanting to return to her family’s home in Watts, and about the feeling that she couldn‘t cross over into that community. When Lerman (who, coincidentally, was born in Watts) relayed this story to Rabbi Eddie Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom, he agreed that, indeed, Los Angeles is a city of invisible walls. New questions arose: How do you cross these walls? What do you give up in order to cross? What do you need to bring with you in order to cross?
Boundaries, like the burden of history, are a recurring theme in Lerman’s work. For the 1986 centennial celebration of the Statue of Liberty, the company created Still Crossing with recently arrived immigrant Russian Jews and older people who had come to America as children. In Shehechianu (1995--97), the company‘s last major work prior to embarking on the Hallelujah Project, personal and social history were represented as layers of scars that tell us who we are. It was a comment at a post-performance panel about this piece that sparked the creation of the Hallelujah Project, Lerman recalled: “An African-American woman spoke up and said, ’I‘m tired of holding my breath. I want to start celebrating now -- I don’t want to wait until everything is okay.‘ I realized we don’t have to ignore or deny all the bad that has happened, and that continues to happen, but there is something else, too, that we can look at, at the same time. And what we‘ve heard about repeatedly during this process is the light in the midst of dark times, or the celebration after hard times endured.”
The Dance Exchange has appeared in Los Angeles only a few times over the past 14 years, but when Peimer heard about the Hallelujah Project, he knew he had to find a way to bring it here. “L.A. presents all kinds of opportunities and difficulties for a project like this,” he said. “Yes, it would be a challenge, and yet it could create something really interesting.” The late Duane Ebata of the Japanese-American Community and Cultural Center suggested that Lerman contact Miyamoto, a local contemporary performance artist and musician with a history of community activism, who had been creating obon dances and songs for the past 10 years at Senshin Buddhist Temple. (Obon is an annual Japanese Buddhist celebration wherein families return home at harvest time to honor their ancestors with circle dances.) Miyamoto, who knew Gwen Wyatt from the 1999 World Festival of Sacred Music: The Americas, felt it was important to bring in the African-American community. “L.A. is such a place of fear of crossing geographical and racial boundaries, and it is so easy to avoid going into certain areas,” she said. “The Japanese and Jewish communities share a certain economic comfort, as well as similar experiences, like being incarcerated in camps. We’re not threatening to each other.”
Nevertheless, the collaboration with Lerman has been challenging. In addition to the hundreds of community workshops, the collaborators have traveled back and forth between Maryland and L.A. to spend intensive sessions deliberating over a central, emblematic story about Miyamoto‘s grandmothers, Misao, a Japanese picture bride, and Lucy, a Mormon Englishwoman. Two weeks ago, the company flew in for the final push to cobble the piece together from its various elements: new obon dances created out of story gestures; sections for the company that combine movement derived from such diverse sources as the Virginia reel and taiko drumming; rabbis and Buddhist reverends alternating chanting, or reflecting on sacrifice, duty, forgiveness (“setting up the questions for the evening,” according to Lerman). Community rehearsals were scheduled every night; those able to attend at least five will perform in the concert this weekend.
At one rehearsal I attended, Cotsen Auditorium was in a state of happy chaos. A group to one side learned Miyamoto’s obon dance, while another cluster worked on a rolling section representing the crossing of rivers. Rafi Feinstein, who is 12, joined the chorus proffering suggestions to Lerman, and young UCLA dancers reached out to help guide an elderly woman as new directions were called out. Ideas as well as movement phrases were repeatedly broken down and recombined in a process that Lerman likens to the Human Genome Project (“It always adds up when you put it back together”). A central movement motif of being off balance, Miyamoto pointed out, was the result of a tour of the Senshin altar, where a statue of Buddha leaning forward caught the group‘s attention. “See,” Reverend Kodani told them, “the Buddha is leaning into truth.”
What, I finally asked Lerman, is the piece in praise of? “At its most superficial and deep level, it’s about people‘s willingness to meet one another. We’re still figuring out what of your history and identity you have to let go of and what you need to take with you to do this. It takes a lot of will to work at that,” she added in a tired voice. “So maybe it‘s in praise of will.”
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