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Flash View, 10-16: Exchange Sans Exchange
Lerman's Lockstep Healing: Disempowered at the Power Center

By Tara Zahra
Copyright 2001 Tara Zahra

ANN ARBOR, Michigan -- Before the performance here two Saturdays ago of the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, Lerman appeared on stage and told the audience that she and company members had done some soul-searching since September 11. "We asked ourselves, what do people want to do when they go to the theater these days?" The answer that they finally settled on, it seems, is "go to Church." And so the Power Center was transformed into a house of religious and nationalist worship, an experience that left me with unsettling questions about what precisely it means to make political art, to "explore the connections between art-making and community life," as the Exchange defines its mission.

The works performed, "Hallelujah: The Gates of Praise," choreographed by Lerman, and "Blessed," by Bebe Miller, were already based on deeply religious themes, representing the possibility of redemption in moments of darkness and the story of Adam and Eve. These works were beautifully and provocatively performed by Lerman's dancers, the Rudy Hawkins singers, and community members with whom the company had worked collaboratively over the past several months. Differences in age, in training, and in dance styles were used to evoke relationships (father and son, mother and daughter) which are rarely at the forefront of the youth-obsessed dance world.

But there is a difference between representing forms of spirituality or religious themes on stage and asking the audience to participate in these stories, to embrace them as a therapeutic balm for deeply political wounds. An "Invocation" between the two pieces brought nine "spiritual leaders" from Ann Arbor onto the stage. Each delivered a two-minute speech on what the September 11 attacks meant to them and members of their faith -- effectively, mini-sermons. Lerman and associate artistic director Peter DiMuro then choreographed a "dance" that could be performed by members of the audience in unison, to represent the words of these spiritual leaders, and their understanding of the September 11 attacks.

By including representatives from nine different faiths, Lerman surely thought the company was teaching us all a valuable lesson in pluralism, in the strength in diversity. Yet the experience effectively universalized spirituality itself: there was no one on stage to represent non-religious ways of understanding or coping with the September 11 attacks. We heard about good versus evil, about the meek inheriting the Earth, about praying for the victims, the redemptive possibilities of unity, the greatness of America, God's love for us all, including our enemies, and various theological views on revenge and its pitfalls. But by offering only religion, the "Invocation" universalized and depoliticized the profoundly political moment we find ourselves in. This was art which reinforced the sentiments we have seen on talk shows and talk radio and on the Internet, the stuff we can all supposedly "agree" upon and share -- rather than art that might challenge us to think about the events of recent weeks in new ways.

Community-oriented dance companies need to think hard about what it means to ask for "audience participation" in a moment when calls for "unity" threaten to spill into a gross chauvinistic nationalism. The dance we were asked to perform as an audience had a logic: It linked grief with spirituality with unity with patriotism with participation. It left me with a hard choice. I feel that discussion, debate, and disagreement is more important than unity when lives are at stake, in matters of politics. I feel that the events of September 11 must be understood politically and not simply spiritually, that patriotism is too easily the source of hatred and over-simplification, that there are many ways of grieving and coping, only some of which are religious. But to opt out of the dance, to opt out of participating, seemed almost impossible in the midst of Saturday night's pious mobilization of sentiment. Thanks to the strength of the logic that Lerman chose to reinforce, a logic that is already overwhelming in popular politics and culture, opting out felt like an act of treason. Opting out was a forbidden expression of cynicism, a failure to grieve. People danced in the audience Saturday night. Not an unremarkable occurrence, given the general reluctance of tired and self-conscious audiences to cross the line from spectator to participant. But it was not because they were discovering the power and magic of dance, because they were being provoked to interpret their own communities or the world at large in new ways. They participated, they danced, in a nationalist and religious ritual. Is this the best the dance world has to offer?

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