Feature: Liz Lerman on grief, age, falling and getting up

Friday 4 September 2015

'The Matter of Origins', Montclair State University, 2010. Pictured: Ted Johnson, Keith Thompson, and Ben Wegman. Photo: John Borstel

The second piece for the Institute of Controlled Falling, a series of articles curated by guest editor Ruth Little for Dance Umbrella’s Definite Article series, is by renowned US choreographer, teacher and writer, Liz Lerman.

Ruth Little writes ‘I’ve known and worked alongside Liz for a number of years, and I’m honoured and delighted to include her contribution to the Institute of Controlled Falling. She is a source of wisdom, long experience and deep humanity, and has worked to explore and extend movement in so many contexts and with performers of all ages and backgrounds, through her work with Dance Exchange and beyond. The ethos and values that she brings to her work and to her Critical Response methodology have profoundly influenced my own dramaturgical practice and continue to inspire dance artists around the world.’

Thanks to Dance Umbrella we are including Liz Lerman’s article here. It also appears on www.danceumbrella.co.uk. Read Ruth Little’s introduction to her series here


My father was dying. I knew it. I had been “home,” meaning at his house in the Midwest, several times during the months leading up to the end. Now I was really home—meaning my house on the East Coast—and the phone rang, and it was my step-mother, and my father was dead. I knew this was coming. I knew. And still, the way I fell to the floor was the longest fall in my history, and also the fastest, and the equivalent of a collapse of the biggest mountain, or perhaps more like the sleepy flight of a tiny feather working its way, with the help of gravity, to its own end.

The woman who was to become the dean of the Harvard Law School was on the phone asking me to make a dance in honor of the 60th anniversary of the Nuremberg Trials. People involved in the legal world of human rights were coming to Harvard and she wanted them to realize that all of their work was actually about bodies. She made this brilliant observation that even though they confronted the impossibly bloody evidence of genocide upon genocide, they had forgotten the physicality of it.

I hesitated, wondering if there really was a limit to art, but then with her help agreed to take on the project that had a fast timeline since the conference would be in a few short months. We did a vast amount of research rather quickly and I found myself particularly moved by the journalists-turned-authors who could not contain their humanity within the constraints of the neutrality of their professional reporting. And so they wrote books that were filled with passionate and vivid storytelling along with moral indignation. One book, Samantha Powers’ A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, begins with an accounting of “upstanders”: individuals who passionately and without embarrassment or shame take on the power structures that sustain such warfare. She calls them upstanders as opposed to bystanders because they dared.

We made one of them a central character in our dance. His name was Rafael Lemkin and among other things he coined the term genocide. He went to the U.S. Capitol daily and cornered congressmen trying to get them to understand, to fully comprehend, what was happening every day in the world. He died a pauper. This all took place in the second half of the 20th century, within my own lifetime.

I knew we needed Lemkin in our performance, but I couldn’t figure out what his movement was. We tried so many different ways to discover what might be true for him. One day, I asked the amazing dancer Matt Mahaney to just keep getting up. Matt was a former wrestler and had the most unusual relationship to the earth of any performer I have worked with. He was uncanny in his ability to move to the floor and back up again. I thought the idea was to keep rising, but we found out he had to keep falling: there was no way to get up without being down first. And so Matt began to fall. And fall, and fall. He crashed, he careened and smashed, he flattened himself, he spun and dropped, and he leapt and landed full on the ground.

At each of our performances, Matt’s falling was the riveting center of the piece. It was noisy and disturbing. We were bystanders to his persistence, to his relentless belief that we can end these killings.

Matt Mahaney, 2004. Photo: Lise Metzger

I was at a gathering of dance artists, performers, and choreographers. We were chatting about the usual when someone said off handedly, “Can you believe it? A dancer I know has been asked to teach falling to old people. I can’t see how it has come to this. How dumb is it for us to have to do that? I hate that we have to prove our worth this way.” The conversation moved to another topic too fast for me to intervene, plus I was so surprised I had to think for a moment about how to respond.

Here is a story within a story: In my first months of teaching old people how to dance (so that I could put them in a piece about my mother’s death), I tried all manner of things to keep the 40+ residents that would wander into my class at the Roosevelt Hotel for Senior Citizens busy, active, and dancing. I had them doing Cunningham’s exercise on six and I had them jumping by holding the back of their chairs (although some of them would do that sitting down, which was a riot). Then I started getting them to tell a little of their backgrounds and we would make tiny little dances from the images. I was a young choreographer just starting out. My naivety was a plus, as was our isolation (no one was watching, and few people cared). Telling stories was a new idea to me. They liked it, I learned a lot, and some of the images were terrific to translate into movement.

One story came from Harry who was 92 at the time. He had been a lumberman in the north of the U.S. and he told us about cutting trees: “1-2-3 timber!” he would yell and we would all practice falling down. They fell out of their chairs, they fell from standing if they could, some of them would just drop an arm down, and a few would simply slump, letting their spines make a minute curve where they had been kind of straight before. It was a circus of theme and variation and I was amazed by the creativity unleashed in the crowded bingo room.

So we made a little touring troupe out of these dances, including Harry’s, and off we would go to elementary schools and the children could not get enough of the old people falling. They squealed at the sight and then we would take a few minutes to get up off the floor and carry on with the rest of our performance. One of the men in this group, a former naval commander named John, came up to me after a performance and said this: “I took a bath yesterday.” Ah I said, very well. But he repeated himself. I was just beginning to understand that listening was the best thing I could do and if I waited I might hear more, so I gave him my full attention. He said, “For the past few years I have only been taking showers because I can’t get down and up off the floor, but since I have been a falling tree I can now get in and out of the tub.”

If you want to make fun of modern dance, or even contemporary dance all you have to do is say “pretend to be a tree.” I have always felt that the problem with that expression is the word pretend. It is the pretense that makes us squirm, not the being a tree. Being something you are not is actually quite difficult. John was not pretending to be a tree, he was the tree and he could fall and fall and fall, even at 85. Too proud to go to therapy, John would not have experienced the joy of a warm bath had he not become a dancer. And being a tree in his friend’s story was ritual at its best.

Back to the professional dancer who is humiliated by having to be useful. Here is the thing: what makes it interesting to teach young professionals how to fall? Why is that worthy, and teaching a few old people how to fall so that the falls don’t kill them is not? It seems to me a noble use of our knowledge, not to mention an economic engine as we understand the demographics of the future. Plus, the variations are incredible to see. And the bodies dropping to the floor so interesting in their odd approaches to the ground that is rising up to meet them.

Still Crossing, 1987. Pictured: Jeff Bliss, Carolyn Rosenthal, Debora Kaplowe, Judith Jourdin, Beth Davis, and Don Zuckerman. Photo: Dance Exchange archives

For a while, we had two dance companies at the Dance Exchange. One was called Dancers of the Third Age that was for people over 55 (which was when “old” started, back then in the ‘70s and ‘80s). The other, called The Dance Exchange Performance Company, was a more typical modern dance company of that era. By the late ’80s, I was insisting that both be booked at all times. This required some interesting experimentation with company classes, as well as some unusual negotiating with presenters. All of this activity coincided with my becoming a mother and so we added the baby to the mix and off we went. There was frequent jockeying over who got to carry the baby (and even who got to be the baby as there was some jealousy over all the attention spent on Anna so we sometimes designated different people to be “baby for a day” just to be cooed at and to get out of any chores).

Anna was about nine months old when we had a longish tour of New England as the winter waned. It was still quite cold, snow and ice on the ground, and yet we persevered, moving through a few small towns and performing in odd spaces that were cold and drafty. We traveled in a caravan and for some reason, on the day this story unfolds, I was in a different car than Anna as we arrived at our next stop, an afternoon technical rehearsal.

All the cars parked in a crowded lot. As I was walking towards the car that the baby was traveling in, I saw Charlie Rother get out of the car with Anna in his arms. Some people look younger than they actually are. Not Charlie. He seemed much older than his 65 years and I loved him for that. He was a miracle on stage and really set the tone for audiences to look carefully as he seemed so fragile. Charlie was a former Methodist minister who had a very progressive outlook on life having preached against the Vietnam War. He had also led a group of clergy to join Martin Luther King, Jr. in the march in Selma. We spent many hours discussing these things as Charlie learned to love to move his body, express his hopes and long-held anger. Somehow the combination of an ensemble that gave him a place to feel as well as move gave expression to the hard life he had lived. An audience could sense this just by looking at him. His beautiful awkwardness brought many to tears. In one piece, Still Crossing, he had to roll across the stage very slowly. For him, each turn of the body came with a lurch and a partial drop…he liked to call it Still Crashing. It was an unusual sight.

But on this particular afternoon, I watched him step out of a car with my baby daughter in his arms and then suddenly they were both gone from view, slipping down between the parked cars. I ran towards them, several car lengths away, with absolute terror in my chest as I realized Charlie must have slipped on black ice. Two fragile beings falling in the cold. As I started running, and maybe screaming, I had this terrible thought: I wasn’t sure who I was more worried about or for. I pictured my beautiful Anna, her little head smashing under Charlie’s weight on the frozen ground. But then I thought of Charlie who would be impossible to replace and unsure whether his years could withstand such a physical blow. Two kinds of intense love lost in an instant. I slowed down, afraid to actually find out what had happened, and then I heard Charlie’s voice, “We are okay,” as he slowly brought himself upright. Anna was unharmed, just lying on the ground. I picked her up, trying not to make a fuss, as I didn’t want to make Charlie feel worse. I also didn’t want her to be unnecessarily frightened by the experience. For all I knew, she enjoyed it. There was speed, the feel of air flying by, and she might have liked the touch of cold on her cheek.

Later, as my breathing normalized, I couldn’t quite fathom the double shock I felt. The incredible fear of loss, and the incredible knowledge that love existed in so many forms. Those two falling bodies taught me that. And it furthered my ongoing investigation of what we mean by risk and why it is so important. The threat seems to build connection, purpose, and a fresh understanding of what matters.

The Matter of Origins. Photo: Mike Peters

FOUR I am seven years older than my mother was when she died and I am well past the age where I would have been welcomed into my own troupe that was called Dancers of the Third Age…the one we kept for old people until we realize how patronizing that was and just combined all the dancers and said when you hired us you got all of us.

Now that I am older, I fear falling just a bit. I didn’t used to. I was a crazy toddler climbing up two story tall slides, jumping out of trees, and generally spinning like crazy until I fell down laughing. That’s one reason I got to dance, because I was dancing already and my parents were happy to send me to someone who might organize this physical madwoman/child. But in the past year I have fallen twice while out in public. Once, the dog and I had a different idea of which direction to go and I tripped on her leash as she went after a smaller dog that was barking. I ended up with a sprained knee and a gashed up hand and about a month of recovery. The other time, more recently, I just tripped on a broken sidewalk in Harvard Square. I got up, marched indignantly into the nearest store (the one right by the cracked cement), and five young hip guys looked at me in surprise but before they could speak I said in a very loud voice, “You need to get that sidewalk fixed.” One of them, baffled by my outburst, said, “It’s not my problem, it’s the city of Cambridge’s.”

That is the first time I felt like an old lady. Wow, I thought to myself. They probably think I am a crank and they will laugh about it as I slip out of the store.
But I haven’t liked falling much since then. I can feel my body want to. It remembers how to. I know the feeling of a lazy slinky slide to the ground and the kind where I could just drop instinctively to the floor knowing how to catch the right side of the body to be both risky and safe. I can bring to mind the palpable sense of freedom of moving across any landscape and the shoe wouldn’t matter. Barefoot, or shod, running or rolling, the world and its ground was mine.

The Matter of Origins, CERN group fall

Whenever I am standing in the grocery line, or waiting for my flight at the airport, or watching the pot boil, I practice standing on one leg. It seems I have a good side and a weaker one. It shocks me every time I wobble a bit. It reminds me of myself some 35 years ago trying to get all the old people I was teaching to keep their balance. I couldn’t figure out why it was so difficult. I tried everything to help them stabilize. I would say, “Flatten your toes, rock back and forth to discover your whole foot, imagine a connection to the floor.” Or even, “You have roots—use them.” Sometimes we would do foot massages and then try again. Or we partnered and hung on to each other and they still toppled over.

Now I see that it will soon be my time. Falling and getting up and falling and getting up and then one day just falling.

Find more in depth writing on dance and performance in the Definite Article section on www.danceumbrella.co.uk

Dance Umbrella, 15 – 31 October 2015. Full programme

Top image: The Matter of Origins, Montclair State University, 2010. Pictured: Ted Johnson, Keith Thompson, and Ben Wegman. Photo: John Borstel

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