Choreographer Liz Lerman is making waves again, not that she’s ever really stopped. On May 4th, the University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra performed Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun from memory, with movement design by Lerman. The video is currently making the rounds on music blogs, inspiring a new conversation about the untapped possibilities for perhaps the most stubborn of the classical performing arts. You can watch here.
In many ways, making an orchestra dance is classic Liz Lerman. So is working with an ensemble of non-professionals. She’s pushing the art form and the performers beyond preconceived boundaries, with transformative results for both the art makers and audience alike. Read Lerman’s 2011 essay collection Hiking the Horizontal: Field Notes from a Choreographer and you’ll quickly gather that this is modus operandi for the woman behind the Dance Exchange, the groundbreaking intergenerational company she founded in 1976 and left last year.
Hiking the Horizontal first came to my attention at APAP this year, in a session on leadership in which Lerman encouraged us to “quit ranking the voices” in our heads: “Live horizontally”, she said. In her book, Lerman defines this more clearly. Though it started out as a simple movement she used to represent her ideal of living in a non-hierarchical world, “hiking the horizontal” has become her mantra and a way of life that encompasses several ideas. Here are some of them, in her words:
- “Allow for multiple perspectives and recognize that making distinctions is a creative act…In hiking the horizontal, many ideas can coexist…Distinction does not have to be about right and wrong.”
- “Find a way to respect something that lives at the end of the spectrum farthest from where you are comfortable…”
- “Consider when either/or thinking is useful and when it isn’t. Tolerance, generosity, nimbleness are helpmates to hiking this path, but they are also outcomes from moving along it.”
In Hiking the Horizontal, Lerman reflects deeply on her life and career, offering the expected behind-the-scenes dish along with thorough explorations of her landmark pieces. Most interesting, though, is how the book frames her career—philosophically—as a series of minor discoveries that, taken as a whole, challenge the status-quo in a dramatic way. Why can’t a professional performer also be a passionate teacher? Why can’t a choreographer create works for the stage as well as the church, synagogue, sidewalk, nursing home or hospital? What’s wrong with mixing words and dance, young and old performers, science, politics, and art? In short, she gradually gets to the core of the Dance Exchange’s famous mission statement, “to create dances that arise from asking: Who gets to dance? Where is the dance happening? What is it about? Why does it matter?”
For me, perhaps the greatest take away came early in the book, in the section titled “Questions as a Way of Life.” Lerman asks a Nobel-winning scientist how he asks himself a question, and he responds, “I am fueled by my ignorance.” She is thrilled by this. In Lerman’s world, not knowing is a virtue, it is “fuel for the imagination.” Not a day goes by without someone commenting on what uncertain times these are for arts organizations. What if we embrace that uncertainty, and use it as our fuel for innovation?
Some are doing just that. In this space, I’ve already written about the Trey McIntyre Project, as well as the Boston Lyric Opera and Opera Company of Philadelphia, organizations that have assessed the current landscape and felt an urgent need for deep change. I also think of the Albany Symphony Orchestra, a small-budget, regional orchestra that has bucked all trends by increasing its commitment to the music of living composers in the face of belt-tightening. Lerman writes extensively about the necessity of “nimbleness” (“a certain kind of agile intelligence”), a trait these organizations all share, and one necessary for the type of innovation encouraged by EmcArts: shifting underlying assumptions, instituting practices different from those previously used, providing new pathways to create public value.
Throughout Hiking the Horizontal, it’s that shifting of assumptions that emerges as the hallmark of Liz Lerman’s career and philosophy. As an individual and choreographer, she pushes herself to think of “learning as verb” and to knock down the mental silos that so often prevent new connections and ideas. That’s harder to do as an organization, but never impossible.