'Genius' Fellow Finds Reward in Dance

Liz Lerman is a classically trained dancer and award-winning choreographer who some describe as an artistic activist. Now, people are adding the word "genius" to that description.

Lerman is one of the 24 individuals who were awarded MacArthur fellowships for 2002. Often called "genius grants," the program is funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in Chicago. The foundation has been searching for and singling out talented individuals in all fields since 1981, bestowing upon them stipends of up to $500,000 — with no strings attached.

"We tell them … 'we think you are great,'" said Daniel Socolow, director of the MacArthur Fellowship program. "'We are in awe of what you do and we think you know better than anyone else how to best use this money.'"

Dancing With Diversity

Lerman, 54, is the founder and artistic director of Dance Exchange in Takoma Park, Md. She creates new work to challenge old assumptions about dance.

"Is true that everybody has to be a young light thing?" Lerman asks. "I used to say to people, what theater company would be interesting if all the actors looked exactly alike? What kind of theater could you make? So who gets to dance?"

Lerman makes dance for everybody. That is every "body" — short, tall, large, small, young, old. Her troupe includes dancers ranging from their 20s to their 80s.

"I don't want to live in a world where the only way we can express community is if we're all doing the same thing at the same time," she said. "That is not the world I'm interested in."

Lerman began experimenting with untrained dancers while working on a piece about her mother's death. "At the time, I imagined my mother going into whatever the next stage of her existence was and I just imagined … her being welcomed by these old people."

So she looked for recruits at a center for seniors.

"That lady [in charge of the center] thought I was an absolute fool, but she needed entertainment on Thursday night, so she hired me for $5 a week," Lerman remembers.

Performances for the People

"I taught dance classes for six months and then I finally said, 'Come on, you can be in this piece,' and a bunch did, and they were phenomenal. The audiences wept when they saw older people on stage. That was a huge revelation to me, and that was really the beginning of what I think I've become."

Lerman adopted what could be called a "constitutional" view of dance — performances for the people, by the people, regardless of skill or training.

While traveling around the country, Lerman recruits locals from various cities for works like Hallelujah, where performers of all ages express tales of praise.

"I really think putting the story of people's lives on stage instead of redoing yet another Swan Lake, I think it's really critical, even though people say, 'Why are you doing that?'" says Lerman. "I really think that gorgeous, beautiful, professional dancers can also teach, can also choreograph, can also manage, and can also be on stage next to an untrained person and they will be better for it — not worse for it. Better for it. I really believe that."

The MacArthur Fellowship program carries no explicit responsibilities, but there is an unspoken expectation that the winners will continue to grow and advance and move forward in their chosen fields — in essence, to prove that they are worthy of the honor.