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PERFORMING ARTS

Some New Twists on Making 'Matzah'

Liz Lerman's Dance Exchange creates a site-specific work at the Skirball Center based on Larry Rivers' historical triptych.

May 23, 1999|KRISTIN HOHENADEL | Kristin Hohenadel is a frequent contributor to Calendar

For more than 20 years, choreographer Liz Lerman and her Maryland-based Dance Exchange have become well-known for community-based work that explores relationships between history and identity. Collecting people's stories and turning them into movement, Lerman has struggled to establish a lifeline between dance and everyday audiences.

Part of her approach has been the development of site-specific works, such as tours of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., where the members of her troupe danced in the bathrooms and the audience ended up on stage. Or the two-year "Shipyard Project," in which dancers performed in and around a naval shipyard in Portsmouth, N.H., after months of researching the lives and concerns of workers there.

Today, Lerman and company are bringing that brand of storytelling to Los Angeles in their first performances here in a decade. The Skirball Cultural Center has commissioned a site-specific work from the Dance Exchange, based around the museum's current exhibit by artist Larry Rivers. Titled "History of Matzah: The Story of the Jews," the painting is a giant triptych that depicts colliding historical events, people and places--from Moses holding the Ten Commandments to an image of Spain's Alhambra.

"The painting is about collaging history and creating something larger out of incidents along the way," says Jordan Peimer, associate program director of the Skirball. "All of these things happened, and the artist has found a relationship between them. Liz tells stories, and she weaves them into something that exists almost like an object, the way that all of these images have been created into a larger image."

As a beginning point, Lerman made two preliminary trips to the museum to study the 450-square-foot painting's three panels: "Before the Diaspora," about biblical history; the second titled "European Jewry," about the dispersion of Jews throughout Europe; and "Immigration to America."

"It's a wide canvas of ideas and images," says Lerman by phone from her home in Silver Spring, Md. "[Rivers] plays a lot with history and contemporary life, and he plays with artistic forms in a way that I might in order to generate interesting juxtapositions."

Lerman says that in conceptualizing movement and narrative to take place in the space around the canvas, she also became intrigued with the Skirball Center itself. The piece--titled "Moving to Hallelujah"--will move through a number of the building's indoor and outdoor spaces, from a gallery that houses a reproduction of the torch from the Statue of Liberty to an outdoor courtyard whose centerpiece, an artist's rendering of a waterfall, has Lerman particularly transfixed.

Lerman went back to Maryland armed with ideas and photographs that she handed over to the five men and four women who make up Dance Exchange. Lerman, who is 51, says her dancers, ages 23 to 75, represent a variety of ethnic and religious backgrounds and life stages, which adds to their work as contributing members of the company. The dancers, she explains, develop a lot of the choreography.

"I edit and cajole and fix," she says. "I'm never sure exactly what they're going to pick up on. Sometimes I'm very specific. I say 'Get up; make a phrase based on this.' But with this particular project I was a little more open-ended because I was very curious to see how they would enter the painting and enter the ideas."

One dancer's interest in the image of Moses, who is depicted prominently in the painting, has led to Moses' inclusion as a kind of wandering spirit. "You have to imagine you're on a tour of the Skirball," Lerman explains, "and this Moses character might emerge down a hallway from you and then disappear, and then you'd see him close up dancing in another room."

Lerman says she developed a segment based on an image in the painting of Zionist proselytizer Theodore Herzl. "My grandfather was a Zionist," she says. "I quote from Herzl's diary and tell some stories about the first Zionist congress [to make it] come alive."

In Lerman's estimation, perhaps the most compelling panel of Rivers' work is the one that deals with the immigration experience, something that both encompasses and transcends the Jewish references in the painting. Lerman, who notes that she is the only practicing Jew in her company, says she asked her dancers to look at the particular events depicted in the painting from a more universal standpoint, describing its underlying themes by asking the questions "Where do we come from?" and "Where are we going?"

To help answer those questions and to add site-specificity to the work, Lerman gathered family stories from Skirball docents and volunteers. Listening to other people's stories, she says, "connects you to a world that matters to people, and I like to think the work we end up making also matters then."

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