Dance Exchange founder and MacArthur fellow to teach, launch Ensemble Lab
Editor's note: This story is being highlighted in ASU Now's year in review. To read more top stories from 2016, click here.
Liz Lerman — choreographer, author, educator and 2002 MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellowship recipient — will join the faculty of Arizona State University at the beginning of the spring semester.
Widely recognized as an important influence in the worlds of dance, arts-based community engagement and cross-disciplinary collaboration, Lerman will assume a unique position as Institute Professor to lead programs and courses that span disciplines within and beyond ASU’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts.
“When I arrived at ASU, President Crow challenged me to recruit a leading artist and public intellectual to the Institute. I wanted to bring to ASU someone who has transformed how artists work in the world — whose life’s work is a testimony to everything we believe the Herberger Institute stands for — artistry and scholarship that is fully engaged in public life and open to new techniques, new partners and new spaces for creative work. I immediately thought of Liz — perhaps the most creative, generative and generous artist working in America,” said Steven J. Tepper, dean of the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts.
“My appointment here, as much as it’s about the art, it’s also about the university itself and its interest right now in multidisciplinary practice and its relationship to the community on the whole,” said Lerman, citing her enthusiasm for Tepper’s vision that design and the arts are critical resources for transforming society at every level. “This is an incredible opportunity to leverage the talent of this great university to advance what has always been for me the intersection of artistic practice for the stage with broader civic purposes.”
As a young artist based in Washington, D.C., Lerman (shown in the top photo by Lise Metzger) founded the Dance Exchange in 1976. She cultivated its multigenerational ensemble into a leading influence in contemporary dance until 2011, when she began an independent phase of her career, including a recent residency at Harvard University.
Working with collaborators from fields as diverse as genomics, to religion, to physics, her work has won critical and scholarly attention and has included an examination of human-rights law commissioned for the Harvard Law School; a dance about origins launched in the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), and later performed at ASU Gammage; nine short performances about the defense budget; and innovative residencies and collaborations that span nursing homes and medical schools to the National Academy of Sciences and the London Dance Umbrella.
Her Shipyard Project engaged hundreds of local citizens to reflect on the historic and controversial shipyard in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and was one of many community-based endeavors in which she demonstrated the role of art in fostering civic dialogue and promoting social capital.
Recently, Lerman debuted "Healing Wars," a theatrical dance about the role of healers tasked with treating the physical and psychological trauma of war.
“You have to ask yourself, ‘What makes something good at a children’s hospital? What makes it good when it’s on stage? What makes it good in whatever environment you’re in?’ ” asked Lerman. “There’s permeability between studio art and community art. Sometimes you’re in both worlds. That seems to me more true of how life is.”
At ASU’s Herberger Institute, Lerman will create a cooperative of artists, researchers and civic leaders in a lab-like environment to experiment with methods and techniques for broad social impact. Working across disciplinary lines and schools, her Ensemble Lab will examine the role of artists in society, expand artists’ professional opportunities, and prepare artists to be both imaginative innovators and civic partners.
Lerman will integrate her widely recognized Critical Response Process — a four-step system for giving and receiving feedback on artistic works in progress — into “Animating Research,” a course she will teach during her inaugural semester. The course will link Herberger Institute students to an array of ASU research projects in ways that will enable artists to refine their personal voice while also translating ideas, statistics and other research into new forms.
“When we think about the role of the artist in society, a central theme of Liz’s work at ASU will focus on equity, inclusion and the need to embrace and advance all creative voices in America,” Tepper said. “Liz’s Ensemble Lab will allow us to experiment and reinvent the 21st-century design and arts school so that we are tapping into and helping to advance the creativity inherent in our diverse culture and society.”
“ASU is giving me a platform to extend my artistic explorations and a chance to work alongside great faculty and students, all of us embarked on the mission of expanding the role of artists in society,” Lerman said. “Personal expression matters: It has been the central focus of the arts in the 20th century. But now it’s important to take the skills and priorities developed through the arts into the wider world. The Herberger Institute has already embarked on that work. I am excited to be a part of advancing it into the future.”
Top photo by Lise Metzger; video by Ken Fagan/ASU Now