When the news broke Tuesday morning, September 11, 2001, I was in a Liz Lerman Dance Exchange workshop at Detroit’s Hannan House senior center. In spite of the crisis, in an upper room at the center, four dancers and a half-dozen older African-American women were deeply engaged in a sweet and personal exchange of stories and movement that expressed their ideas about Paradise.
As we went around the circle, people conjured up sharply remembered images: peace of mind, a sunny window, a kiss in the morning, good work. Each story came with gestures. Lerman gathered the gestures and five minutes later we had a dance: thumbs came up and traveled in a circle, arms rose, fingers touched cheeks. Some of these women and these gestures were to appear in a performance four weeks later in Ann Arbor called “Hallelujah: In Praise of Paradise Lost and Found.”
Every half-hour, an emissary from downstairs arrived to update us on the news: the crash into the Pentagon, the collapse of the twin towers. With the group’s permission, Lerman held our focus on the project at hand. The women told stories about being forced in the 1960s to move from Paradise Valley, a vibrant African-American Detroit district obliterated by a new highway. Stories were told about the lively Black Bottom neighborhood and its 24-hour-a-day party: Billy Eckstine and Sara Vaughn, Hastings Street and Adams Street, the Joe Louis Chicken Shack and the 606 Barn. They talked about growing up black in Detroit in the 1940s, about being “raised on discrimination,” where “after the war we couldn’t get jobs, they took the light-skinned first, and you just did the best you could.”
Finally, one of the women looked directly at Lerman and said, “We wouldn’t share these stories with just anybody, you know. Not unless we feel comfortable. We trust these dance people.” All the people hugged and we went downstairs and out into a new world of trouble. But for a little while, Liz Lerman had us dancing in Paradise.
That is one of my sweetest memories from an odyssey that has so far taken me from Los Angeles to Burlington, Vermont, to the Twin Cities of Minnesota to southern Michigan. I had been following the Dance Exchange’s three-year Hallelujah project all over America so I could write something comprehensive about this remarkable arts initiative. I have been lucky enough to sit in on dozens of workshops with all kinds of people and watch them make art together about what they cherish in common. Then I have seen them take the stage, 100 of them in each performance, and give audiences the opportunity to see everyday people celebrate their lives in art.
In 1998, the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange began the Hallelujah initiative, creating new performance works with 15 communities all across the US. The initiative is intended to “celebrate edge-of-the-millennium America in all of its vividness, beauty, strength and quirkiness.”
Every piece offers up a feast of imagery and movement. The Burlington performance featured a trio of dancing dogs, a brace of same-sex couples lovingly reciting the Song of Solomon to each other, and a group of older women who have been playing cards together every Monday night for 40 years. The Los Angeles piece included the “Rabbis and Reverends,” faith leaders from congregations all over the city dancing and telling stories.
In Minneapolis, the performance took place on Father’s Day in the city’s Sculpture Garden, with 80 citizens of the Twin Cities, aged 8-80, performing dances they had created in and about the massive modern art works. In Michigan, a local gospel choir and a liturgical dance team smoked the stage with their ebullient style.
Early in the initiative, Liz Lerman and the company realized they wanted the projects to celebrate these communities, not point out their shortcomings and problems. “After projects in which we examined some of the painful issues in our shared histories,” says choreographer Lerman, “we became aware that people are ready to celebrate.” But all is not sunshine and roses. What the Dance Exchange has discovered is that celebration inevitably involves a commemoration of hard times endured and requires the telling of tales of suffering, disaster, and injustice.
In Praise of ...
In each community, the Dance Exchange has been meeting with presenters and community organizations to gather people from all walks of life. Together, they produce a series of evening-length performances that brings the professional dance company onstage with local people, some of whom have never danced before. Each project generates an array of new dance works called “In Praise of …,” intended to reflect the community’s issues, ideas and aspirations. Each event also features a sampling of work from previous Hallelujahs, threading all the projects together, and showcases the Dance Exchange as professional artists in a piece from their own repertoire.
Each of these community projects calls for years of expert organizing, teaching, workshop leadership, co-creation, staging, and intense interaction among people and groups of all kinds. Countless workshops, dinners, coffees, conversations, soul-searches, and late-night bull sessions produce a focus for each new Hallelujah. The trick, say Lerman and the company members, is to “keep the funnel open” as long as possible, so that many people, issues, and ideas can be included. For instance, the Vermont project, “In Praise of Harmony in the Midst of Change,” required the Dance Exchange to make periodic visits over four years, getting acquainted with the people of Burlington, St. Albans, Montpelier, and Vergennes, gaining their trust and calling forth their voices, hopes, and dreams—and their willingness to dance in public.
The hallmark of this work is the appearance on stage of so many first-time performers. Liz Lerman has always felt “dance is for everybody,” and is well known for creating and nurturing a dance company comprising people of all ages and physical ability. She does not see this precept as an excuse for lax performance standards, but rather as an opportunity for re-imagining what excellence is. Turn the dance hierarchy on its side, she says, and “the cutting edge is enormous. There is this extraordinary spectrum of artistic activity that we can live along.” That means Lerman has developed a method for inclusion that can put any number of first-time performers on the stage with the company, ask the best of everyone, and craft a work of balance and beauty — all the more beautiful for its incorporation of many body types, energy levels, physical capabilities, emotional sensibilities, life stories, and viewpoints.
At the end of each Hallelujah residency, the participants gather for a farewell party, and every time their joy is palpable. The dancers and the local performers wind up in tears in each other’s arms, celebrating the completion of something difficult, unique, and satisfying. Even after the company leaves town, Hallelujah is still doing its work. There is always something interesting left behind.
The Los Angeles piece built a lasting bridge between religious communities and sparked a close friendship between Reverend Noriaki Ito of Higashi Hongwanji Temple in Little Tokyo and Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom Temple in the San Fernando Valley.
In Tucson, Daniel Preston, medicine man of the Tohono O’odham nation, claims that the prayerful force of the performance brought rain to the desert after a three-month drought. In Minneapolis, part of Hallelujah had a new life when some of the performers took their dance to the Parade of Arts, celebrating a new greenbelt stretching citywide from the Mississippi River to the Chain of Lakes. In Vermont, Hallelujah participants were inspired to regenerate a local art council. And at every site there are new partnerships among artists, social-service agencies, schools, churches, and art spaces.
Hallelujah finishes this summer with a bang—a finale at the University of Maryland to which all past participants are invited. Expected to attend are Folklorico dancers and a teen mariachi band from Arizona; the Border Collies that performed in Massachusetts; Taiko drummers and Navajo flutists accompanying the Buddhist obun dance circle from California; the card players from Vermont; Hmong teen dancers from Minnesota; the Gwen Wyatt Chorale from Los Angeles; and Rudy Hawkins’ Choir from Detroit. These and other Hallelujah alumni will collaborate on a final performance piece. The multiweek event will also include a National Teen Dance Institute, workshops for people of all levels of dance experience, and videos of all 15 Hallelujahs.
This nationwide artwork is unique in its breadth and depth. Thousands of people created Hallelujah’s enormous tapestry, and each person contributed an intensely personal moment — a story, a gesture, a tangible fragment of life. Hallelujahs structure proved both durable and flexible, strong and pliable enough to survive and embrace a national disaster like 9/11 and bring art directly into the lives of so many.