It's interesting, then, that Liz Lerman's Hallelujah Project, created through a two-year odyssey of extended residencies and workshops in 18 cities across the country, found its beginning in a work of lamentation. The piece visits Raleigh this weekend, at North Carolina State's Stewart Theatre.
Starting with a groundbreaking two-year residency in the shipyards of Portsmouth, N.H., Lerman's group has created dance by moving into a community and learning its joys and concerns firsthand. The art that's come out of these projects speaks with authenticity to the hosts' hometown truths.
In 1997, Lerman's company had just completed Shehechianu, a dance about the effects of personal and group trauma on social history and identity. "It was grim," Lerman says. But in a panel discussion after the final performance, a woman from the audience spoke up. "'I'm tired of holding my breath, waiting to celebrate until everything is OK. I'm going to start now,'" Lerman recalls her saying. "That really was the turning point for me."
The master choreographer resolved to look for expressions of joy--ways by which people are able to connect somehow to something positive. After two years of planning, Lerman and the members of her Dance Exchange emerged from the studio and started asking people what they found to praise in their lives.
It was not the easiest work to do, personally or professionally. "Praise was a whole new idea to me," Lerman says. "I think I'm a generous person, but the idea of praising a deity is something that still doesn't come naturally to me."
She also faced some resistance from patrons unconvinced about the gravitas--or the postmodernity--of joy. "We had several high-placed art people say, 'Come back to us when this project's over with, because it's too do-goody for us.'" Lerman says. "There's the perception that anything about joy must be too feel-good for it to be really good art."
But that's not been Lerman's experience with the Hallelujah Project, a work which evokes a full range of emotions. "What invariably comes up for people, right from the get-go, are those elements from the other side," she says. "You can't have one without the other."
Think about it. Gratitude implies deliverance: relief after pain, love after loneliness, joy at the end of depression or loss. True joy, true praise is not an easy or a cheap emotion. It's a response to something profound.
"The very first time we tested the idea we were in Memphis," Lerman recalls. "And this little kid said, 'My mom has married her boyfriend.' Of course you could hear the joy in that. But you could also hear what else was going on underneath--what kind of tension he was living in before the marriage. Almost all of the 'Hallelujahs' have allowed people to live in a spectrum of emotions."
Although they were created in different places, the dances share common themes: constancy in the midst of change, fertile fields, beauty and disorder, paradise lost and found.
The project's final residencies are now culminating in performances in four cities in North Carolina. Asheboro's residency came to a close last weekend with a work in praise of stone and spirit. The piece created in Boone praises "mountain mixes," the volatile combination of mountain folkways and valley influences in a performance on April 27 at Appalachian State University. Greensboro's yet-untitled work debuts on June 29--a collaboration between Native Americans and relocated refugees from Afghanistan, the Sudan, Ghana and Kosovo. That performance is the last before a summarizing, nationwide project "festival" in July in College Park, Md.
Raleigh's contribution is an addition to an existing work, "In Praise of Animals and Their Humans," a collaboration with local animal lovers, pet owners, and folks from N.C. State's School of Veterinary Medicine and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Why praise animals? Because domestication goes both ways, says Michele Pearson, Lerman's North Carolina project director. "That's the key to me. What is it that animals can elicit in people that often is hard for people to elicit in other people?"
She spins the tale of an old man who is "just nasty" to people. "But when he holds that cat, and pets it and talks to it in a sweet little whisper voice, I see my grandfather differently," Pearson says. "I can talk to him when he's holding Sam Cat in a way I can't when he's not."
Before they start their summer tour of Chicago, Berlin, St. Louis or Rio de Janeiro, you can catch them this weekend in Durham. They're one of the country's premier tap dance groups. They're also your children: Thirty kids from all over the area, ranging in age from 6 to 18.
And boy, can they dance.
Perhaps it's the relative lack of local show dates that keeps the North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble below the radar on the regional scene. Thankfully, they don't have the same problem at national festivals devoted to that terpsichorean mix of percussion, jazz and movement. In recent years, their annual appearances at the St. Louis Tap Festival and the Chicago Human Rhythm Project have led to invitations abroad--Helsinki, Vienna, repeat trips to Rio, Russia, and this summer, Berlin. The group is now actively looking into professional management to take their show even further on the road.
Catch them while you can--with guest host Cholly Atkins of Motown fame--at the Carolina Theater, April 20 at 7 p.m., and April 21 at 2 p.m.
Poet Jaki Shelton Green didn't set out to write a poem about breast cancer. "It was just a poem that literally came to her in the middle of the night," says Carol Childs, choreographer for 2 Near the Edge. "She kept getting up all night long, and it just kept coming. Then a friend of hers who had had breast cancer read it, and felt strongly that that's what it's about."
That long night grew into a collaboration between Green, Childs and L. D. Burris, the second member of the dance group's choreography team. The result is Bring Me Your Breasts, a work honoring cancer survivors and victims, which premieres Saturday afternoon at the new Doris Duke Center in Duke Gardens on the university's West Campus.
Starting from a seed dance in the Duke dance program's December concert, the piece has expanded into what Childs calls a work about "what breasts are to us as women and what role they play in our lives."
John Hanks provides the music, while dancers Amy Eason, Valarie Samulski, Jessi Knight Walker and Maria Walsh-Laudati join Burris and Childs onstage.