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Cumulative Dialogue

Liz Lerman’s Dance Exchange’s Hallelujah in Southeastern Michigan


From 1999 through 2002, Liz Lerman Dance Exchange conducted Hallelujah, an unprecedented initiative in community-based artmaking and contemporary dance that directly engaged over 1000 participants in 15 U.S. communities from Deer Isle, Maine to Los Angeles, California. At each site, spurred by the starting questions “What are you in praise of?” and “What can we join together in praise of?” Liz Lerman and company members collaborated with community members to create a unique dance/theater work.

Among the entities taking particular interest in the project was the Animating Democracy Initiative (ADI) a program administered by Americans for the Arts with major funding from the Ford Foundation. ADI supports projects that explore the potential for the arts to promote civic dialogue, that is, opportunities for individuals and groups to come together and have meaningful exchange about issues of importance to society. Through a grant from ADI, Liz Lerman Dance Exchange was able to document Hallelujah from the standpoint of its civic significance and the many forms of dialogue that emerged along its three year journey.

The following narrative, chronicles the September/October 2001 Hallelujah hosted by the University Musical Society (UMS) which engaged participants in both Ann Arbor and Detroit, offers some answers. It is included in the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange as an example of how the Dance Exchange work in communities and collaborates with other artist and institutions.

Laying the Groundwork
The Michigan Hallelujah developed in a series of gradual stages. A preliminary visit to the Ann Arbor campus of the University of Michigan in fall of 1999 afforded Liz Lerman a chance to meet with potential campus and community partners. On the first visit, the process of finding a theme for the Michigan Hallelujah was already beginning. For this purpose, Liz used a story-circle format, one manifestation of the “Form a circle” Foundation. This focused on the questions “What do you miss and what do you wish for?” which in turn became the basis of a Build-a-Phrase dance performed around the table. Among other effects, Liz discovered that this question draws out people to discuss aspects of the places where they live in vital and terms.

A year later the entire company conducted a pilot project culminating in a repertory concert at the Detroit Music Hall that included Still Crossing, a dance originally created for the 1986 Statue of Liberty Centennial in which community members learn pre-set choreography. Though participants are not engaged in developing the movement for this dance, the Dance Exchange does use dialogue structures in teaching it: encouraged to gather with people they don’t know, participants circle into small groups and discuss their family histories related to immigration or migration. The artistic purpose is to help performers connect to movement -- based in the symbolism of the Statue of Liberty -- which conveys a narrative about crossing and transition; but the question of how our ancestors came to be in this country or in a particular region generally gets at some very resonant themes that help people see differences and commonalities with honesty and compassion, and that also get people to view their experiences in relation to larger issues. The Still Crossing rehearsal process also calls on participants to pair off for mutual coaching of the movement, and when the participation crosses generational lines and engages people with widely varying levels of dance training and stage experience, as it did in Detroit, this coaching process cultivates skills for critique and collaboration. (See Liz Lerman’s essay: Values for Dance Making and Methods for Critique for a description of the mutual coaching process.)

The Still Crossing residency engaged participants in both Detroit and Ann Arbor, thus initiating a number of the partnerships that would be central when the full Hallelujah project came to fruition in September and October of 2001. As was typical in the large scale Hallelujah projects, several visits by smaller teams of Dance Exchange artists paved the way to that outcome. The conscious decision to bring participants together from the disparate environments of Ann Arbor and Detroit signaled a variety of challenges and possibilities for dialogue within the project. It would not simply be a matter of bridging the geographical gap of 40 miles that separates the two cities. It meant that the project would seek to overcome a variety of perceptual barriers about privilege and poverty, academic and industrial economies, ivory-tower isolation and urban blight. Some participants, like Detroit-raised students now attending the University in Ann Arbor, would be well-versed in crossing these boundaries; others, from both cities, would be making the physical and figurative trip for the first time. As these dynamics emerged in the lead-up to the final residency, we were tentatively titling the planned performance work as “In Praise of Boundaries Kept and Crossed.”

The Community Residency
By the start of the final residency period on September 10, 2001, several factors were in place. We were sustaining the presenter’s intention to create a project that would bring together participants from both Ann Arbor and Detroit. We had established several partnerships that would be central to the project, chief among them a collaboration with gospel music composer, arranger, choir director Dr. Rudy Hawkins and his Detroit-based chorus. In discussions with Dr. Hawkins during planning visits we arrived at the theme of this Hallelujah “In Praise of Paradise Lost and Found,” inspired by the history of Paradise Valley, an African American neighborhood and entertainment district that was flattened in the 1960s by highway construction designed to speed access between Detroit’s downtown and the suburbs. This was to be paralleled by plotlines from Milton’s Paradise Lost, telling the story of Lucifer’s fall from heaven and the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden.

The specifics of who was participating pointed to additional differences that might be bridged by dialogue. Dance majors from the UM dance department would share the stage with liturgical dancers based in Detroit, and that factor combined with the orientations of the two chief collaborators (Liz Lerman as post-modernist and Rudy Hawkins as gospel practitioner) suggested differences not only in aesthetics and technique but in convictions about the very purposes of art. Moreover with the destruction of Paradise Valley as the subject of the work to be created, the issues of urban displacement and preservation, racial and economic power disparities suggested that we would have some substantial civic content to dialogue about. And the plan to parallel events in Detroit history that had occurred within living memory with the religious/epic/mythic story of the fall from Eden meant at least that a kind of dialogue between stories would be happening inside the choreographed work.

The final residency started on September 10. The history-changing events of the following day would throw all of these elements into question and ultimately add an entirely new layer of civic content and social engagement to the project and challenged the founding premise of the Hallelujah project as a whole.

When Liz Lerman first conceived of Hallelujah she described a celebration that would not deny the inequities, injustices, or sufferings of human existence. Rather the project would channel the human need for celebration in spite of or in counteraction to these circumstances. Hallelujah would be “like the party after you’ve come through a hard time,” or , as described in early grant proposals “a multi-dimensional artistic expression combining celebration, praise, and recognition of hard times endured.”

When we used this language, it tended to be with reference to the past. No one particularly anticipated that Hallelujah might accompany us into such a period of tribulation as that which commenced on September 11. Sustaining the spirit of celebration in the piece while still offering a meaningful observation of the 9/11 attacks was the ultimate challenge of Hallelujah’s founding concept.

On the morning of September 11, Liz and a small team of company artists were at a community site, Hannan House, a community center for senior adults in Detroit. The team first heard the news of airliners crashing into the World Trade Center and Pentagon from a radio that was playing in the lobby. Though the team questioned whether participants would be interested in taking a workshop under such circumstances, several people arrived, including a few veterans of the earlier Still Crossing residency. They were eager to go ahead, and so the workshop began. Liz introduced the workshop with words to this effect: “When something like this happens, you will always remember where you were when you got the news. This is where I want to be. I’m grateful to be here with you right now and to be working together.”

Over the next couple of days, we were taking the first steps to building the choreographic content of the Michigan Hallelujah. At each workshop the company offered ways for people to channel the thoughts and feeling they were experiencing in the aftermath of the attack. In one case, participants shared large sheets of paper on which they simply wrote the questions that were in their minds. These questions were later read as a text to accompany movement developed during the workshop. In the coming weeks, people often cited the workshops for how they helped them get through their concerns and anxieties (some were college students separated from their families for the first time), or served as a refuge during a difficult period.

Whether the activities that the Dance Exchange facilitated in the immediate aftermath of September 11 constituted a civic dialogue is an interesting question. Within a day of the attacks, anyone on the UM campus could observe a variety of responses to the question of what action the U.S. should take as flag-waving mingled with demonstrations against the prospect of military intervention in the Middle East. But in the workshops we chose not to directly address this particular controversy. The idea of focusing on questions as the only required response in a time of confusion and shaken faith, was clearly comforting for many participants, and writing meant that people were sometimes willing to express ideas that might be literally “unspeakable” at that point. The device of inviting participants to write down their questions in a format where they could all be seen together constituted dialogue inasmuch as a wide range of responses (personal, political, existential) could coexist side by side. In the interest of the project it was probably the best thing to do: it afforded an outlet, it allowed differing viewpoints to be revealed without setting them into an antagonistic framework, it generated energy and artistic content that would be harnessed in the project itself. But it did not directly engage a discussion of how our country or our leaders should respond to this crisis, which would have been the logical path if civic dialogue on issues of controversy had been the primary goal of the community engagement. (See the essay, The Art of the Question for theory and examples of how the Dance Exchange uses questions in its work.)

While all this was happening, the Dance Exchange team was having a series of dialogues with its chief collaborators and our presenter to determine how the events of September 11 might be reflected in the project. It was difficult to anticipate what the emotional climate would be like a month later when the project was set to take the stage, and the team discussed a range of options: cancel the performance dimension of the residency altogether (UMS had cancelled several attractions in the days immediately following the attack); change the planned content of the performance from the celebratory spirit of Hallelujah to something in a memorial vein; or stay with the planned scenario but incorporate observance and reflection on the events of 9/11 in the performance. With the work already taking place – of necessity – to address the events of 9/11 and its aftermath in the participant workshops, and with the aptness of the “Paradise Lost and Found” theme, the collaborators ultimately settled on this last option.

Liz Lerman and the leadership of UMS agreed on a additional plan to observe the events of 9/11. The idea was to gather a group of faith leaders, representing several different religions and denominations, who would appear on stage during the first half of the concert (before “In Praise of Paradise Lost and Found”) to offer thoughts and teachings that had been helpful to them in the aftermath of the terrorist incident. This would be the basis of a Build-a-Phrase structure in which a dance would be created with the participation of the audience in the theater. UMS President Ken Fischer assumed the task of identifying and recruiting these faith leaders as a kind of personal mission, and Liz agreed to make personal visits to each of them in order to prepare them for a performance that would essentially be impossible to rehearse.

So, in tandem with the intent to reflect the events of 9/11, the residency continued to move forward in developing the Paradise Valley and Paradise Lost plotlines, music, and choreography. As the collaboration intensified, differences of culture, aesthetics and faith entailed in a collaboration between he Dance Exchange and Rudy Hawkins gradually emerged. Liz Lerman discussed these in an article for the Hallelujah/USA companion book. (See Essay Walking the Thin Border: Some Thoughts on Art and Faith for the full text.)

…we had plenty of disagreement on the Michigan Hallelujah. For starters, we had different ideas about the Bible. Once Rudy and I had settled on the theme of paradise, I knew we would be heading back to the Garden of Eden, where the Dance Exchange had already ventured in our Jacob’s Pillow Hallelujah. We worked both from biblical scripture and from Milton’s Paradise Lost. As soon as we were rehearsing, I asked Rudy to write a song in which Adam and Eve would fight over what to take in their suitcases when they are banished from the Garden. At that suggestion, several of the singers looked at me in dismayed exasperation and said “What suitcases? What argument? They messed up and they have to leave. Period.” This led us to an insightful, invigorating conversation about biblical interpretation, a conversation that also underscored ideas about artistic interpretation as well. It was the first of many deep encounters that our two groups would have over religion and art, one where I was particularly struck by how close faith values and aesthetic values can be.

As Liz relates, the collaboration between the Dance Exchange and the Rudy Hawkins forces was broached at a critical juncture by a very intentional dialogue in which members of both groups took part. In an atmosphere of mutual respect the participants sat in a circle and spoke in very personal terms about their connections to faith and artistry and how they saw them linked. They expressed religious viewpoints or candidly acknowledged their secular orientations. Everyone reaffirmed their desire to work together and learn from the experience. It seemed to make a positive contribution to what was ultimately a positive collaboration, in which the parties – while holding their own turf in many senses – found common ground and lots of opportunities to blur their aesthetics.

But exposed to a litmus test for civic dialogue, the encounter might have been subject to some questions. Was it a limitation that it was instigated by Liz Lerman, who largely served as both a key stakeholder and as facilitator? And was the dialogue dictated by the cultural norms of the Dance Exchange rather than those of the Hawkins group, or in some neutral position between the two? And did the circle include everyone who could enlighten the sense of conflicting values? In an ambitious moment, the team speculated about an open rehearsal that would allow participants to bring their families and include some kind of broader response and dialogue about the way that biblical figures and stories were treated in the piece. But schedule and capacity limitations prevented this attempt.

The community-engaged dimension of the project moved forward. In the midst of all of the specifics of theme, community, and unexpected events exerting their power on the project, some aspects of the process were advancing according to the principles of Dance Exchange business-as-usual, principles which in fact provided welcome grounding. So the logistics and mechanics of this dimension mirrored the way we typically developed a large-scale Hallelujah, but shaped and influenced by the challenges we encountered in this particular site.

As at other sites, we initiated the process with home turf workshops, exemplifying the foundational principle “Start where people are at home.”: The theory here is to encounter the various subgroups engaged in the project at a location that is a home space or at least a familiar place to them, before bringing them to an unfamiliar setting or attempting to engage them in an interaction with another group. (See Liz Lerman’s essay Authentic Respect and Why Turf Matters for more on this idea.) In Michigan, the initial week focused on workshops and developmental rehearsals that engaged discrete groups. We began work with students in the UMS dance department, with an “all come” group that gathered people from other campus populations and the Ann Arbor community at large. In parallel, sometimes simultaneous trips to Detroit we had home turf workshops with the Liturgical Dance Collective, dance students from Marygrove College, seniors at Hannan House, and Wanans Academy for the Performing Arts.

Rehearsals at this early stage have a multifaceted agenda: To introduce our tools; to begin generating choreographic content and experiment with thematic ideas; to build ensemble values; to teach and practice aspects of the choreography that are predetermined; to allow us to get to know the participants, their strengths and the degree of performance and other responsibility they might be capable of carrying. Aspects of dialogue are evident in every aspect of this multidimensional agenda, but usually as a means of facilitating a goal rather than as a goal in itself. This multidimensional agenda designates yet another reason for working with groups on their own turf: it affords us the ability to layer a host of functions and introduce a range of ideas before we begin to deal with inter-group dynamics. In a project of Michigan’s scale and geographic stretch, the process of building from home turf to larger blended group rehearsals was incremental.

By the second weekend of the residency we had begun drawing together multiple groups, though we were still maintaining separate focus points in Ann Arbor and Detroit. For instance, in Ann Arbor by this point we had begun bringing the all come and student casts together for certain rehearsals. On a Saturday halfway through the residency, we finally drew the entire cast, both Ann Arbor and Detroit participants, together at a single site, Marygrove College in Detroit. At this rehearsal, in a fashion very typical for Dance Exchange , several sub-rehearsals were happening simultaneously for most of the afternoon, and the cast was configuring and reconfiguring in a variety of ways: participants were still relating in their subgroups of origin rehearsing material that they had already been developing; two “cameo” performers, women in their 80s who had been nightclub dancers in Paradise Valley during its heyday were introduced into the project; Dance Exchange members and choir soloists were continuing to refine material that was under development; participants were rehearsing choreography that they had learned on their own turf, now alongside of people they were encountering for the first time who had learned the material at their home sites; participants watched other groups perform material that they had developed; and they gathered in a circle to learn names and hear about where the groups had come from.

It is worth noting that at this point that the primary agenda of the day is artistic: half-way through the residency we are at the point in the project when we “flip the funnel,” that is, transition from freewheeling experimentation and development of potential material to the process of refining and condensing the actual content of the performance. So even as the casting/personnel configuration is evolving so are the functions of the gatherings.

During the concluding two weeks of the residency, groups would continue to rehearse on their own and in smaller configurations, but as the performance approached full cast rehearsals became the norm. At this point, as is typical, dialogue as an overt activity facilitated by Dance Exchange artists receives less emphasis, as open discussion about possibility decreases and the role of the lead artists as the final arbiters of the content assumes more importance. At the same time, Dance Exchange artists become more focused on their own performances; we tell participants to expect the fact that the artists will be less accessible to them. If there is to be dialogue as a way of bringing the project to fruition, the participants themselves need to take more responsibility for making it happen.

The Performance On the night of the performance on October 6, 2001, the two key threads of the project came to culmination:
  • In the first half of the concert, a gathering of nine faith leaders, representing several different religions and denominations, assembled to offer thoughts and teachings that had been helpful to them in the aftermath of the terrorist incident. These ranged from a Buddhist teacher who cited the story of one of the Buddha’s incarnations (as a ruthless pirate) to suggest that even the terrorists are worthy of compassion, to an African American Methodist minister who reminded us that our sense of safety is relative, stating that African Americans have never really felt safe. These faith leaders met with Dance Exchange artists in advance and appeared on stage, where Liz and Associate Artistic Director Peter DiMuro taught a dance for the audience to perform at their seats. In the style of Build-A-Phrase the movements of the dance were linked to the comments and stories of the faith leaders.
  • The new work, “In Praise of Paradise Lost and Found,” which occupied the second half of the concert. The piece combined the originally-planned threads of Paradise Lost and Paradise Valley. At the end of the work, after a celebratory dance including almost all of the 80 community cast members assembled for this project, Martha Wittman tells a final story: “This is a story I don’t like much, because it’s painful. But sometimes memory is helpful in times of trouble,” and she goes on to describe the events of September 11 as if from the distant past, speaking of a beautiful fall day and planes striking a city’s two tallest buildings. At this point the cast is formed in a tight mass to one side of the stage and they begin slowly to perform the dance taught to the audience in the first half of the performance: in this moment the audience witnessed on stage the very dance that they felt in their bodies an hour before. The performance ends with the cast leaving the stage one by one as Rudy Hawkins himself sings the spiritual, “Heaven, Heaven.”

Several aspects of this performance experience could be described as dialogic, given a broad definition of that term: While the faith leaders did not directly engage in a public dialogue in terms of a developed exchange of ideas, the nature of the presentation they made could be viewed as manifesting a dialogue of ideas. Their varied statements created not a consensus, but a multi-voiced concert in which a number of perspectives co-existed. At a time when political rhetoric and media commentary were dichotomizing the implications of September 11 along the lines of good vs. evil or security vs. vulnerability, the tenor of the commentary was dialogic in that it tended away from polarization and toward a spectrum of reaction. For an audience member, the experience functioned as an unexpected dialogue with the stage deepened by the interactive nature of the Build-a-Phrase structure. Having the ideas of the faith leaders woven into a dance created a unified experience – which everyone present could partake in – that crystallized this spectrum. Several different possibilities for perceiving and understanding an incident which often seemed incomprehensible could co-exist in one room, one moment, one person’s experience.

There was an implied dialogue between the two halves of the program: One framed as a direct and overt reaction to September 11, the other more oblique, layered, and poetic. To have “In Praise of Paradise Lost and Found” end with the very dance created that evening, now performed by the cast on stage rather by than the audience, and to have the audience become beholders of what they had helped to make, was the completion of a rich dialogic circle between stage and audience, documentary and mythic events, words and movements, action and witness.

The Response

Reactions to the elements of the evening were wide-ranging, and some of them contradict interpretation we are offering here. Critic Tara Zahra, writing for the website Dance Insider, interpreted the contribution of the faith leaders and the invitation for the audience to participate as simplification and reduction of a complex situation, creating therapy through art and coercing patriotic unity through participation. (This was in spite of the fact that none of the speakers mentioned nationalist sentiments, and that in leading the participatory moment Liz clearly offered members of the audience the option of not participating):

There is a difference between representing forms of spirituality or religious themes on stage and asking the audience to participate in these stories, to embrace them as a therapeutic balm for deeply political wounds…[I]ncluding representatives from nine different faiths… effectively universalized spirituality itself: there was no one on stage to represent non-religious ways of understanding or coping with the September 11 attacks… by offering only religion, the “invocation” universalized and depoliticized the profoundly political moment we find ourselves in. This was art which reinforced the sentiments we have seen on talk shows … the stuff we can all “agree” upon and share – rather than art that might challenge us to thin about the events of recent weeks in new ways…[T]o opt out participating seemed almost impossible in the midst of Saturday night’s pious mobilization of sentiment… [to opt out seemed] an act of treason...a forbidden expression of cynicism, a failure to grieve.

Zahra’s review contained no mention of the second half of the performance.

On the other hand, Linda Burnham, writing for API Online/Community Arts Network, had a decidedly different perspective (informed, it should be noted, by long observation of the Hallelujah process in addition attendance at the Michigan performance). She emphasized the ultimate complexity of the performance’s layered message and its rejection of simple answers:

“Postmodernism is the … demonstration that all our answers are simply constructs, that there is no truth, there are only versions of it … That is why Liz Lerman's inclusion of organized religion in her patently postmodernist work is so interesting. If modern art is the Answer, then postmodern art is the neverending Question. From the first moment of the first workshop to the last gesture on the stage, Lerman is shattering absolute truth … she takes a bit of a true story here and a bit of natural gesture there and strings them together in a phrase that retains the illusion of narrative, but is actually representative of nothing but paradox…. Its power resides in its illustration of the passionate human search for an answer that will never come, for a Paradise we will never find. As each person on the stage dances his or her own search, they are united in the struggle, beautiful in its tragedy.”

Neither Zahra not Burnham directly references dialogue as a concept. But it is likely that Zahra would say that the effects of the performance were quite the opposite of dialogue, bordering on propaganda; and that Burnham finds the dialogue values of multi-partiality and the free flow of meaning deeply embedded in the postmodern aesthetic demonstrated in the Michigan Hallelujah.

The audience reaction, captured by the Arts of Citizenship team in a survey, offered another layer of response to the performance. When asked to describe what the performance was about, many respondents named such values as unity, crossing boundaries, the power of the collective, “celebrating difference and appreciating commonalities.” The reaction was notable to the degree that people perceived the performance to be about a harmonious vision of community, reflecting diversity and difference, but not particularly manifesting dialogue. Those choosing to reflect on the audience participation were uniformly positive in their comments.

If we reflect on the idea that the primary community engaged in the dialogue dimensions of a Hallelujah project was the community that formed to create the performance, might consider the impact and response to the experience among this community. Aspects of this response were captured in a group reflection exercise that took place between the dress rehearsal and performance on the final day of the rehearsal. Participants formed groups of five to seven people and responded to questions while one person wrote them up on a large sheet of paper. While no one addressed the idea of dialogue directly, many of the comments clearly addressed the project’s effects in building connections within and between groups. In response to the question “What was a highlight of this experience?” answers included,
  • “Working with different groups of people.”
  • “Our own choreography shows up throughout. Choreographing with someone from a different group.”
  • “The excitement of the first Saturday Detroit rehearsal when everyone came together for the first time. Everyone worked really hard despite the chaos and the groups worked really well together.”
  • “All different parts and groups come together and integrate toward the end. Coming from different backgrounds, coming together. Meeting people from different places.”

Other participants specifically cited the importance of meaning in the content of the dance, suggesting some of the ways in which the artistic content becomes a shared language or a common ground for the participants:
  • “The fact that every movement has meaning to somebody here and isn’t just a random step. Makes the performance much more interesting and meaningful.”
  • “How movement is arrived at through gesture. It is very human.”

Still other comments pointed to some of the specific dialogue-related techniques or the principles of the Critical Response Process. Some of these were in response to the question “What have we learned?”:
  • “The circles every day.”
  • “Try to take something special from each person involved.”
  • “How to affirm other and show they are appreciated.”
  • “Being observant of people when they tell their stories: use of gestures.”

In summary, dialogue weaves through the process of a major residency in organic ways related to the subject of the work in question, to the particulars of the groups and individuals engaged as participants, and to events occurring in the wider world beyond the project. At the same time a decided trajectory of dialogue can be mapped, related to the path of creating an artistic work that reflects and incorporates a community of participants.