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The Art of the Question


This article was excerpted and adapted from Liz Lerman Dance Exchange: An Aesthetic of Inquiry, an Ethos of Dialogue. This project report was an outcome of the Dance Exchange’s three-year Dialogue Audit project, supported as part of Animating Democracy Initiative, a program of administered by Americans For the Arts with major funding from the Ford Foundation.
“Good questions outrank easy answers,” said economist Paul Samuelson. The work of Liz Lerman Dance Exchange reflects a similar philosophy, which emerges in a variety of ways. To name a few examples, we often discuss our mission as an ongoing exploration into four questions: “Who gets to dance?” “What is the dance about?” “Where is it happening?” and “Why does it matter?” Inquiry is central to Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process, where artist and responders are called upon to form questions thoughtfully and to ask a question before stating an opinion. In teaching situations, Dance Exchange artists are much less likely to dictate the significance of a practice than to ask participants the question “What did you observe?” and allow the ensuing discussion to enlighten the experience.

The spirit of inquiry also plays a part in the Dance Exchange’s aesthetic outlook. In the company’s stage work, questions are often posed directly to the audience. The question mark in the title of Liz Lerman’s The Good Jew? (premiered in 1992) captured the inquisitive, even inquisitional, structure of that piece which took the form of legal trial. A section of Hallelujah: In Praise of Ordinary Prophets, developed with the community of Tucson, Arizona, was built around the question “How many stories are in a legend?”

Questions are one of the Dance Exchange’s core tools for creating art through community engagement. A decade in the company’s history can be charted according its major artistic projects and the questions they explored in their community encounters: Safe House/Still Looking (1993-95) sought the answers to “When have you felt unsafe?” and “When have you given help or shelter to someone else?” The stage work Shehechianu and its companion community initiative, The Sustanence Project (1995-97) asked “What sustains you in times of trouble?” Hallelujah (1999-2002) started with “What are you in praise of? What can we join together in praise of?” and refined a series of questions as it traveled to its fifteen sites around the country, including:

What is a little hallelujah in your life?
What do you miss and what do you wish for?
When did you cross a boundary and who did you bring with you?
When was a time when you met your beloved?
When have you found beauty and disorder in the same moment?
What do you remember about birth, death, or first love?
What is paradise to you?
What reminds you that you’re human?

In community settings such questions offer the focus for story telling, Build-a-Phrase, Spontaneous Gesture and other exercises that generate artistic content. In a seminar sponsored by the Animating Democracy Initiative in 2001, the artists of the Dance Exchange took time to ponder the principles for what constitutes an effective question or prompt, and suggested the following guidelines to help artists develop effective questions to use for artmaking tasks in community encounters:
  • Explore the range: Start by thinking about the theme or issue you want to explore. Think about it in broad and specific terms; think about it in concrete and metaphorical ways. For instance “How did you or your family come to be in Southeastern Michigan?” and “When was a time you crossed over into a new place?” might be two ways of approaching the same topic, each valid in its own way but likely to elicit different kinds of material.
  • Stay accessible: Make your opening prompt “easy,” something likely to elicit an immediate response rather than to set people surveying their memories. Make it “juicy,” likely to draw out an answer that is not only going to be interesting to the hearer, but exciting for the responder to relate. For instance, when we discovered that the “What are you in praise of?” question was proving too broad for some responders, we revised it to be “What is a little hallelujah in your life?” which inspired responders to think more personally and feel free to name a small detail rather than a grand theme.
  • Start in a way that offers choices to responders: Strive for opening prompts that are non-threatening, that may introduce a controversial issue or a sensitive point of personal history without going directly to the heart of it. For instance in Peter DiMuro’s Near/Far/In/Out project, which engages multiple generations of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people, we start with the question “How has your path been straight or curved.?” This affords participants the choice of responding in general or intimate terms, with reference to sexual identity or not. Only later do we move onto a question about the coming-out experience.
  • Get physical: Consider questions that refer directly to the body and its mechanisms: “When was a time when you were out of breath?” “When did your heart beat faster?” If they are related to the artistic content you want to explore, these questions can be powerful: people connect to memory through the body and are likely to express their responses in physical terms -- such as spontaneous gestures -- that make them a fertile source for dance ideas.
  • Combine questions: Think about questions that allow for a spectrum of response: the hopeful and affirming in addition to the painful and negative. This territory is sometimes best covered by a series of questions. Safe House/Still Looking offers a good example in its paired questions: “When did you feel unsafe?” and “When did you give shelter to someone?” In Hallelujah we used the complementary questions, “What do you miss and what do you wish for?” Often this prompt provided a chance to express both regret and hope about the same topic.
  • Pay attention to what you learn from the answers to the questions. The answers you hear may lead you to refine what you are asking. For instance, in Minneapolis, after we settled on In Praise of Beauty and Disorder as the theme, we framed the question as “When have you experienced beauty and disorder in the same moment?” We discovered that many people responded with memories of births, deaths, and first love. As a way to streamline the process, and narrow the content, we reframed the question to address just those experiences: “What do you remember about birth, death, or first love?”