Break out your best happy dance. Choreographer, performer, writer, and educator Liz Lerman recently joined the faculty for the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at ASU. As Institute Professor, she'll lead programs and courses that span disciplines within and beyond the Herberger Institute.
Lerman founded the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, a multigenerational contemporary dance company, in 1976 – and served as it artistic director until 2011. In 2002 she received a MacArthur “genius grant” Fellowship.
Nowadays, she’s splitting her time between Baltimore and Tempe, where she’s currently teaching a class that engages students in creating works rooted in research projects on topics ranging from seismology to homelessness. “They have to be able to use their art to explicate something a researcher has done,” Lerman says. “Then they have to personalize and interpret it, making it meaningful to themselves but also relevant to the public.”
Sitting inside her new office at the Dixie Gammage building on ASU’s Tempe campus last Friday morning, Lerman peppered her conversation with New Times with sweeping arm motions and hand gestures – revealing the interplay of movement with ideas at the heart of her creativity.
Lerman, whose desk holds a small laptop and clear vase filled with bulbs for tulips that have yet to emerge, is clearly excited about the opportunity to create and collaborate in Arizona. She’s actually got roots in Arizona that go back several generations. “My grandma’s grandma was a Drachman,” Lehman says. “They were the first Jews in Tucson.”
But there’s more recent history too. Her company toured throughout the state, and she taught for two weeks at ASU West, as part of Dance on Tour presented by the National Endowment for the Arts. And she’s performed several times at ASU Gammage.
As for landing her new ASU faculty gig, Lerman says, "It came out of the blue." About 18 months ago, Lerman got a call from Steven J. Tepper. Their paths had crossed several times through the years, and he’d recently become the new dean for ASU’s Herberger Institute. “Wanna come here?” she recalls him asking at the time. “It’s a nice thing to hear at a certain time in your life.”
Lerman, who was born in 1947, says they talked about possible revisions to ASU’s dance curriculum, what artists should be doing in contemporary culture, and how artists work in the 21st century. But she wasn’t ready to sign on just yet. Instead, Lerman suggested she make a few visits.
Those paid off. “It became clear there was plenty to do here,” she says. “And there’s already a lot going on.” During interactions with ASU faculty, Lerman was struck by their openness. “You don’t get this at every university.” But something else struck a chord: “Everybody you meet here is interesting.”
Lerman says she’ll be teaching at ASU for at least three years, and hopes two of the long-term projects she calls her “babies” can come to fruition there. One is her Critical Response Process, a four-step approach to giving and receiving feedback for artistic works in progress, which has been used by artists-in-residence at [nueBOX], a new works development program founded by two ASU alumni, and other Arizona artists. The other is an online platform to help artists create, discuss, and share work. She calls it the Atlas of Creative Tools.
Much of her work at ASU will take the form of an Ensemble Lab comprising a cooperative of artists, researchers, and civic leaders working across disciplines to explore the role of artists, increase professional opportunities for artists, and equip artist to be engaged civic partners.
“I’m excited about ASU’s vision of having students working in communities,” Lerman says.
In March, she’ll speak at ASU’s Three Million Stories, a three-day symposium exploring arts graduates in a changing economy. It’s big-picture stuff, as evidenced by the title of her talk: "The Artist as Social Entrepreneur and Imagination Partner." Like Tepper, Lerman says the role of artists in contemporary society goes beyond art-making to co-creating innovations with significant social impact.
So how will teaching at ASU impact her other projects?
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“I’m in between performance projects on purpose,” she says. But she plans to continue some of her outside partnerships, including a London festival called Dance Umbrella. She’s hoping to continue at ASU her Treadmill Tapes, in which she videotapes conversations carried out while walking on treadmills. And she’s looking forward to working with a variety of local creatives.
But she’s also making time to experience works by other artists. This week, her calendar includes seeing Meredith Monk perform at ASU Gammage and attending Emerging Artists III – a performance featuring works choreographed by two MFA in dance students.
Lerman says she’s passionate about “making work relevant and available to people,” adding that key issues during the first half of the 21st century include diversity and equity, as well as security. It’s not enough for students to dance and choreograph new works, she says. “Dancers need to know how to partner, listen, and be open to influence.” Sometimes they get to tell their own stories, she says, but its important they learn to tell others’ stories, too.
“We have to give skills to artists so they feel they can take on anything."