Dance of the Lord
Prayer makes Liz Lerman uncomfortable. Not the thought of praying, but the word itself, because she doesn’t often find herself in a traditional house of worship with a prayerbook in hand. “I think the word ‘prayer’ is not the most effective word anymore,” she said in an …. interview. “If you took away the word and what we think it is, I probably do pray. It is [prayer] in its largest sense, this idea of the time to contemplate and to reach for something larger than yourself for hope, guidance, support, anger, frustration.”
Lerman, a Maryland-based choreographer, dancer, teacher, community arts activist, and deep thinker on contemporary spiritual and moral issues, takes a look at prayer in its widest contexts in her newest work, 613 Radical Acts of Prayer: Opening Acts, which receives its world premiere by the company she founded 30 years ago, Dance Exchange, March 30-April 1 at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark.
“My initial question was really tiny,” Lerman explained about how a wide-ranging multiyear project encompassing the meaning and methods of prayer came into being. She wondered: “How come in most Jewish communities the liturgists are on one side and the social action people are on the other?”
California-born, Lerman was raised in Washington, DC, and Milwaukee, where she culled elemental ideals of Reform Judaism as a religion of action from her father, who was outspoken in the labor and civil rights movements and worked a stint with the Anti-Defamation League. These days Lerman finds herself part of the organized Jewish community, as a member of the working group on spiritual leadership of Synagogue 3000, the cross-denominational organization of Jewish leaders striving to make synagogues into sacred communities relevant for the 21st century.
But it wasn’t always the case that Lerman had a place at the Jewish communal table. When she founded the Dance Exchange in 1976, the mainstream Jewish community looked askance at modern dancers and other bohemian types who asked probing questions about spirituality, prayer, and religion. A MacArthur “genius award” recipient, Lerman, 59, is renowned for her groundbreaking work in bringing dance to senior adults in the 1970s and ’80s, and for her commitment to widening the scope of dance to all ages and abilities. From the very start of her choreographic career, she incorporated a deeply Jewish sensibility into her dances, among them Miss Galaxy and Her Three Raps with God, The Good Jew? Shehechianu, and the 14-city, three-year Hallelujah project.
She talked about her work and its evolution in an interview at the company’s home in Takoma Park, Md., a former U.S. post office that was transformed into a dance space with three studios and offices.
Prayer, in whatever form, is foundational across the religious spectrum. So when the NJPAC Global Exchange Project asked Lerman and her company to conduct an artistic exchange in Japan, she said, “I feel like we can carry on these questions anywhere in the world.”
Just back from a five-week, three-city tour that took Lerman and seven Dance Exchange members, who range in age from 26 to 79, from a workshop with Japanese poets at the Yamaguchi Center, to the Kushida Jinjya shrine in Fukuoka City, and finally to the Kyoto Art Center, the company in two short weeks finalized the work. Ten Japanese women ages 51-68 and non-dancers all were drawn from the three tour stops the company made and join the Dance Exchange for the piece, which includes their personal narratives recorded in Japanese and translated to English. Four young dancers from the Japan Contemporary Dance Network are also performing in the piece.
“What’s interesting about Japan,” said Lerman, a mere 48 hours after returning home, “is that the religions are ancient and the activities around the religion are everyday. The shrines are endless; the temples are everywhere. Outside my window there was a little shrine and people would stop in and ring the bell and offer a prayer.”
Among the Japanese customs Lerman picked up, one in particular has stayed with her. Senninbari the female practice of hand-sewing belts to accompany Japanese soldiers during World War II with a stitch collected from every member of the community reverberates with the Dance Exchange ideal that community matters and even the smallest of actions helps build that collective sensibility.
613 Radical Acts of Prayer tilts to the transformative nature of prayer. “One aspect of prayer and radical action that I think is similar is this desire to transform,” said Lerman. Over an extended period of time, though she’s not yet sure how long, the choreographer said she hopes to create 613 distinct acts dances, workshops, classes, discussions representing the 613 mitzvot, or commandments, in the Torah. This premiere is thus subtitled Opening Acts “I think that in this particular iteration…it’s almost like a prayer for the theater that will allow us to look at senninbari from our culture. That’s the first prayer. The second prayer is for changing the meaning for things.”
Still deciding on the third prayer at press time, Lerman said, “I have to construct an idea of God right now.… I see it in terms of the interplay of living in our world and how that interplay of growth and development is godlike. That creation is around us every day, and that’s godlike. Each of us can contribute, and that is godlike.” For Lerman, creating an artistic work is itself a prayer transformed.
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