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Many Tools, One Toolbox: An Introduction

by Liz Lerman, Founder and Artistic Director of Liz Lerman Dance Exchange

Published February 2009

I was raised classically. Early on I learned to enjoy the rigors of a world that values line and form, to admire a concept of beauty as an ideal that can lie apart from an object or a person. I learned to devote myself to craft and to time spent preparing. But as I trained within classical systems, I came to see that some thing or some purpose was missing. At first I thought my sense of loss was simply about growing up. I assumed that what I was missing was the naïve joy of moving for the pure sake of being a dancing body in time and space. But after several serious brushes against the man-made walls of this classicism, I began to look elsewhere for answers.

Imagine for a moment a long, upright line that runs from top to bottom. At the top is art so separate from the rest of culture that its greatness is measured in part by its uselessness. At the bottom is art so imbedded in its culture that no one thinks to call it art; here reside sacred rituals, healing ceremonies, objects made beautiful by their functions, and people meeting and moving through the stories and needs of the calendar of festivals. Or your values might lead you to put culturally embedded art at the top and the art for art's sake the bottom. Either way, the ideas are ranked from top to bottom according to a system of values. This is the kind of hierarchy of ideas that I grew up with, and that continues to prevail in many worlds.

Now imagine turning this line sideways to lay it horizontal. That way each of these poles poses an equal pull and an equal weight in its power and use. And those of us wandering at one end or the other might find something to respect at both ends. If we are lucky enough, we can actually take the long highway between them, discovering information that can feed our artistic impulses all along the way. And if for a moment you take this long spectrum and turn it into a circle you will see that the two ends can lie close, like next-door neighbors. That is one explanation as to why post modernism and traditional forms are often so similar.

Despite being raised classically, forged in the love of a technique that had one right answer, I learned to step with awe into white-walled museums with a single abstract painting occupying a single lone space. It is here that I learned about critics and reviews, and the connection between art and western governments.

But when my mother died, and I turned to my choreographer's toolbox, I discovered that the tools bequeathed me at the classical end of the spectrum were not powerful enough to convey my loss, my experience, my story. I had no choice but to move out along the highway towards the other end. This required a change in behavior. I went out looking for old people to be in my dance, to help me tell my story. And when I found them, I discovered that my behavior was no longer described as that of an artist, but rather that of a social worker. But in finding the old people, I also found a door open to powerful functions of art that had been jettisoned over time by my culture. They existed, but not inside the art box. They lived within other specialized boxes such as dance therapy, dance education, dance anthropology, liturgical dance.

Looking in those boxes, I found that I did have the tools I needed. I was able to restock my choreographer's toolbox with the new discoveries I made by recovering the memory of the multiple functions of dance. I had begun to see that my job as an artist was to change the way I worked inside my culture, and by doing so, change the very tools I would be allowed to use in making my work.

Since then I have worked to live on a part of the spectrum where the tools all can occupy the same box, where a single act, idea, or technique might have many functions. This is the toolbox the Dance Exchange seeks to share through our online Toolbox (www.danceexchange.org/toolbox). I hope that whatever your reason for seeking it out, you find something useful and enlightening.


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