Liz Lerman

By Julie Potter


Liz Lerman sure asks a lot of questions, in fact, dozens and dozens of question marks are printed on the pages of her book, Hiking the Horizontal, punctuating the curiosities that keep her driving forward with gusto. Rooted in Lerman’s illuminating approach to thinking and placing experiences along a horizontal continuum, her book helps to navigate a world that tends toward hierarchical stacking. Lerman’s accounts reveal sensitive insights and conclusions gleaned from a long career braiding art, community, and research, and the resulting read holds relevance for those both inside and beyond the art world.

Even the mission of Dance Exchange, the company Lerman created and led for 35 years, gets articulated through questions: “Who gets to dance? What is the dance about? Where is it happening? Why does it matter?” Lerman’s inquiries emerge from observations in a variety of forms. She writes, “They all started as complaints, opinions, awareness of discomfort, internal monologues looping around in an obsessive brain. It took a while to figure out that by changing the tone and letting my sentence end with an upward tilt, I could actually get back to the material at hand and go to work. Inquiry became liberating.” Talk about turning lemons into lemonade–here, Lerman highlights the ability for complainers to recognize themselves as researchers by shifting into a more curious mode and asking “I wonder why…”

So what does it mean to “hike the horizontal”? According to Lerman, it involves limiting the impulse to rank, and instead give a more equal value to varied artistic experiences and creative processes. Lerman’s analogy is to see all opportunities as arranged horizontally on a continuum, rather than stacking vertically like a ladder. Vertical thinking always puts something down. Therefore, the continuum allows for a broader palette of experiences and expanded possibilities. Of course that choice (and it is a choice) can feel bold, but then, so is Lerman in the way that she acts as her own gatekeeper, mining for unusual paths to discovery and art making, as demonstrated by her partnerships in the worlds of science, politics, religion and community. In committing to this perspective, she asserts that hiking the horizontal “forces us to decide on excellence in each moment.”

For example, the aspects of nurturing art and rigorous research may fall disparate from each other on the continuum, however Lerman prioritizes both, giving them similar value. By doing so she resists making either element more legit or important. In writing about applying the horizontal on her path, Lerman shares: “I have always believed that we needed to keep one foot in the community world and one in the concert world. We know that these worlds inform each other, allowing us to challenge ourselves to take higher standards as well to meet the particular needs of the project. But over the years I have seen how this very exciting and dynamic way of working can be perceived by others in my own profession as compromise. It seems that some would preserve the idea of artistic purity as practiced in the studio and onstage as the epitome and high point of an artist’s existence. I wonder to what extent this way of life limits our possibilities and leaves the world at large bereft of connection, skills, and actual tools.” Through thinking along a continuum and work that bridges the concert world and community, Lerman embodies a true artist-as-citizen spirit. The ability to thrive in diverse environments and collaborate in a variety of fields has become a trademark of her work and the Dance Exchange, springing directly from the horizontal perspective.

Lerman writes with a modesty and great respect for her choreographer colleagues: “The choreographers I know are great talents but even greater thinkers. They have come to understand that learning is a verb. They can talk about personal discovery and collaboration with compassion. They are an experimenting breed, practicing their craft and growing their methods all the time, engaging whoever is around, including their own kin. They comprehend action and make it real in thousands of variations. They do their work whether the world cares or not.” Talking dance, she takes readers with her, explaining without insider jargon the thought processes behind her site-specific work, partnerships, activism and residencies, making those developments interesting regardless of one’s relationship to dance.

Family life and Jewish heritage also make their way into Lerman’s book, always with a purpose, to introduce, augment or thread a theme among the anecdotal sections of varying lengths. Archival photos display the performers young and old who performed with the dance exchange over the years, revealing Lerman’s rich career of research and continual discovery through art making. Finally, she attributes nimbleness as one of the most significant triumphs of spectrum thinking, defining it as the “Swift brain working moving between forms, images, disciplines, and problems that by now we know aren’t problems but puzzles.” Swift indeed, intelligent and inspiring, Lerman’s book is likely to leave readers energized and ready to lace up those hiking boots.

This article appeared in the July/August 2011 issue of In Dance.

Julie Potter is a public practice specialist, performance curator and writer based in San Francisco. As the Director of ODC Theater, she provides artistic and administrative leadership including season programming, artist residencies and public engagement. Potter was previously the Creative Ecosystem Senior Program Manager at YBCA and completed her M.A. in 2016 at Wesleyan’s Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance.