Lerman Translates Artistic Process to Public Arena

How can dance explain the theories of physics and medicine? How does one represent benzene through dance? These are some of the questions raised by Harvard’s newest artist in residence, Elizabeth Lerman. A recipient of the 2002 MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellowship, Lerman stepped down in 2011 from her position as Artistic Director of the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, which she founded in 1976, and has joined the ranks of Harvard’s visiting artists. This semester, Lerman will be teaching a new Harvard course, Music 101r: “Dance Collaboration,” and conducting research for a new choreographic work focusing on the history of medicine, primarily in the Civil War. Part of her role, she says, is to encourage deeper artistic collaboration in the university community. “The idea is to get artists, put them in the middle of the campus ... and mix things up,” she says.

Music 101r uses cross-disciplinary learning methods to explore how art can be applied more broadly to education within the community. Her multifaceted approach to arts education ties into her views on the current state of both dance and academia. “I’m not so sure everything should be learned so passively ... I think there’s room for a lot more experiential learning,” she says. Lerman claims that this experiential learning does not replace lectures or class structure but instead serves as a supplement to this traditional approach. “PowerPoint is really fun for the person that makes the PowerPoint ... but how much fun is it to sit and watch someone’s slideshow?” she asks.

In her course, Lerman aims to take a quite different approach. The class is structured to allow her students, even those with no previous dance experience, to use dance as a way to spark discussions and solutions. Her Music 101r course syllabus begins: “Ask a big enough question and you will need more than one discipline to answer it ... This course asserts that artistic practice, beautiful in its own right for making art, also provides a means for being active in the world.” With this focus, Lerman’s students will spend the semester learning movement-based choreographic tools, creating their own performance works, and translating this artistic process into methods for inquiry-based problem solving that could be used in other disciplines. “Our bodies are really, really good learning mechanisms,” says Lerman, “and it is foolish for us to leave them out of the picture.” One of Lerman’s teaching fellows, Allison K. Ross—who graduated from the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 2011—described Lerman’s interactions with her students: “Liz is a very focused teacher and facilitator, and [has] been giving students individualized attention,” she says.

Lerman is also involved in a number of upcoming projects at Arts @ 29 Garden, Harvard’s newest space for artistic collaboration between faculty, students, and visiting artists. Lerman first worked with Arts @ 29 Garden last winter during Harvard’s January Arts Intensives. Bess Paupeck, Program Manager of Arts @ 29 Garden, describes Lerman’s presence at the studio as an exciting addition. “Liz brings an incredible dynamic of energy, inspiration, and vision to this space. As a resident she has already brought several of her collaborators to the space—and in turn their presence here further[s] the activities of the space,” she says.

While Lerman teaches and works on her own projects, she will also be facilitating a series titled “Art in the Wider World: Performance, Practice, Action,” in which a number of guest artists will come to Arts @ 29 Garden and speak about their experiences with Harvard’s students. Speakers will include Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, founder of the Urban Bush Women troupe, and environmentalist and artist Michael Singer.

“I hope Liz will [continue to] do exactly what she is already doing,” Paupeck says.  “With her vast experience, she will contribute to the ongoing dialogue about interdisciplinary art-making happening here at Harvard and beyond.”

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