Liz Lerman is a MacArthur Foundation "Genius Grant" recipient based in Washington D.C. who has been working outside the norms of modern dance for thirty years. Her Dance Exchange company was one of the first groups to experiment with multi-generational casting, and one of the first to get way out of the theatre and deeply into communities. Lerman, all along, has prioritized workshops with every kind of population group imaginable, as much as she created dances. The result, after all these years, is a well-honed organization that explores ideas and gets funding. Themes sell. That doesn’t, however, make sitting through one of their concerts any easier.
When the program lists a bibliography a half-page long, it is clear one is in for an "educational experience". Indeed, "Ferocious Beauty" uses dance, experimental video, atmospheric music and performers who double as narrators to tell an interestingly developed story: everything you ever wanted to know about genetics. There is even a dose of dramatic tension thanks to gene-splicing and the ethical questions around cloning and other artificial manipulations of the genetic chain happening in science today. Two hours of dance-genetics, however, is more than most audience-members should be forced to sit through without receiving continuing education credit.
The piece is not without its moments. Scientists whose interviews are presented, documentary-style, on a huge projection screen, are asked, in one section, to answer the question: "What if scientists were choreographers?" The resulting "dance" brainstormed by one of the bemused talking heads has to do with dancers creating a literal chain of genes across the stage, which the real dancers proceed to illustrate in comical ways. Every humorous moment is a relief in a piece that hovers, always, on the mystical, magical, lyrical and boring edge of expressive dance. Certainly the choreographer has not forgotten that the movement itself, not just the interviews or the video effects, the input from scientists, or the bibliography, actually matter to audiences. One of the most infuriating aspects of the grant-making process in American performing arts is that the people voting and funding are mostly reading applications rather than experiencing real performance. Sometimes the most literate applicants create the worst dances.
Lerman has strong collaborators, with the video images, in particular, by John Boesche and Logan Kibens, creating interest and mercifully dominating the rather pedestrian streams of movement phrases. Lerman generously acknowledges the importance of the contributions of the dancers and other contributors to the creation of this piece. It’s that lack of a single voice, however, that seems to bring everything down a notch—the committee may decide how this story is going to be told, but the lack of a dictatorial vision may be the reason there seems to be no genius at work here.
"Ferocious Beauty" is like an MFA student thesis project with an unlimited budget: many ideas, much research, hours of contemplation, development and rehearsal. But there is such a thing as too much content and too little of that glorious unspoken thing that dance is really about. Take away the video and the bibliography and what, exactly, is left? Final grade: B-.