Arizona State University Herberger Institute Professor — and legendary choreographer, artist and author — Liz Lerman was recently selected as a 2023 Guggenheim Fellow. This annual award honors scientists, writers, scholars and artists across 48 fields who are selected by a rigorous application and peer review process.
Throughout her career, Lerman has sought to connect disciplines and domains, and expand where dance lives in our society. She has cultivated generations of dance makers focused on dance as an agent for social change through community engagement, and her vision and artistry have shaped the dance field and the ways in which dance is utilized to communicate complex issues in our world.
Lerman is the author of several books, including “Teaching Dance to Senior Adults” and “Hiking the Horizontal.” Her most recent co-authored book, “Critique is Creative,” with John Borstel, won the Silver Nautilus Book Award. “Critique is Creative” details Lerman’s pioneering Critical Response Process in detail, discusses its origins and principles, and includes essays from a number of practitioners who have used the process in the contexts of art, education and community life.
A former fellow of the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation, Lerman is currently a senior fellow at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) and a fellow at the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at ASU.
Installation brought new challenge
Lerman said she looks forward to continuing the work she developed during her three-year residency at YBCA. The culminating installation, created in collaboration with visual artist and residency fellow Brett Cook, is titled “Reflection and Action.” It's a semi-retrospective that examines the role of artists in the world. Lerman said although she has worked in museums, including the ASU Art Museum, before, this was the first time she created work intended for installation.
“It was a challenge, taking my work and putting it in the context of a museum installation in two large rooms and an atrium and working with people in a manner in which I have not worked before,” Lerman said.
“I've been thinking about it for years, this idea of how exhibitions or installations play out and what movement artists can bring to installations,” she said. “This experience was different, and it was very moving to me.”
Lerman has been expanding the idea with her ASU students in the Atlas of Creative Tools class this year. The students made installations that included an object, a visual image, movement of some kind and documentation of their research. It all had to live in an installation that could be put up in 10–15 minutes and later taken down.
“They were spectacular,” Lerman said. “It was just fantastic to see how they went to work on this. I just loved how they approached it. I feel like we cracked open some habitual ways of thinking about how dance gets made.”
Lerman will be further developing the museum idea while she is on a yearlong sabbatical. She will also be using this time to write a follow-up to “Hiking the Horizontal,” which she said uses her version of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.
“If you measure the shape of something, you will miss the momentum. But if you measure the momentum, you cannot see the shape,” she said. “I was drawn to this as a choreographic puzzle but also as a solution. That is, you need both but each requires different capacities and techniques. And when you think about this as a metaphor for change, you can see that most of our institutions hold their shapes too long. They and we become afraid to move into the flow for fear of losing our shape, even though to be relevant one must. It’s a perfect example of why choreographic knowledge is of use to a world in constant motion and change. This book I am working on will explain why and how this works.”
'A sense of the person I was becoming'
Lerman’s advice to young artists? Give yourself time.
“Sometimes it happens in a flash, but even all the build-up to get that flash could be years in the making. You do get a flash, but a lot of times it's just practice, practice, practice,” she said. “So, my advice would be about practice, finding a laboratory and knowing there’s time.”
Lerman speaks from experience. She has been applying for the fellowship for years.
“The first time I applied for the Guggenheim was in 1978, so I have been very persistent,” she said. “I applied many, many, many times.”
The application process involves writing a personal biography, describing the work you’re doing and getting four recommendation letters. She said looking back at her applications over the years almost felt like an autobiography.
“You get a sense of the person I was becoming all through the applications. I also love that you have an opportunity to let four people in on what you're doing, and then they support you,” Lerman said. “Seeing the list of people supporting me was pretty powerful. That is its own special honor and right.”
Lerman said this felt like the right year.
“I'm taking a sabbatical, I was turning 75, so it was a particularly good year,” she said. “I just thought, ‘Let's do it again.’”
Lerman has several projects on the horizon that she’s excited about, including partnerships and a project she’s calling “Legacy Unboxed.”
“A lot of times you get to my age and everyone expects, ‘She's going to tie everything up in a neat little bow,’ and that is just not my experience. Life is way more wild than that,” Lerman said. “‘Legacy Unboxed’ is kind of a framework to hold the rest of what's happening, and it includes this particular period of life. I'm so lucky to be in such an environment with such incredible colleagues and amazing students.”