Field Notes from a Choreographer
Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2011
Hardback. ix-298 pp. ISBN:9780819569516. $29.95
Reviewed by Aaron Wirtz
Wichita State University
In this age of budget cuts and YouTube-clipped attention spans, artists are burdened to explain why they and their crafts are still relevant. This is especially true of dance, the most fleeting of the arts, which often seems to cause more harm than good to its practitioners. Choreographer Liz Lerman’s book Hiking the Horizontal is a collection of contemplations not only about her lifelong devotion to making dances and their impact upon the institutions and communities in which she presents them, but also the importance of learning to ask the right questions. Her insight into the process of “needing to know and then discovering answers”  makes this book accessible to anyone, regardless of profession or personal interest, who feels this need.
Lerman identified her need to ask questions at an early age, in the “sacred space of the ballet-school dressing rooms with young dancers bemoaning the fat that will forge their fate,” thinking “Isn’t there a better way for us to be sharing our precious time before class?” . She asked this without animosity, however, and expresses a deep love for her privileged ballet foundation. Throughout the book, she refrains from decrying the abusive nature of classical dance training and maintains a respectful but firm approach to inquisitive confrontation, which branded her a “gentle rebel”  in the world of dance, where blind obedience is the rule.
The author’s career has included staging dances in both conventional and unconventional settings, from the theater to the nursing home, synagogue, public park, or shipyard. The challenge of allowing audience members to view dances taking place in an office building restroom is humorously recounted, and serves as an encouragement for creators to remain alert to the changing needs of their creations, explaining that “new contexts may reveal a need for new standards” . With such varied contexts for dance performance, she remains aware of the fact that true art is not achieved through inaccessibility, and through her collaborations with professionals in other fields, her work achieves universal appeal through her devotion to the specific issues of our time.
Unlike the great tyrants of choreography, Lerman displays confidence in her creativity by freely drawing from the ideas and experiences of her dancers, even when her well of ideas seems to be full, explaining that it “does not mean I have no plan or have a completely empty space in my imagination... It is more like leaving enough space for several possibilities to unfold, including the one or more that I already have in mind” . A great misconception about artistic pursuit is that ideas are scarce, as the refusal to let go of an idea that does not work usually causes much more trouble. Lerman also takes on society’s fetishization of superstar artists and the expectation that truly exceptional people are individualistic. Reviewing a book about Nureyev allowed her to reflect on our culture’s thinking about our stars “can hinder the best outcome of their genius” , that because Nureyev was allowed to act like a spoiled child, he missed out on pursuing the answers to artistic questions of his own.
Other than her time working in New Jersey bars , the characteristic Flashdance-style narrative of a young woman trying to “make it” as a dancer in the big city is missing from this work. Indeed, some of the strongest statements of her career spring from her refusal to acknowledge what others might expect—we see nothing of auditioning, talent agents, or the heartbreak of aging dancers—and instead, creating a universe in which she and her dancers (hired regardless of age or technical ability) can safely create. Also missing from the work is any discussion of concepts like “artistic fulfillment” and “happiness” that we often hear from memoirs like this, but we do not expect such nonsense from our scientists or engineers, and it is not missed here.
Hiking the Horizontal is the work of a creative spirit who does not apologize for her chosen profession. Lerman’s ability to discuss her work in such depth is evidence that her success is well deserved, and that art is most compelling when we acknowledge that the only muse worth following is the inquisitive human mind.
Cercles © 2011