Spirit, stone and Martian greeting customs

What are you in praise of?

Not what are you merely grateful for — but what makes you want to jump around, dance and sing, ecstatic simply to be alive, joyful to be nowhere else but exactly where you?

And, more importantly, how often do you even stop to notice those things?

The Liz Lerman Dance Exchange has been putting these tough questions to communities across the country through the group’s interactive dance workshops, collectively called The Hallelujah Project. Now folks in Asheville are offering up their answers.

What’s in a word?

What exactly does “hallelujah” mean, anyway? To Lerman and company, it’s a simple exclamation of joy and praise. Asheville, however, is a town where one can encounter, within the same short drive, bumper stickers ranging from “We Still Pray” to “We Still Chant” (not to mention the even-more-revelatory “We Still Ride Broomsticks and Howl at the Moon”).

Obviously, the word means different things to different people. (A Hallelujah Project participant from another town, quoted in the company’s newsletter, found the word “oppressive … it reminds me of people who think I need to get religion.” Another pointed out the word’s Hebrew roots, and two people heard music when they thought of it: One dancer was reminded of Handel’s classic Hallelujah chorus; the other confessed, “I think my version of hallelujah is ‘Louie, Louie.'”)

Not surprisingly, Asheville has proved to be a place ripe for Lerman and her group. The Dance Exchange sends representatives to communities nationwide, helping participants in each locale create a dance that answers the question, “What are you in praise of?” And while all the groups begin with the same question, each must distill from its answers a theme specific to that area. Hallelujah Project themes have included “In Praise of Animals and Their People,” “In Praise of Ordinary Prophets” and “In Praise of Fertile Fields.” Here in Asheville, it’s “In Praise of Spirit and Stone.”

“Early in our conversations about Asheville,” local participant Elly Wells explains, “the theme of opposites kept coming up. We have an abundance of spirit, and the rock the mountains are made of — so it symbolizes the opposites, and also the things to be found here.”

“Anyone can dance”

Although membership sometimes overlapped, the local project took root from three separate workshops — a group of interested community members with little or no dance experience, a group of professional dancers, and a group from the Center for Creative Retirement.

“Our residency began in September of last year,” says D. Rae Bucher, director of outreach for Diana Wortham Theatre. “Since then, almost 100 Asheville-area residents ages 10 to 70, with varying careers, cultures, lifestyles and religions, have joined us.”

In the workshops’ early stages, participants share personal stories related to the question of praise. Bucher, who participated in all three local groups, explains: “We talk, write, tell stories and explore our ideas on the diversity of cultures in Asheville. We discuss the attraction that brings us all together, forcing us to co-exist in this small but beautiful area we call home.”

Next, participants improvise movement phrases that tell those stories. Finally, those phrases are combined to produce a performance piece with a story behind it — one that includes a piece of every single person who participated, whether or not they’re able to perform.

Though the pieces begin as improvised movements, they’re eventually crafted by company dancers into fully choreographed pieces. Peter DiMuro, associate director for the Dance Exchange, explains, “We need choreography so that the audience has something to identify with, to hang onto.”

Liz Lerman has been redefining what it means to be a dancer since 1975, when she choreographed a piece about her mother titled “A Woman of Clear Vision,” in which she used both professional dancers and members of a senior-citizens’ center. Since then, Lerman has worked with dancers of all ages and abilities, believing that “anyone can dance.” In 1976, she launched the Dance Exchange as a school for dancers “including senior, adults and special populations.” Three years later, it had grown into a touring company, and it’s been evolving ever since.

But what’s remained constant is that commitment to community.

“All artists borrow from their surroundings to create their art,” reasons DiMuro. “We just make a conscious effort to do so, and to not only recognize that fact, but to also give back to the community. That’s why we call it an exchange.

“Besides,” he continues, “Liz figured out early on that nontrained dancers with real stories lend a richness to our work — instead of telling our own sob stories over and over again, we have an infinite number to choose from.”

How do Martians greet one another?

You can’t attend a Dance Exchange rehearsal without being invited to participate in the creative process. At one point, we’re instructed to walk around the room until we encounter someone we want to say hello to.

“Greet each other as if you were from Mars,” DiMuro prompts. “We shake hands, [but] how do Martians greet each other?” As it turns out, Martians use a variety of body parts to say hello: elbows, necks — even buttocks.

“Now,” says DiMuro, “teach this greeting to the next person you meet.”

As the workshop progresses, participants become less self-conscious and freer in their movements. The instructions from the facilitators arrive less frequently as we split into two groups to watch one another dance.

Interestingly, we discover that, sometimes, originality isn’t the most viable aesthetic concept. When the dancers copy one another, draw from one another, work off of one another, the piece becomes much more visually interesting. Instead of being about several separate entities, it becomes about the group as a whole. The dancers merge, becoming a single, many-limbed entity.

Later in the workshop, the participants who will perform with the company rehearse a dance that incorporates many different spiritual practices. They spin ecstatically like whirling dervishes — then, finding center, touch their chakras in succession from top to bottom. When they reach the end, they prostrate themselves in unison, then all rise blowing make-believe horns. This takes them to their knees, from which position they throw themselves backward as if into a river for a full-immersion baptism. Fingers curved and tense, they claw their way back up and walk in all four directions, each doing an individually choreographed movement that’s specific and personal to them.

“I love how that part came about,” enthuses Wells. “In one of our workshops, we [were asked] to go around and say what we were in our religious or spiritual sense, whether that was Methodist or Muslim or Buddhist/Quaker/agnostic. Then, [we named] something [we] would like to borrow from another religion. And we wrote them down, and that’s where that part of the dance came from.”

Local participants’ efforts will culminate in performances at Diana Wortham Theatre on April 13 and 14. In addition to the community-based work, the Dance Exchange will perform several of its professionally choreographed pieces. These include “Uneasy Dances” (which addresses where we are as a country post-Sept. 11) and “Mad” (which explores the physical similarities between laughing and crying). These pieces were specifically chosen to balance the local project, DiMuro explains; their gravity runs counter to the hallelujah theme (thus continuing the motif of opposites), and they are artistically and technically tight (again, in opposition to the less rigorous amateur performance).

As amateurs, however, the Hallelujah dancers enjoy more freedom than their professional counterparts. “We’re just expressing who we are through dance,” notes community-group member Tamara Hubbard. “We don’t have to try to pretend to be someone we’re not. It’s really just you who’s going to show up on stage.”

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