Liz Lerman and the choreography of response

by Dance

Elizabeth Mak '12 reflects on choreographer Liz Lerman's visit to Harvard-Radcliffe Modern Dance Company's class.

Imagine you’re a writer, or a painter, or a researcher, or a dancer. Basically, anyone who has ever poured time, effort, and soul into his/her work and then had to walk into a room of 30 people who have just seen the work and are about to explain to you exactly what they did not like about it.

We’ve all been there before, all experienced the pressure, anxiety and discomfort that come with offering up your labor to the world to be judged. Now imagine that 30 people were there not to criticize your work, but instead were committed to sincerely helping you, to giving you what insights they had and to listening and responding to whatever questions and fears you have about your art.

That is the premise of Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process, which she shared recently with members of the Harvard-Radcliffe Modern Dance Company. Using the raw unfinished works of two of choreographers, Julia Havard ’11 and Salena Sullivan ’12, she led company members through the four steps of her process, which helps facilitate dialogue between an artist and his/her audience in a manner that generates immensely helpful insights for the artist and creates a positive environment in which feedback is not only encouraged but highly sought after.

For the first step, the audience shares what is meaningful or striking, which creates a sense of affirmation for both the artist and audience. Then the artist asks questions about his or her work, following which, the audience gets to respond with questions, but these are neutrally phrased questions that might direct the artist to think specifically about issues worth considering. Lastly, audience members offer opinions and suggestions, but only if the artist is open to receiving feedback in that particular area.

What astounded me was that the process is founded on such basic concepts as respect for others and their work, and extending clear and inoffensive communication signals. Yet it manages to quickly diffuse the tension associated with feedback sessions, while simultaneously extracting opinions and suggestions that are concrete and valuable to the artist.

Talking to dancers after the class, I felt an immense sense of empowerment in the air, because the fear of being wrong was gone, and in its place was the knowledge that you can only get better. And you have friends, peers and teachers to help you get there.

[Caption: Liz Lerman (Photo courtesy Liz Lerman Dance Exchange)]