Liz Lerman has blazed a trail for artists and audiences not only in DC but also nationally and internationally for 34 years; garage/dances extends this path of creative exploration.
It’s a collaborative project on multiple levels: merging the company, Liz Lerman Dance Exchange (LLDE), with 23 participants of the LLDE Summer Institute plus a unique site (an Adams Morgan Colonial Parking Garage), the Capital Fringe Festival and the National Building Museum.
How do these disparate entities find common ground? The museum hosted an exhibit called “House of Cars: Innovation and the Parking Garage” between October 17, 2009 and July 11, 2010. LLDE created this project as a special program of the exhibit and the festival.
True to the spirit of the fringe, garage/dances celebrates experimentation, risk-taking, and innovation. The performers march, stamp, and roll on the cement of the parking levels, even leap onto and around parked cars; the fearlessness of the performers — their willingness to explore every possible surface for dancing — is captivating. But the project is not only kinetic display: it is a structured foray into the associations and ramifications of people and automobiles. It bears Lerman’s trademarks – interdisciplinary, multigenerational cast, socially relevant themes – and is fresh and new. The 23 Institute participants met each other for the first time two weeks ago. Fourteen days later, with guidance from LLDE members, they were presenting this collaboratively choreographed performance.
It is framed exquisitely: members of LLDE guide us like traffic-controllers as we step out of the garage’s stairwell and onto the uppermost level of the structure. The view of the Washington Monument and clouds on the cusp of sunset is stunning at this hour, but we are being herded into parking spaces as if we are automobiles. LLDE company member Elizabeth Johnson asks us if we know how many cars are on our roads today (125 million – much higher than anyone in our parking space guessed) and how much it costs to keep a car in the city (approximately $9400. annually). Then Benjamin Wegman, another LLDE company member as well as an energetic organizer, is gathering us together explaining that we will be divided into three groups and seeing different sections of the performance at different times. Fortunately everyone gets to see every section: they are clever glimpses into our relations with machines.
The description that follows is lengthy because the audience moves throughout the event – kind of ironic considering we were walking through a parking garage – and the performance happens all around us, threading together choreography, music and facts about the automobile.
Our usher, LLDE Institute participant Wayles Haynes, asked our group what associations we make with parking structures, and after a pause, “has anyone gotten engaged in a garage?” Other questions followed, and then we circled a car to watch as dancers crammed into and onto the vehicle. It was great to see a bunch a people inside of it (“road trip” comes to mind) or how Daniel Zook (an LLDE Institute participant) jumped onto its roof. The dancers’ interactions were fun and free, and just when it seemed every nook of the car had been investigated, we were being led to the next section, overlooking a wall of the garage to a lower level.
Institute participant Margo Buchanan asked if we knew which car is the most popular today (Honda Civic) and when the first garage was built… Then we looked over the ledge to the level below and I felt transported to a century ago. Four women walked out onto a blanket of fake grass wearing skirts and hats decorated with flowery bouquets. Their movements were gentle and quaint: laying on the grass, taking off their hats. They seemed human and delicate, in contrast to the raucous interaction of this first scene.
The third site featured a Volkswagen convertible, athletic choreography for the LLDE company members, music blasting from the car’s radio, and in the distance, Institute participants slowly rolling down the garage’s ramp. It was a collage of images both familiar and strange: we rely on cars to get us places and end up sacrificing some of the joys of moving freely. In the distance there was a sign for Security Storage, making me think of how our needs for things and structures impact our landscape. How do storage and freedom co-exist?
As the piece drew to a close, we were brought together as an audience and led into the lower level of the garage. The heat was sweltering and the dancers glistening, but Beth Lyons enthralled with stories and questions: “Chaos follows me wherever I go…” she began. Dancers bejeweled the wall of the garage: their bodies like sculptures, swaying and drooping. Lyons continued with questions about the structure that were both humorous and provocative: “Are parking garages sentient?”
As we turned around, the music shifted to dramatic anticipation and LLDE company member Keith Thomson came stalking towards us. Suddenly it felt like a thrilling film and we were part of the climax: good guys and bad guys trapped in a garage. This moment also recalled the only other dance performance I have seen in a garage: Noémie Lafrance’s Noir in 2004.
Institute participants Alice Sheppard, who uses a wheelchair, and Kelly Klein presented an intertwining and powerful duet. Then the audience was released out of the structure and onto a ramp. Company members Sarah Levitt and Wegman were flying and lunging as if savoring the open air. The breeze was refreshing, but a car stopped the play. Thomas Dwyer and Martha Wittman exited the vehicle and engaged in a romantic ballroom-esque sequence in trench coats (was that “Moon River” playing in the background?), ending when they removed the coats.
As we looked up, the rest of the cast was visible above, draped over the ledge of the structure. Their score was a radio shuffling songs and announcements; their gestures were playful and provocative.
garage/dances is a glimpse into who we are/what we have created/what is worth holding onto. In spite of the hours we spend in cars, the time and money we invest in their maintenance, and the space we give to roads and garages, it was the human spirit – the creativity of the performers’ actions and images – that left the most striking impression. The latest technology of automobiles and architectural design pales alongside the intensity of these artists.
Even Wegman’s rushed directives – “go here” “move there” “stay behind the cones” – reminded me of our dependence on speed and transportation to get us places quickly when some of our most enjoyable memories are about human interaction, conversations, shared experiences, and natural beauty. garage/dances sheds light on grace and the essential.
by Liz Lerman Dance Exchange
a collaboration with The National Building Museum and Colonial Parking
reviewed by: Kate Mattingly
running time: 50 minutes
Read all the reviews and check out the full Capital Fringe schedule here.
Did you see the show? What did you think?