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Dances Celebrating Wisdom

At Colorado fest, performers - young and old - share a `commitment to wonder'

By M. S. MasonSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / June 29, 1990


THE pursuit and attainment of wisdom has been the theme for this year's Colorado Dance Festival, a vibrant month-long event winding up here tomorrow. All the artists - young and old - performing and teaching this year were chosen for their ``permanent commitment to wonder,'' a phrase coined by the composer John Cage for those who continue to learn and grow their entire lives. At the festival, their ``wisdom'' has been taking a variety of performance styles ranging from that of veteran dancer Lucas Hoving, who tells the story in movement of his life as a dancer, to the cutting-edge performance art of Steve Paxton and Lisa Nelson, which combines a spoken text with movement.

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``The word `wisdom' seldom crops up in the newspapers,'' says festival director Marda Kirn. ``It's never used to describe political leaders, for example. Why? What's happening in our society?''

Troubled by the frequent segregation of the elderly from the rest of society and by marketing techniques which have helped to further segment the population by age, Ms. Kirn deliberately sought artists with long-term careers - people like Mr. Hoving, whose adult career spans more than 50 years, and the inimitable Jimmy Slyde, tap-dance wonder, among others.

Kirn found in her worldwide travels that senior citizens in many countries are referred to respectfully as ``elders.'' But ``our generation grew up saying don't trust anyone over 30,'' she notes. ``We put old people in nursing homes and the handicapped in institutions, and once a problem is out of sight, we think it's flushed out of existence. Ghettoizing the aged has lost us a valuable resource - their wisdom.''

Choreographer Liz Lerman takes Kirn's point a step further: ``These ghettoized older people are longing to give their love,'' she said before a workshop a couple of weeks ago. ``That's a natural resource that shouldn't be wasted. The troubled adolescent girls I work with today could sure use that love - love and discipline.''

Washington Post writer Alan M. Kriegsman has dubbed Ms. Lerman ``the supreme democrat of dance,'' because she believes dance is natural to all human beings and belongs to them - that all people should have access to dance despite age, ability, or body type. Lerman's own company, the Dance Exchange, and another company which she also leads, Dancers of the Third Age, include five full-time senior dancers. (``Third Age'' is taken from the French ``le troisieme age,'' the age that follows childhood and adulthood.)

Trained in classical ballet, Lerman was influenced most strongly by dancers who had worked with Martha Graham. Lerman rejected the romantic conception of the singular life of the artist, believing that image of the artist interferes with accomplishment.

``I think I always believed in dance as a powerful tool,'' she says. ``That is why its practice didn't seem complete to me. I know it's not popular to say so, but I wanted my art to be useful.'' She sees the artist's life not as something rarified and ego-centered but as the life of ``a person, a citizen.''