Dances Celebrating Wisdom

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

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.

``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.''

Dance, she believes, can touch the lonely senior and the lonely youth and help bring them together. ``I guarantee when people study dance in a safe environment and are encouraged as artists, the teacher mirroring back to them how incredible they are, that there will be results,'' she says. ``For one thing, dance gives an extraordinary understanding of the relationship between discipline and freedom. Discipline and freedom go together, and everyone can benefit from that.''

Lerman works regularly with the old, the young, and the infirm but insists her work is not therapy: ``There's a huge difference. We teach art. We want to make people artists. And this allows us to teach them their strengths rather than their weaknesses.''

But the world conspires against those dancers who want to serve their communities as well as their paying audiences. Most colleges, for example, split their dance programs into two distinct tracks: performance/choreography and dance education. It's somehow more respectable for a professional to wait tables between dance engagements than to teach dance and perform. ``This is despicable, and must be changed,'' Lerman contends.

She divides her time between her choreography, performance, and community work. She favors subject matter in her work - ``things I'm trying to understand - like the defense budget,'' she says.

Lerman uses text in her presentations, as have each of the other guest artists at this festival. Text has really been part of modern dance since the very beginning, but its use waxes and wanes.

``There are some brilliant people whose work is still about movement, of course, but text is very important again,'' says Kirn. ``Liz's work is content-driven, as is Lucas Hoving's. There's a very direct link between text and movement.''

The work of Steve Paxton and Lisa Nelson incorporates text in a way that most closely resembles conceptual art. ``Conceptual art uses language like a flavoring or a coloring or like rhythm,'' Kirn explains. ``But their work is not just cerebral, as conceptual art is; it's also perceptual - intuitive, improvisational, and feeling-based.

``This is a time when a lot of artists are coming together in interdisciplinary works,'' Kirn continues. ``We don't even have the language to describe these crossovers of disciplines. We call it `new performance' rather than just `performance' because performance art came out of the visual arts, and these works by Lerman, Zaloom, and Hoving, are linked to dance or theater.''

One of the more unusual festival performers is puppeteer Paul Zaloom, whose frenetic pieces attack various forms of urban madness, pollution, and food additives. His routines vaguely resemble a ``Saturday Night Live'' sketch by the late Gilda Radner - with political punch. It may not be dance, but Zaloom is certainly a performance artist whose caustic political humor requires the audience to think about pressing environmental issues.

The Colorado Dance Festival is also underlining the return of jazz tap to the public eye. Tonight's ``Tap/Doo Wop!'' concert features some legendary jazz-tap artists, including James ``Buster'' Brown, Steve Condos, Anita Feldman, Sarah Petronio, LaVaughn Robinson, and Jimmy Slyde. Several of these dancers are well into their seventies, and Kirn, who has brought tap back again and again to Denver and Boulder, found important inspiration for this year's festival among them. ``I never thought of them as senior citizens,'' she says. ``I always thought of them as artists.''

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