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Theodore Bale
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Cutler Majestic Theatre
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Liz Lerman Dance Exchange and Sayat Nova Dance Company - Out of Darkness

by Theodore Bale
March 22, 2008
Cutler Majestic Theatre
219 Tremont Street
Boston, MA 02116
617-824-8000
One of the dance world's foremost humanists, Liz Lerman remains serious about providing a forum for all sorts of people to disseminate their personal stories. The consequent, wide-ranging narratives associated with her choreography extend from joyful to gloomy, mysterious to concrete, and sometimes they even supersede the theatrical outcome of the resulting dances.

Last Saturday at Boston's Cutler Majestic Theatre, Liz Lerman Dance Exchange offered a compelling program titled "Out of Darkness," created in conjunction with the Boston-based Armenian ensemble Sayat Nova Dance Company and presented by the New Center for Arts and Culture. The evening's disturbing theme was genocide, with particular emphasis on the Ottoman Empire's murder of nearly 1.5 million Armenians during and following the First World War.The program included three lengthy works: Lerman's 2005 "Small Dances About Big Ideas," Sayat Nova artistic director Apo Ashjian's "A Child Questions History," and the premiere of the collaboration "A Prologue of Pictures," choreographed by Ashjian and the Exchange's Shula Strassfeld, and Peter DiMuro.

Even Lerman's title "Small Dances About Big Ideas" suggests that the choreography itself is subordinate to greater concepts. This is perplexing because it is the movement, as well as the greater organization of the choreographic events, and not necessarily the narratives that makes this one of Lerman's most emphatic and convincing dances in recent years. At the opening men and women emerge from behind three black panels only to fall, one by one, as the victims of machine-gun fire. The scene repeats several times as three women representing the Norns (apparently benevolent and compassionate ones here, whose duties are described as "guiding justice") float around the victims. Darron L. West's sound-scape is irrefutable, a layering of diverse elements from spoken excerpts from the Nuremberg trials to poignant string quartet melodies and sounds of bombs exploding. One dancer portrays Polish-Jewish scholar Raphael Lemkin, who in 1943 created the term "genocide." Eventually the action centers on Rwanda, as evidenced by drumming and a sort of "go-go" solo by one of the younger women in Lerman's company, and includes references to many other international situations of genocide, including Armenia. Peter DiMuro, the company's producing artistic director as well as one of its most prominent dancers, is sort of the master of ceremonies throughout. In his plain grey suit, white dress shirt and red pocket-square, he is a commanding and glamorous figure at the heart of the action. Near the end he forsakes dancing for speaking, breaks the "fourth wall" and encourages the dancers to leave the stage and speak with audience members about genocide. The house lights came up. Martha Wittman, one of the Norns, approached and asked me when I first heard the word "genocide." I explained that when I was a young child my family watched Stanley Kramer's 1961 "Judgment at Nuremberg" on television, that my mother was very enthusiastic about Judy Garland's role in the film, and that I believed it was the first time I'd heard the term. DiMuro taught the audience a series of apparently improvisatory gestures based on prior events. The story I'd shared with Martha, of course, paled instantly with the stories from Armenian descendents in the audience who had grown up hearing horrific tales from their parents and grandparents. "Small Dances About Big Ideas" is one of the most engaged experiences I've had in a theater in many years. The dances, however, are bigger than Lerman's title suggests.

The program continued with Ashjian's "A Child Questions History," featuring skillful Armenian folkdances for a very large group, interspersed with scenes of an old woman (carrying a large bible) explaining aspects of the Armenian genocide to a little girl. There were additional monologues from the adult dancers as well as devastating photos of massacre projected upstage. Oddly, the narratives were lip-synched to a prepared tape. "I feel so afraid," said the little girl during one moment, but somehow the text didn't seem to ring true. The theater viewer, of course, would rather see her afraid than be told about it. Music by Ara Gevorkian and Khachadour Avedissian was a series of apparent Armenian melodies synthesized and patched together with a kind of drum-machine rhythmic line underneath. Costumes were opulent: long red dresses in red and gold, transformed in a following scene to the shades of blue and white that characterize Wedgwood china. In terms of spectacle, it was a deeply satisfying dance.

Whereas the first work of the evening had been danced by the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange and the second work had been danced by the Sayat Nova Dance Company, the final work of the evening included dancers from both companies. The finale, "A Prologue of Pictures," vacillated between euphoria and diluted modernism. Lerman's dancers were hardly integrated into the Sayat Nova ensemble until the rousing unison phrases at the end. It's difficult to consider the piece as an authentic collaboration, but as Lerman and DiMuro had explained just prior, "we have been in deepest discussion about how to end this evening." A projected quote from William Saroyan captured the determination and forward-looking stance of contemporary Armenians, which was reflected in the powerful stamping phrases. In the end, for me the entire evening evoked a question raised by philosopher Jacques Derrida: can we ever forgive acts which are, without doubt, unforgivable?

For more information visit www.danceexchange.org, www.sayatnova.com, and www.ncacboston.org.

To contact Theodore Bale, email him at tbale@aol.com .
Female members of Sayat Nova Dance Company rehearse for the March 22 performance, Out of Darkness, a dance collaboration with the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange. The performance was presented by the New Center for Arts and Culture in partnership with Facing History and Ourselves.  It explored themes of mass violence in our time and a healing reflection on the scope of human compassion.

Female members of Sayat Nova Dance Company rehearse for the March 22 performance, Out of Darkness, a dance collaboration with the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange. The performance was presented by the New Center for Arts and Culture in partnership with Facing History and Ourselves. It explored themes of mass violence in our time and a healing reflection on the scope of human compassion.

Photo © & courtesy of Michael Dwyer


Members of the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange rehearse for the March 22 performance, Out of Darkness, a dance collaboration with Sayat Nova Dance Company. The performance was presented by the New Center for Arts and Culture in partnership with Facing History and Ourselves. The performance explored themes of mass violence in our time and a healing reflection on the scope of human compassion.

Members of the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange rehearse for the March 22 performance, Out of Darkness, a dance collaboration with Sayat Nova Dance Company. The performance was presented by the New Center for Arts and Culture in partnership with Facing History and Ourselves. The performance explored themes of mass violence in our time and a healing reflection on the scope of human compassion.

Photo © & courtesy of Michael Dwyer


A member of the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange in rehearsal for the March 22 performance, Out of Darkness, a dance collaboration with Sayat Nova Dance Company. The performance was presented by the New Center for Arts and Culture in partnership with Facing History and Ourselves. The performance explored themes of mass violence in our time and a healing reflection on the scope of human compassion.

A member of the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange in rehearsal for the March 22 performance, Out of Darkness, a dance collaboration with Sayat Nova Dance Company. The performance was presented by the New Center for Arts and Culture in partnership with Facing History and Ourselves. The performance explored themes of mass violence in our time and a healing reflection on the scope of human compassion.

Photo © & courtesy of Michael Dwyer


Members of both dance companies join hands for the March 22 performance, Out of Darkness, a dance collaboration between the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange and Sayat Nova Dance Company. The performance was presented by the New Center for Arts and Culture in partnership with Facing History and Ourselves. It explored themes of mass violence in our time and a healing reflection on the scope of human compassion.

Members of both dance companies join hands for the March 22 performance, Out of Darkness, a dance collaboration between the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange and Sayat Nova Dance Company. The performance was presented by the New Center for Arts and Culture in partnership with Facing History and Ourselves. It explored themes of mass violence in our time and a healing reflection on the scope of human compassion.

Photo © & courtesy of Michael Dwyer

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