A comfortable mix on stage, in town Dance: In its ranks, troupe is as diverse and funky as, well, as Takoma Park.

January 09, 1998|By Judith Green | Judith Green,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

TAKOMA PARK -- By a mile or so, Liz Lerman Dance Exchange is now a Maryland dance company.

Well-known nationally for its diverse complement of dancers and community philosophy, Lerman's longtime Washington-based

troupe moved a year ago to a former post office in Takoma Park -- about 1,700 yards over the D.C. line.

Its concert this weekend at the Dance Place, Washington's busy venue for contemporary dance, continues a long tradition. But the company also is exploring its new state, with projects in local schools and a long-term relationship, beginning next summer, with the Columbia Festival of the Arts.

The neighbors in Takoma Park seem to be delighted with the Lerman Dance Exchange and all it represents. Its activities include classes for children and seniors at its new facility and outreach to the many ethnic enclaves -- Latin American, Southeast Asian and African-American -- that call this suburb home.

A photograph of the company is like a family portrait of the multicultural age: dancers of all colors and ages, economic levels and cultural backgrounds. And it was like this long before diversity became a buzzword.

With cars in the dance center's tiny parking lot bearing bumper stickers for causes ranging from union labor to abortion rights, it's easy to see why the Lerman company likes Takoma Park.

"We're the only dance company in the country in a nuclear-free zone," jokes Lerman (there are others).

Lerman, 50, from Los Angeles, studied dance at Brandeis University and moved to the Washington area in 1975 and lives in Silver Spring. As with most dancers, she scrambled to make a living, teaching as well as dancing.

While she was giving movement classes for seniors, her mother died, and she decided to incorporate women of her mother's age a memorial dance called "Woman of the Clear Vision."

That was the beginning of Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, which now, 21 years later, is a company of eight full-time dancers ranging in age from 24 to 72.

Thomas Dwyer, the second most senior member of the company at 63, joined 10 years ago in a way typical of Lerman's informal methods.

His older brother had been dancing with one of Lerman's senior groups, and Dwyer went to a performance, enjoyed it and asked to join. He was told he wasn't old enough, so he enrolled in class and started to hang around the company. A few months later, when an older woman in the company fell ill just before an international tour, he was asked to take her place. He's been dancing ever since.

A retired federal worker who lives in Jessup, Dwyer is long and lanky, with a shock of white hair and bright blue eyes. (He's all bones and says "just dancing around" has brought his weight down to 127 pounds.) From his former job at the Department of Defense, he probably didn't guess he'd end up a choreographer, but the Dance Place concert includes his second work.

"It's for two women in their 50s," he says. "One's a psychotherapist, and one was a ballerina 25 years ago in the Australian Ballet." Rachel Ripple is the psychotherapist and Jillian Ray the ballerina. Ray's husband, David Minton, is the Lerman Dance Exchange's managing director and overseer of the $150,000 renovation of the building.

That's another Lerman Dance Exchange hallmark: It's a family affair. Ray and Minton's 12-year-old daughter, Imogen, is in Dwyer's piece. John Borstel, director of marketing and development, and other staff members are in a work by Martha Wittman, formerly one of Lerman's teachers at Bennington College. In Lerman's office, play space is set aside for her 9-year-old daughter, Anna Spelman, who will help her mother teach a class for mothers and daughters.

Adrienne Clancy, another company member, is Dwyer's polar opposite. She's 28, a trained dancer and former member of Bella Lewitzky Dance Company in Los Angeles, which disbanded two years ago after 25 years of existence.

But her experience with its abstract, pure-movement style hasn't left Clancy too rarefied for the Lerman company's community-based dance. She studied dance education at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, working mostly with non-dancers. And the piece she's offering on the Dance Place concert, "Les Ames-Soeurs" ("Soul Sisters"), which uses images from her childhood as one of four girls in an Irish Catholic family, incorporates two 10-year-old girls from a Lerman company project at Takoma Elementary School.

Lerman tells a story to show how much at home she already feels in her new digs. Last fall, with the first phase of renovation almost finished, her Dance Exchange held an open house for its neighbors, and a bulletin board was made available for them to post questions, comments and messages. Not too many days before, Lerman had spent a morning in traffic court to contest a ticket. She won her case. And on the bulletin board, she found a note: "I hope you do as well here as you did in traffic court."

"I can't think of a better place for us to live and work," she says.

Liz Lerman Dance Exchange

When: 8 p.m. today and tomorrow, 4 p.m. Sunday

Where: Dance Place, 3225 Eighth St. NW, Washington

Tickets: $12; $10 students, seniors, artists; $5 teens and children; $2 off all tickets today

Call: 202-269-1600

Pub Date: 1/09/98

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