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Liz Lerman's Hallelujah initiative is a unique body of work that stretches across the nation, capturing the essence of every community it touches. In this interview, Lerman talks about what she hopes to achieve and the pivotal points in her career that led her to this project.

Liz, how would you describe the Hallelujah project, and what do you hope to achieve with it?

Hallelujah is a multi-media performance event that combines music, dance and stories. It's an initiative in art-making and community participation that considers the question, "What are we in praise of?" Through it, we are creating a series of dances and other outcomes that address who we are and what issues we feel are important to us. In sum, it will embrace all of the beauty, strength and quirkiness of edge-of-the-millennium America. Look - here we are in Maine at dawn, greeting the year 2000 in music and dance, joined by hundreds of residents of a small fishing village. Look again, we are in Arizona, performing with a legion of choral groups, celebrating our diversity, but united in place and time.

As Hallelujah rolls out, will every performance be unique to a particular site?

Yes - and no. We want participating communities to see they are part of something larger. Therefore, every performance includes local elements as well as elements from other sources. Picture a beautiful necklace composed of many beads. Each community contributes beads to this necklace. As we build sections, the beads can travel and be used again and again. Clearly, we know we're going to have way too much material, so we'll be refining and editing that necklace as we go along. At the end of the project, we should have an incredible product!

One component of the Hallelujah project -- "The Gates of Praise"-will open every culminating event. It was first produced in March 1999 and has been reworked and refined since. The notion for the dance was that Hallelujah might be the light we can see during hard times. It is then that many of us go through a series of emotional gates. My mother's death was actually a gate for me, because it helped me get out of a dark time in my life. I'd never envisioned her death as a piece of light, but in a way it was. Now some of our community work may offer people the chance to go through that process.

How did your mother's death become a "gate" for you?

In 1975, my mother became ill and was given only a few months to live. I left Washington, D.C. where I was teaching at George Washington University (GW) and went home to be with her until she died. In a way, her death helped crystallize my future: I decided to create a dance piece that reflected our incredible experience of her dying. It was called "Woman of the Clear Vision." For me, it was a marriage of healing and art, but it also gave direction to my work.

The piece, by its very nature, had to have older people in it. When I returned to Washington, I began working with a class of about 60 people at the Roosevelt Hotel for Senior Citizens. They were amazing! Some of the residents agreed to be in this piece. My students from GW also were in it, as were some professional dancers from the area. So, I was beginning to pull together this notion of professionals and nonprofessionals working together, young and old, trained and untrained.

What was the response to "Woman of Clear Vision"?

The audiences loved it. But, then the older participants turned to me and said, "What's next?" I continued to teach at the Roosevelt for 10 years. It's where I did all of my training about diversity. We began to get a lot of calls from other senior centers, and when I asked who wanted to go, about 20 residents raised their hands. So we'd caravan out to these senior centers. One day, a resident said to me, "You know, Liz, if you'd rehearse us, we'd be better." What a revelation! We began to rehearse and changed our name from the Roosevelt Hotel Senior Citizen Dance Touring Company to the Dancers of the Third Age.

What were the dances about?

We created dances about the lives of people who were in the company. I'll never forget -- one of the performers was an amazing 90-year-old man named Harry. He had been a lumberjack in upper Michigan. Based on his life, we created a really silly dance for children in which the seniors would all be chopping trees. Though I wasn't a very good choreographer yet, I loved this particular one. We'd all say "Timber," and the dancers would fall down. The kids loved it!

One day, this older dancer came up to me after class and said, "I want you to know I just took a bath." I said, "Good." He said, "No, you don't understand. I haven't been able to get up and down. I've only been in the shower, but since we've been falling in this dance, I've figured out how to do it. So thank you!" That's when I realized people's lives change when they get art in their hands, in their bodies, in their minds. And so these people became empowered.

How did the Dance Exchange evolve?

At the time I was working with the older people at the Roosevelt, I was also working with advanced dancers. At some point, I realized we needed to put both groups together. We closed the Dancers of the Third Age, because it meant only old people, and, from then on, when you hired the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, which was officially formed in 1976, you got people of all ages, from 20 years on. Once the company took hold, we began to tour. Initially people would bring us in for a half-week, and we would do master classes. Over time we began to expand the amount of time we stayed in one location, and also began to develop residencies with broader participation.

When did you decide to bring the community in?

Perhaps the breakthrough piece for us was "Still Crossing," which was commissioned for the Statue of Liberty Bicentennial. The work was about immigration, and we performed it at the very tip of Manhattan. The last three minutes of the dance were created for older people, and by the time the dance was over, the stage was just filled with senior participants. It was so beautiful. Through this, we had developed a mechanism by which we could have local people perform on stage with us when we toured. Locals became part of our formal concert, not just participants at informal workshop gatherings. That began to affect the way we traveled, and I would say that's the envelope we've been pushing since. Hallelujah is the culmination of all that.

Involving the public in a formal concert - isn't that a fairly daring enterprise?

As the older people in my mom's dance discovered, once you dance, you don't want to stop. We keep insisting that the work in the community is not separate from our formal concert work. Most people have an either/or mentality, but for me it is not a dichotomy. The notion that to be professional is to be uninvolved in the community is so sad. But we know this is true in every profession. In many cases, separating the two hasn't served art or people very well.

Perhaps this is where dance should be going in the next millennium. The dawn of the new century is a watershed, a place of ferment, a time in which people can move from a place of angst to a place of celebration. It would be really cool to look back and say, "The century started out with a scrappy little company that went around the country and developed these amazing explosions of movement and spirit. Just the audacity of it!"