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This will be a place where
different points of view can be heard...
If people here can talk about it, listen to it,
then that's a start. Art is good at that.
Liz Lerman, director,
Liz Lerman Dance Exchange
At the launching of the Shipyard Project residency, nine dancers offered a preview to an audience of retired nuclear engineers, Rotary Club members, teachers, and real estate appraisers at Portsmouth, New Hampshire's Music Hall. In a captivating dance, the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange had transformed its initial impressions of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. According to the Portsmouth Herald, audience response suggested that the dance company had already elicited a "new respect" for the shipyard. The company also seemed ready for the challenges of its upcoming residency. The Herald reported, "During a question-and-answer period near the end of the program, Liz Lerman was asked the potentially tricky question about how the issue of toxic wastes would be addressed. 'I don't think we'll have a point of view,' said Lerman. 'But this will be a place where different points of view can be heard.' Even if people hear a point of view they do not like, Lerman said,'we have to stay in the room together. If people here can talk about it, listen to it, then that's a start. Art is good at that.'"
The purpose of the Shipyard Project was to explore the significance of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard to the lives of people in Portsmouth. As the country's oldest naval base and a facility that repairs nuclear submarines, the shipyard had been at the center of many issues. The project was conceived by the Music Hall of Portsmouth as a way to address anxieties in the community resulting from recent downsizing and efforts to close the yard.
Throughout the two-year residency, Lerman and her dancers, current and retired shipyard workers, officers' wives, youth, and local citizens told their stories. Dance Exchange members and local participants trained in collecting oral histories led story workshops. Although the initial goal was to focus the residency on the implications of closing the yard, other issues emerged through this dialogue process: The shipyard's nuclear waste storage and fears of contamination; racism and sexism in the military; the challenges and fears of military wives; and recollections of traumatic historic events. These issues and themes became the framework for discussions and the raw material from which the Dance Exchange developed a commissioned dance piece.
The project culminated in a three-week event featuring an opening ceremony, performances by Lerman's company involving middle-school students and local guest performers, seacoast songs composed and performed by musicians from Portsmouth, a shipyard fashion show "annotated" with stories collected for the project, and a culminating dance on boats and bridges performed by the Liz Lerman dancers and community members.
Dancer Peter DiMuro described the artistic impact of the project on the company: "Portsmouth feeds our art. We are pushed to explore new metaphors because we work with different stories and different sites at the yard." For Music Hall project director Jane Hirshberg, the project catalyzed a "profound change" in her feelings about the military. It served to humanize the shipyard for her, and she gained respect for the generations of families that have relied on it for their livelihood.
Participants found an entry to contemporary dance through the project. Early on, many had admitted to feeling puzzled as to how their experiences could translate into movement. Their questions became the focus of discussions. Those who participated in storytelling and dance activities clearly came to see their gestures and experiences in terms of movement metaphors. Lerman observes, "Once you've followed the process of hearing and telling stories, and then turning those stories into a series of movements, you've changed your ability to be an audience."
Through the Shipyard Project, community members also discovered unexpected connections between people as they explored value systems and beliefs different from their own. A shipyard employee commented, " ... The way Liz presents things, you open up and trust. Liz says, 'Come play,' and you are participating ...I never would have done anything like this if I hadn't gotten involved in the project. Through the medium of dance, we can tackle threatening issues without threatening anyone."
(Excerpted from "Animating Democracy: The Artistic Imagination as a Force in Civic Dialogue," A Report Commissioned by The Ford Foundation from a study conducted by Americans for the Arts and its Institute for Community Development and the Arts. A condensed version is available in book form through Americans for the Arts on its web site,