Lee’s Stories

Lee’s Stories

home >> Teaching and Learning >> Creativity: The Case of Liz Lerman
posted on November 4, 2009 | Teaching and Learning, Creativity
Creativity: The Case of Liz Lerman

I recently
attended three events
associated with the biennial Dan
in Vancouver Conference, sponsored

by the Scotiabank Dance Centre. Coming
into art from a lifetime in the sciences, as I
have, I was at the same time thrilled,
inspired, and deeply moved
personally by those

The first was
the first public showing
of a segment of Experiments. This is
a dance production other scientists and
I have been working on with Gail Lotenberg,
choreographer and artistic director of 
Dance Foundation
, to communicate the essence
of science as a way of learning about the
world and learning about ourselves
as curious beings who want
to understand. 

The timing of
that first performance was
perfect.  Many dancers, choreographers,
funders, and related professionals were here
for the conference, available to provide feedback
for improvement. But how can an audience of
strangers usefully communicate with
one choreographer?

That process was
facilitated by Liz Lerman, founder of
Liz Lerman Dance Exhange in Maryland.
She was here to receive Simon Fraser University’s
Jack P. Blaney award for Dialogue.
One of the many accomplishments Lerman’s
award recognized was the critical
response process
she demon-
strated immediately after
the Experiments

A key element
of the creative process in any
field, from science to literature to the
performing arts, is to produce finished pro-
ducts from rough ideas. Having ideas is one
thing, and we’ve heard many times that
good ideas are a dime a dozen.
It is quite another thing to make
them real and make
them work.

In science,
experiments often fail
at first and we have to tune them
to make them work. I must edit and edit
and re-edit my writing before it starts to feel
right, then edit more after I ask others to comment.
In sculpting, I make thousands of adjustments to
forms before I declare them finished. And I
am discovering that it is no different
in choreography. Perfor-
mances evolve. 

Dancers spend
months rehearsing, bringing
productions closer and closer to a
choreographic vision; that part is obvious.
We practice and get better.  But I hadn’t fully
considered that the vision itself keeps changing
too, just as it does in any other creative pursuit.
Perfection is a moving target, and
that’s where Liz Lerman
comes in.

Built on simple
principles like trust and
, Her critical response process
is a rich source of valuable information about
works audiences have just seen with a minimum
of embarrassment to anyone, with safety for
everyone, and a laser-beam specificity that
lends the feedback power and punch,
increasing its value to the

And brilliantly

In a brief
introduction immediately
after the performance, Lerman outlined
the importance of feedback in developing
works in progress. She stressed that to be effective,
feedback must be respectful, express personal
experience of the work, not just ideas about it,
and not offer advice unless it is asked for. She
outlined four separate categories of
, and promised to invite
them in successive stages.

of meaning
.  Responders
state what is meaningful, evocative,
exciting, interesting, or striking in the work
they just witnessed. Some comments were raw and
emotional, expressing something personal about the
responder’s experience. Others, more cerebral, were
couched in the choreographic language of
symbols, gestures, and movements
in addressing meaning.

Both kinds of
statements were useful
to Gail. Interestingly, it took gentle
guidance by Lerman to keep comments on
the work the audience actually saw, rather
than imaginary ideals or suggestions
for improvement.

Artist as
. The chore-
ographer asks questions about the
work. Gail briefly outlined what she had
tried to accomplish with the segment, then
asked questions about how well the piece had done
Did how the dancers interacted with the props
convey XYZ?  
Did it work to use three colours of props?
Did you catch it when the male dancer shifted between
his two roles?  
Her questions pointed clearly to issues
she had been struggling with, and most responders
spoke directly to those concerns. Again, Lerman
ensured that responses addressed what she
asked, and that they included no
suggestions for changes.

. Respondents

ask the choreographer neutral ques-
tions about the choreography – – questions
that convey no judgment or advice.  “
What ideas
guided your use of lighting (music, spoken word)?”
They are requests for information or understand-
ing only, and don’t challenge skill or wisdom.
With Lerman’s skilled guidance, those
questions probed deeply but

clearly moved Gail,
and literally opened her eyes,
right there in public, to new
ways of thinking about
her work.

Opinion time.
Following a rigid protocol
word for word, viewers offer sug-
gestions to improve the work.  “I have
an opinion about XYZ.  Would you like
hear it?”  “Yes, I want to hear your
opinion about XYZ.”  She could
have declined but
never did.

Note that
the process saves
opinions for last, and uses
formal, unambiguous language to
offer, request, deliver, and acknowledge
them. Both
features are important in
teaching or learning of any
kind, I think.

The first
three steps in Lerman’s
critical response process established
understanding of what the work
was about. They revealed the choreographer
as a professional and a human being.  Similarly,
they revealed discerning, sensitive, caring pro-
fessionals who clearly loved and respected
dance, dancers, and choreographers
(and scientific advisors!).

In practice,
that gave Gail a taste
of what her audience had thought
and felt about the work, and established
a basis of openness and trust. When we got
to the opinions, everyone including Gail was
ready for them. It was clear from their
voices that responders wanted to
help.  Equally clearly,
Gail was eager for

When Gail said
“Thank you!” at the end,
everyone knew she
meant it.

The critical
response process I saw
that day was as well-designed and
well-executed as any large-group function
I can remember and as powerfully effective in
its teaching and learning functions. It lasted
less than an hour, but an enormous amount
of valuable information changed hands
during that hour of highly structured
interactions about something
important to everyone. 

I sure
learned a lot, not
only about dance and choreo-
graphy in particular but teaching and
learning in general.  A similar session earlier
the same day lasted for three hours, almost all
of it in critical response.  Gail found both
sessions useful, and their benefits
that clearly showed in the
final product.

I was also
one of a small group  the
next day at Gail’s house on Bowen
Island.  Lerman, Lotenberg, a dancer, a
LINKDance board member, the director of
the SFU Centre for Dialogue, a representative of
Heritage Canada in Ottawa, Gail’s husband (a
behavioural ecologist colleague), and I.  I left
knowing I wanted to learn more about Liz
Lerman, and knowing I wanted to
think about her critical
response process.

Then I attended
the formal Blaney Award
ceremony at SFU.  Three 3 dancers from
the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange performed
snippets of recent productions. Each in its own
way, those performances, and Lerman’s
narration and explanation, afforded a
clear view of her as an educator,
a choreographer, and
a person. 

The dancers
showcased the Dance Exchange
as a collaborative, community-spirited
venture in which dancers are also choreographers.
And they opened a window for me into a community
of movement that stretches across generations,
geography, and circumstances and  engages
A special treat for me in those
performances was 74 year old
dancer and choreographer
Martha Wittman.

She had been
Lerman’s college teacher 30
years earlier and is now a profes-
sional member of the Dance Exchange.
When 20-something or 30-something dancers
do impossible things on a stage it is impressive.  But
when a 70-something dancer does them, right there in
front of my 67-year-old body, then talks with me
about it afterward, it is astounding, awe-
inspiring, and encouraging in
many ways.

gave me hope
for my own sculpting to
watch Martha dance.  
I hereby
give myself permission to keep carving
rocks for
a few more decades.  Thank you
for that, Martha!  
Thank you, Liz,
for believing that dancing
is for anyone.

The Liz Lerman
Dance Exhange website
offers links
to articles, reviews, and events related to
critical response, and to a book Lerman
wrote on the subject.  A
 blog site
houses a discussion of its
various features.

Several of
my stories are about
helping undergraduate students
receive feedback from their peers. 
One is
about an 
early stage of research, always scary,
when students don’t quite yet know what they want
to know in their work so don’t know how to find out.
Ignorance about some topic was still organizing
itself as questions worth asking, and students
worried about questions they couldn’t
They were struggling
for clarity, and for ideas
to guide their

Another story
is at a late stage, also scary,
when students are analyzing their results,
evaluating their hypotheses, and deciding what
to write about it.  They were writing
 drafts of
written reports
on that research.

First published in the Vancouver Observer.

Edited March 2021

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