In Liz Lerman’s ‘Wicked Bodies’ performance, audience invited into choreographic process

Paloma McGregor performs at Balch Auditorium Feb. 5. (Meghan Joyce • The Student Life)

Keith Thompson, a member of choreographer Liz Lerman’s Dance Exchange, had some advice about how to deal with witches:

“One, don’t feed them: They’re on a particularly strict diet, and you probably don’t have anything they’d want anyways except for some thumbs and some toes,” he told the audience at Scripps College’s Balch Auditorium on Tuesday night. “Two, you may want to avoid any sudden movements or thoughts because they’re very sensitive. Three, if you happen to be wearing something very aromatic or herbal in nature, it might get their attention. But don’t worry too much.”

And so began the informal showing of Lerman’s work in progress, “Wicked Bodies.” On the tiled floor in front of the Balch stage, nine dancers dressed in gray moved in and out of the space in choreographed asynchrony. Among the performers were three professionals from Liz Lerman’s Dance Exchange — Thompson, Sam Horning and Paloma McGregor — and six 5C student dancers.

The dancers were accompanied by Martha Gonzalez, assistant professor of Chicana/o Latina/o studies at Scripps, who served as a guitarist and vocalist. Ronnie Brosterman, dance department chair at Scripps, also made an appearance during the last ensemble.

McGregor performs Feb. 5. (Meghan Joyce • The Student Life)

According to her website, Lerman’s inspiration for “Wicked Bodies” stemmed from a visit to the National Museum of Scotland. There, she saw an exhibit called “Witches and Wicked Bodies” that featured 500 years of prints and drawings of witches. With the realization that every culture and historical period has its witches, and that in each, the imagery of “sly, grotesque, sensual, [and] wildly creative” women is persistent, she questioned why some knowledge is celebrated, some erased and some criminalized.

For a year, Lerman has worked through these questions with Scripps students and faculty as part of a residency to develop what will be her final piece premiering in the 2020-21 season. This past weekend, Lerman returned to campus for a final time and invited dancers to participate in workshops to prepare for the “work in progress” performance Tuesday night.

Before each section of Lerman’s piece, she or another dancer from her company came out to explain the concept behind what the audience was about to see. In one section, Lerman and longtime collaborator Thompson performed a duet, with Thompson’s interpretive movement accompanying Lerman’s spoken text.

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Thompson then presented his solo, performed alongside a “corrido,” a narrative art form that lacks a chorus, composed by Gonzalez. By inviting the audience inside these separate processes, Lerman demonstrated the different ways in which text and music inspire movement.

In another section, Horning explained and danced through the process of developing an alphabet by using movement to spell and create spells. McGregor later explained that the inspiration for the student dancers’ gestural movements was generated by thinking about ancestral relationships.

There were moments when dancers sat atop each others’ shoulders and cast shadows onto the auditorium wall, moments when they gently slid from the tile onto the stage, moments when dancers lived in their own world of individual rituals and moments when they came back together to cast spells as an ensemble.

Explaining the collaborative nature of her choreographic philosophy, Lerman told the audience: “For me, making work is entirely dependent on the people with whom I’m working. People change what happens as soon as you enter the room, including you guys tonight in how you respond to what we’re doing.”

Sasha Marlan-Librett SC ’22, a dancer who participated in Lerman’s workshops, said the performance really did resemble a work in progress.

“Anytime they were giving us instructions, it was as if they were figuring it out themselves also,” she said. “She’s really good at delegating. It was so collaborative. Keith was teaching us a lot of the movement, and so were Paloma and Sam. So I liked getting feedback from everyone.“

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