Tea, Dance and Ideas: Ben Wegman of Liz Lerman Dance Exhange on the Systems of Sustainability Symposium

Liz Lerman Dance Exchange in Drift
Photo by George Hagegeorge

At the end of this month, a group of deep thinking innovators will descend on the Bayou City to contemplate the intersection of art and sustainability for a three-day art festival and symposium called “Systems of Sustainability: Art, Innovation, Action” (S.O.S.) developed by University of Houston Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts and Blaffer Gallery, the Art Museum of the University of Houston, in close consultation with Liz Lerman, Founding Artistic Director of the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange and Dr. Robert Harriss, President of the Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC). S.O.S. features artist presentations, tours, open discussions, and dance performances by Liz Lerman Dance Exchange.

Last month, I had a chance to visit with Lerman, and two of her dancers, Ben Wegman, and Matt Mahaney, while they scoped out the possibilities for dance on the University of Houston campus, anticipated interactions with the S.O.S. program of activities, and experimented with their new Tea concept which will entail performance and dialogue. Lerman, choreographer and general mix master of minds, hopes for a highly interactive experience for all. Project lead, Wegman brings us into the thinking behind the Dance Exchange’s involvement in S.O.S and the event’s many dance elements

At the end of this month, a group of deep thinking innovators will descend on the Bayou City to contemplate the intersection of art and sustainability for a three-day symposium and art festival called Systems of Sustainability (S.O.S) Art, Innovation, Action, developed by University of Houston Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts and Blaffer Gallery, the Art Museum of the University of Houston, in close consultation with Liz Lerman Dance Exchange and Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC). The conference features lectures, tours, open discussions, and dance performances by Liz Lerman Dance Exchange.

Last month, I had a chance to visit with Lerman, and two of her dancers, Ben Wegman, and Matt Mahaney, while they scoped out the possibilities for dance, interaction with the exhibits . and their new Tea concept which will entail performance and dialogue. Lerman, choreographer and general mix master of minds, hopes for a highly interactive experience for all. Project lead, Wegman brings us into the thinking behind S.O.S and event’s many dance elements.

Dance Source Houston: What does being project lead entail? It sounds very serious and official.

Ben Wegman: Project leading is an ever adjusting role at the Dance Exchange. With our more established work, the project lead role entails creating and casting workshops and classes and overseeing the schedule for the company’s well being.

I am not only helping to schedule our day to day activities for the company but helping in the creation and imagining of our Tea dialogue/performance structures and being the Dance Exchange point person of contact and through-line for the many artists and students we are working with at the University of Houston. In some ways, I function as an all purpose logistics man.


DSH: The one thing I remember about working with Lerman is that it’s not a job for asleep at the wheel types. How is working with Lerman activating different parts of your brain?

BW: Working with Liz is a constant activation of the brain as a mover, creator, speaker, writer, teacher, and facilitator. Liz likes people with their own ideas, people who have the ability to constantly reevaluate the situation.

In rehearsal alone, you may be asked to make movement, and then annotate the process of creation. The ability to articulate what you have just done or seen is one that is constantly activating the brain in different ways.


DSH: What about your dancing brain? Lerman expects her dancers to be co-creators. Since you are fairly new with the troupe is that new for you?

BW: It is and it isn’t. Thankfully I’ve had some great teachers throughout the years who encouraged me and pushed me to speak with my own artistic voice. I was always someone who choreographed as much as I danced throughout school. What has been eye-opening for me has been the idea of co-creation with multiple artistic voices in the room. It’s different creating dance by yourself than it is with 9 other people in a room who all have strong artistic voices and ideas and are simultaneously creating for the same project. This creative collaboration has truly been the extreme learning curve I’ve experienced.


DSH: Did anything in your background or education prepare you for the work you are doing now?

BW: Like many, I come from a background of very strict and narrow training that didn’t serve me very well. I was always the student causing trouble, which in many classes simply meant asking questions, raising opinions and ideas. I think my exasperation with what I experienced as a very narrow minded dance world led me to seek out work like the Dance Exchange.


DSH: Let’s talk about the conference. The line-up is broad and not remotely dance focused. How do you see dance has a connecting thread?

BW: Well, to begin with we all move. If we can simply begin by seeing our bodies as structures we have to sustain, that we have to take care of, then we are already connecting people from all fields.

I think dance is also a connecting thread in the sense that dancers have always had to re-imagine, to re-evaluate, their paradigm to survive and sustain. Dance has never been a huge money-maker in this country, never a secure enterprise. Dancers have always adapted to or because of the culture of the time.


DSH: Liz is experimenting with her community Tea concept. So you are testing the concept on us. OK. I’ll go with that. What’s the idea behind the Teas?

BW: Our ideas for the Teas came to us through our research for Liz’s next large scale work, The Matter of Origins. Liz and I traveled to CERN (The European Organization for Nuclear Research) last year to speak with numerous physicists and experience the large hadron collider in person. After being there, we realized that we could not tell the story of CERN without moving back in history and looking at the experience of Los Alamos.

Once you think Los Alamos, of course you think J. Robert Oppenheimer. Liz was especially intrigued by one small line from American Prometheus, the biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer (which is an amazing read by the way), that describes a small teahouse outside of Los Alamos. We found out that the government shut down all the businesses for miles around Los Alamos, except for one small teahouse run by a woman named Edith Warner. Two of three times a week Edith Warner fed physicists and engineers from Los Alamos, having no idea who they were really were or what they were working on.

The story was naturally curious and ripe with questions for us. What happened at these meals? What did the conversation entail? How did tea allow these men and women to slow down and share? What was shared and what wasn’t?

As we continued to research and explore this information, we started to muse on tea – the idea and ceremony. Could we use the idea of tea as a foundation for building conversation and information transfer? Could we continue the experience of performance outside of the theater?

Currently we are imagining that this new work of Liz’s would have a first act in the theater, and a second act that would transfer the audience out into the lobby, or newly transformed tea house. The second act would be, in essence, tea, involving performance, projection, dialogue and (my favorite part) food.

The S.O.S. symposium will be one of our first large scale opportunities to try and research what these teas really are. I wouldn’t say that we are testing ideas on Houstonians, they are functioning more as our lab assistants – going along for the ride and helping us create and collect the data we need.


DSH: Lerman is an old hand at throwing a bunch of people in a room with different letters after their names and just seeing what happens. The conference looks set up to create synergy. Is that ever scary? Do you ever worry that these people won’t have anything to say to one another?

BW: I think it’s only scary if you think you have nothing to share. Once you realize that you own your experience and feelings, you always have something to share. You have an opinion that matters, whether you have letters behind your name or not.

I find that if people are even willing to attend a meeting, this conference they usually have something to share. I think it’s the ability to share that is more of a hindrance than the need or want. We have become so specialized in our own fields nowadays that we often don’t know how to translate our information to others. It’s the translation that is the struggle.


DSH: I understand the company will be performing excerpts from the rep. How do these dances relate to the content of the conference?

BW: The company is performing an animated keynote Friday evening at 6 pm. We will be performing excepts from Drift by company member Cassie Meador, Imprints on a Landscape: The Mining Project by company member Martha Wittman, Blueprints of Relentless Nature by adjunct company member Keith Thompson, and a work in progress excerpt from The Matter of Origins, Liz’s new work.

Drift and The Mining Project both deal with sustainability concerns of an environmental nature. Drift looks at a piece of land in Augusta, Georgia, where Cassie is from, and it’s evolution from farmland to grocery store to church. The piece deals with how we interact with the land and how this interaction affects where our food comes from and what we eat. The Mining Project was inspired by Martha Wittman’s father, who was a WPA artist, documenting the mining communities through his drawings around the Pennsylvania area. Both works have a very strong connection with not only environmental sustainability, but also how human beings have sustained themselves in small and large ways during difficult periods in the lives.

Keith Thompson’s work really pushes the limit of what the human body can do. The piece is 20 minutes of intense partnering and non-stop aerobic activity. The movement is truly relentless, examining the ability to sustain physically and continue on.


DSH: Is it hard to be a dancing project lead or does that just go with the Dance Exchange territory, in that wearing multiple hats is just how it goes? You look like you are having fun with the job of having many jobs.

BW: Of course, it’s difficult holding onto project lead responsibilities as well as dancing full time; it is a constant battle for balance. But what I love about the work and its many roles, is its ability to engage me fully as an artist and human being. I love working for an organization where I not only get to dance and create the work, but talk about it, write about it, teach about it, and research it as well. I find that I understand the dance, the art, more clearly when I an engaged in all aspects of its creation.

I also love to learn. I have never been pushed to grow so quickly as I am daily with the Dance Exchange, and especially when in the role of project lead. It is a constant learning experience.


DSH: What kind of people should come to S.O.S.?

BW: Well, I would say everyone. Everyone benefits from the information being brought to the symposium.


DSH: Sometimes Liz reminds me of a hip-hop artist in that she has never defined herself by the narrow confines of dance. As a young dancer, entering a rather shabby and shaky world (sorry about that!), how do you see her methods in and of themselves as a system of sustainability?

BW: Liz’s curiosity, her ability to constantly ask questions, is a form of sustainability. I think it’s the people who are constantly questioning, especially now, who will survive this scary artistic and economic world. From day one, Liz has re-imagined the paradigm of what dance and art can be.

Our ability to change roles or wear many hats, as we say, is also a methodology in sustainability. We work with being a leader and a follower in movement structures and in our day to day activities. Often when we work in communities, I am shocked by the inability of people to lead and follow with ease and move between these two roles deftly. Someone who only leads will never sustain, just as someone who only follows will eventually meet defeat.

“Systems of Sustainability: Art, Innovation, Action” (S.O.S.) takes place March 27-29 at the University of Houston Lyndall Finley Wortham Theatre, and Blaffer Gallery at the University of Houston. Call 713-743-2929 or visit www.soshouston.org.

Reprinted from Dance Source Houston.


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