Tea with Liz Lerman Dance Exchange

Liz Lerman Dance Exchange in Time Has Set the Table for Tea

Time Has Set the Table for Tea with Liz Lerman Dance Exchange was the go-to activity at the Systems of Sustainability: Art, Innovation and Action conference held at the University of Houston Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts last weekend. Everyone wanted a seat at the table. Lucky me, I got one. The concept, still in the forming, comes from the tea house run by Edith Warner for the physicists at Los Alamos during the early 1940s. All of this is described in Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s book American Prometheus:The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Apparently, Oppenheimer was quite a fan of Warner’s cooking. Why tea now? Because Lerman’s next frontier is physics in her newest opus, A Matter of Origins. She recently returned from CERN (The European Organization for Nuclear Research) on an info gathering mission. I’m impressed.

University of Houston Dance Students

Guests were led up the stairs by University of Houston dance students, who dressed in 1950s garb and greeted us with welcoming gestures. At the top of the stairs we were split into two groups, one to learn the rules, the other to watch dancers interact with the film from Center for Land Use Interpretation’s, (CLUI) Texas Oil: Landscape of an Industry exhibit. CLUI’s smashing footage of the entire length of the ship channel is impressive as it is, but with dancers, it becomes something else, a more peopled landscape.

Meghan Bowden

The rules, presented/danced by Ben Wegman, Thomas Dwyer and Meghan Bowden alternated between extreme formality and “Hi, how are you, relax, enjoy and just don’t touch the art.” We were led into the main room as the students created a barrier to protect the maps on the wall. People took their places and glanced down to find a notecard. Mine read, “This seat is reserved for you.” Tables were elegantly dressed for the most part, but I missed the china. (Teas need fine china.) Nervous chatter ensued, mostly by me. I ranted on about having heard that an expert would be sitting with us. Finally, the dear woman on my left announced that she was, in fact, the expert. Leading us in some clipped conversation our expert made sure we were on target, and set the agenda. There were awkward moments that feel strangely theatrical, and at times, just annoying. Finally the crew of Liz Lerman Dance Exchange appeared with the too-sweet tea. Fabulously tasting chocolate cake appeared later on. (Warner was known for her chocolate cake.)

Thomas Dwyer and Martha Wittman

Dance Exchange company member Martha Wittman joined our table and alternated between being part of the group and dancing at her seat. I love when she whipped her cup into the air mid-sentence. Wittman’s presence is a marvel to behold. We all stopped our chatter as if to acknowledge that the art had begun. I glanced over to the next table to watch Robert Harriss from the Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC) dancing as well. Harriss’ full participation was a delight, not just here, but throughout the conference. Lerman likes to play with those boundaries. I felt safe with Wittman at the table, and it relieved us of the forced conversation, an inevitable part of participatory performance. (We don’t go to rehearsals.) Some marvelous dancing came and went, as did projections having to do with resource use. At one point Wittman asked me to stand and read the projected text. I obliged. Don’t mess with the rules of tea. We watched a duet and had time to discuss ideas that emerged in our thinking and report back to the group. Our report, “Don’t be afraid to show the dirt on your feet, the printing press, harnessing energy.” You had to be there, but a three-phrase report provided great relief from the too-wordy table reports. I understand that Lerman stepped up the formality the next day. A good idea, after all, tea requires a strict adherence to ceremony.

Eventually, the company found their way into the front space, much like a proscenium, where they performed a sneak peek from Lerman’s A Matter of Origins, which begins with tea cups balancing on the dancers’ laps. Lerman hopes to include the tea concept into the new piece. As a champion of interaction and audience inclusion, she likes to shape her work through public input. Watching dance in a non-traditional venue wakes us up a bit, in that we share the same space as the performers. It’s enchanting and uncomfortable, always a good combo. It will be fun to see where Lerman goes with her teas and I was glad to be part of the testing process.

Systems of Sustainability: Art, Innovation and Action was sponsored by the 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).

Photos by Pin Lim.
Reprinted from Dance Source Houston.

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