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It has been a goal of mine to see whether people who may not know math or science, but who might be worried about genetics and the future, could walk away feeling that they have some understanding of this and maybe even do something about it. I don't want to scare the hell out of people or make them depressed. On the other hand, I don't want to make it an easy ride.
I must also say that once we entered the very large realm of genetics, genomics, and developmental biology, we realized we had tumbled into a place far deeper and stranger than where Alice landed after her fall down the rabbit hole. I soon realized that this project could be about capitalism, or religion, or nutrition, or population control. It could be about race and identity, or about ethics, or about policy and professionalism. It could be strictly about the mechanics of the genome, using dance to describe biological processes. It could be about the future. Ultimately, the piece poses small and large questions, but it doesn't try to address all the questions currently being generated by scientific research. No single work of art ever could.
The first act gives the audience some basic scientific information, through videos of scientists, text, and dance, and it spotlights the interaction of science and art. It is also when they're introduced to Gregor Mendel, who makes regular appearances and acts as kind of a spiritual guide. I think it's useful for us to be reminded that he was a religious figure doing science.
For the second act, I picked three issues: ancestry, the pursuit of human perfection, and the nature of aging and death and our desire for greater longevity.
I didn't mean for the piece to be so much about evolution, but of course it is. I thought I understood evolution before, but I didn't really get it. In the performance, we have a character who is full of angst and ennui. She doesn't know who she is at all. But Mendel leads her to the skeleton of a whale, which is shown through a video to be one of our (her) ancestors. It's a powerful moment.
I hope that the audience not only loves the performance but also, when they next read or hear about genetics, that they'll have a little more insight. They don't have to feel numb about it.
One thing art can do is wake you up. I think that the piece begins to do this.
Liz Lerman's work has been commissioned by the Lincoln Center, American Dance Festival, BalletMet, and the Kennedy Center, among many others.
Interview by Alicia Ault