He was telling a tale with a moral -- no surprises there for a religious leader who is Judaica studies director at the Tucson Hebrew Academy -- but he was also upside down, something not at all in his ordinary line. Following instructions to "keep like a gingerbread man," he held his arms and legs straight as dancer Peter DiMuro of Liz Lerman Dance Exchange propelled him through a "palette" of lifts. First DiMuro picked the rabbi up, then turned his lanky body sideways, and finally flipped him head-first toward the floor.
There were a few signs of nervousness. The rabbi inadvertently clenched DiMuro's neck, hard, prompting a mild request from the dancer: "Rabbi, please take your hand off my neck." Yet throughout the series of discombobulating moves, the rabbi continued speaking, telling a poignant tale of a hospitalized soldier who kept up his wounded comrades' spirits by spinning stories of what he could see out the window.
A local nun was watching the proceedings on the ex-basketball court of the International Arts Center, formerly known as the YMCA. Sister Dawn Mills, O.S.B., superior of the Benedictine Convent on Country Club Road, was waiting to practice an oration and song she'd written about the miracle of Tucson's summer monsoon rains. In the meantime, she was amused by DiMuro's antics.
"If I ever have to get carried out of a burning building," she called out, "I want you to do it."
The religious leaders, who also included Daniel Preston, vice chairman of the San Xavier District of the Tohono O'odham Nation, had gathered in the old gym for a rehearsal, just one of dozens staged around town over the last 10 days in preparation for Hallelujah! In Praise of Ordinary Prophets, this weekend's dance-theatre extravaganza at Centennial Hall. Liz Lerman, a leading modern dance choreographer based in Washington, D.C., has marshaled some 100 local residents for the performance, her first in Tucson in three years.
Local singers, dancers, mariachi musicians and "ordinary prophets" will be deployed alongside the professional dancers in her troupe for an evening-length mosaic of music and movement, tailored to Tucson themes. Participants include Los Changitos Feos, the teen mariachi band, Tucson Hebrew Academy students, a choir drawn from numerous community singing groups, Zuzi Move It and Zenith dance studios.
"There is one complete piece for just my (dance) company," Lerman said. "The rest is a blend of community and company."
Lerman, at the end of a long day of rehearsals, sat on the gym floor, flexing her dancer's feet and stretching out her legs. She had just finished delivering a gentle critique to DiMuro and the rabbi, demonstrating her gift for working with professionals and amateurs alike. She advised the dancer to limit the lifts to the number of times the soldier in the story looks out the hospital window. She suggested that the rabbi eliminate the moral at tale's end, allowing the audience to form its own conclusions. Simple refinements perhaps, but they transformed the strange exercise on the gym floor into something stronger and surer, a work of art instead of gymnastics. And there were no hard feelings either.
"She's a genius," Rabbi Lewkowicz said after his workout.
In fact, Lerman has made an acclaimed career out of breaking dance boundaries, hiring old people for her troupe, inviting ordinary people in communities around the country to join her in making dance. The Tucson Hallelujah performance is just one piece of a several-year project that will be staged in more than a dozen sites. Lerman and her dancers have been traveling around the country, talking with people, listening to their life stories and concerns, to determine "what people want to be in praise of," Lerman explained. In Burlington, Vermont, she said, inspired by a group of women who have played cards every Monday night for 40 years, the Hallelujah project is evolving into "praise of constancy in the midst of change. At Jacob's Pillow, it's about the fruits of the field."
In Tucson, UApresents director Ken Foster "wanted to work with the religious community," Lerman said. "It's an interest on both our parts. At our first meeting with religious leaders and campus leaders, we got into a discussion of religion and social action," and the example of ancient religious prophets in the desert. That thought prompted a natural theme for a modern desert community.
"As we listened to the stories, we developed the idea of people who are ordinary prophets in this community. My original thought was to get the religious leaders together to tell their stories, to be in it. But they're too busy. That's why we thought of video."
Making a virtue of necessity, a video of local religious leaders having conversations at the foot of a sun-kissed saguaro has now become still another strand of the multimedia work. Preston and Rabbi Lewkowicz, who will both appear on stage, exchange creation stories in the video, marveling that the similar-sounding words "O'odham" and "Adam" both mean "from the earth."
And some of the stories captured on video in turn helped trigger recurring images of flood and water in the work. In the video, Joe Mendoza, an El Rio neighborhood leader, tells of floating in the Pacific after his ship was hit in World War II. Sister Dawn's monsoon speech and the Dance Exchange members' own experience of the torrential rains on preliminary visits last summer also reinforced the motif.
"I have made beautiful images around flooding," Lerman said. "I tried to get the mariachi kids to 'float' their instruments. It's interesting to have the metaphor of the flood -- it's a palate cleanser, (I use it to) move everybody off the stage."
The format of the Hallelujah Project reverses the one Lerman used the last time she set a piece on Tucsonans. The immigration-themed Still Crossing, a luminous work that featured such non-pros as abuelitas from El Rio and kids from Hebrew Academy, was just one piece in an evening of choreography otherwise danced by the Dance Exchange. This time, the works blending community members with pros dominate the evening, though as the rabbi rehearsal demonstrated, every performer gets the benefit of Lerman's discerning direction. Everyone becomes a Lerman dancer.
"Part of my interest in working with people who aren't trained is that they can lend a certain kind of beauty," she said. "Trained people have far more range and capacity. The mix is interesting to me." But the choreographer has a mission beyond creating work that's aesthetically pleasing. She's out to save the elite art form of dance from itself.
"The large view is that without people actually doing it, we will die. The form will die. People are so far removed from the experience of dance. Unless they have the experience of it, why would they choose to go see it? When people do have the experience, they never forget it."
Liz Lerman Dance Exchange and community groups perform Hallelujah! In Praise of Ordinary Prophets, a dance-theatre work, at 8 p.m. Saturday and 4 p.m. Sunday, March 4 and 5, at UA Centennial Hall, 1020 E. University Blvd. Tickets range from $16 to $28, with discounts available for UA employees, UApresents season subscribers, students and children. For reservations and information, call the Centennial Hall box office at 621-3341.