The Root Interview: Choreographer Ralph Lemon on Liberation

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By Martin Johnson

No one will ever accuse Ralph Lemon of making uncomplicated works. He is best known as a dancer-choreographer, but he's an artist who defies simple categorization. His new work, How Can You Stay in the House All Day and Not Go Anywhere, is a multidisciplinary piece, his first major work after a six-year absence. Just consider the performance schedule: Three parts of the five-part piece are running at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York through today. A fourth part is a video, which will be screened at The Kitchen in New York City on Oct. 17. A fifth part, a duet that Lemon will dance with Okwui Okpokwasili, will take place in January at the Museum of Modern Art. Dance is a big part of the picture with Lemon's work, but it's far from the whole show.

One recent autumn afternoon, I asked him what artistic lineage he claims. He paused. Then, with a deep, warm tenor that almost sounds an octave too low coming from such a slender man, he said, "I don't know. I come from many different places, a whole history of mentors: great dancers, musicians, visual artists, writers and performers. I hope so, at least." Then he giggled. "I guess that doesn't answer your question." He's not being coy. He is, after all, a dancer who choreographs, a choreographer who writes, a writer who makes movies and videos.

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Lemon, who is 58, was born in Cincinnati, raised in Minneapolis, Minn., and studied literature and theater arts at the University of Minnesota. He started the Mixed Blood Theater Co. in Minneapolis in 1975 but moved to New York the following year and began dancing with Meredith Monk, a vocalist and choreographer who has mounted many interdisciplinary works. In 1985 he left her company and founded the Ralph Lemon Dance Co., and over the next 10 years he and his company worked with many of the dance world's leading lights. Then, in 1995, he disbanded the troupe, which he felt had become too distant and abstract. "Basically I'd go into a studio with seven or eight dancers," he told The New York Times in 2004, "and refine this private language that only we understood."

The move was shrewd in both economic and aesthetic terms. Dance companies are struggling for viability in the post-millennial economy, seeking new business models to survive. Ditching his ensemble afforded Lemon the opportunity to work on larger-scale, more ambitious projects, unhampered by the administrative burdens inherent in keeping a dance company together. He has been especially interested in defining post-civil rights African-American identity, but he doesn't attack the subject directly. His 2004 work Geography, for example, is a trilogy of multimedia works that explores identity from three points of view: Asian, African and the African-American experience in the Deep South.

For the Deep South segment of Geography, which is called Come Home Charley Patton, Lemon spent months there, traveling to juke joints, visiting and interviewing the descendants of great country-blues musicians, dressing in authentic period costumes and tracing the steps of key civil rights-era freedom fighters. The most poignant and fruitful experience came when he met Walter Carter, a former sharecropper born in 1908. "Here was a man who had seen and lived history," Lemon said. "He had endured hard physical labor, witnessed a lynching, saved a man's life — and he could talk about it without rage, despair or romanticizing it."

"Walter was so vibrant and full of ideas," said Lemon, who declined to discuss Takami's death. "Even though he was more than a century old, I still felt surprised by his death and affected by his loss."

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The second part of How Can You Stay features a group of six dancers, several of them veterans of Charley Patton; their movements echo that of the choreography in the earlier work.

"I felt it ended with a sense of liberation," said Lemon of the older work. "There was a freedom from all that had come before, but at the same time, there was a sense that the story was unfinished." By the third act of How Can You Stay, the dancer's movements shift from smooth and lyrical to jagged and abrupt, as if something unseen has thrown everything off-kilter.

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The title of the piece, How Can You Stay in the House All Day and Not Go Anywhere, comes from a comment Lemon encountered during the research phase of his project. He was on Chicago's South Side working with middle-school students, teaching them to investigate their own lineage and family history. "I wanted them to research it and claim it," he said.

One afternoon, one of his students talked about how she had spent the previous afternoon learning about her background through familial artifacts and even information on the Internet. "She'd spent 12 hours researching her own history," Lemon said, "and one of her classmates asked her, 'How can you stay in the house all day and not go anywhere?' "

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The contrast in whether the question is stated inquisitively or exasperatingly mirrored some general reactions to Lemon's research, and it seemed an apt title for the work. "To me, she had been many places," said Lemon. "But I could see how to some, she had just stayed in the house all day and done nothing."

Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.

Martin Johnson writes about music for the Wall Street Journal, basketball for Slate and beer for Eater, and he blogs at both the Joy of Cheese and Rotations. Follow him on Twitter

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