How does it feel to have President Obama bedeck you with a Medal of the Arts?
“It was crazy! The most intense one-day event of my life, by far.” That was choreographer Ralph Lemon’s reaction last week after President Obama hung the National Medal of Arts around his neck. Lemon was honored for his contributions along with other major American artists like Philip Glass, Berry Gordy, Mel Brooks and Audra McDonald.
During the National Medals of Arts and Humanities Awards Ceremony, the President began with his usual eloquence: “Michelle and I believe that the arts and humanities are reflective of our national soul. They’re central to who we are as Americans: dreamers, storytellers, innovators and visionaries. They’re what helps us make sense of the past, the good and the bad. They’re how we chart a course for the future while leaving something of ourselves for the next generation to learn from.”
These words are so true of Ralph Lemon and his work. The choreographer from Minneapolis dropped the comfort of his own company and traveled to Africa, Asia and the American South to delve into his heritage. In so doing he questioned everything he knew as a dancemaker and asked instead, What does it mean to be an American? And, What does it mean to be a citizen of the world? Over ten years starting in 1997, he created a monumental trilogy of works at Brooklyn Academy of Music: Geography, Tree and Come home Charlie Patton.
In his more recent How Can You Stay in the House All Day and Not Go Anywhere? (2010), he again threw out everything he knew. The piece was so exhausting for the dancers that the title could just as well have been “What Kind of Dance Do You Make When Life Falls Apart?” (I was blown away by it.)
Not only a choreographer (or, one might say, an anti-choreographer), Lemon has also been central to the current trend of dancing in museums. He’s been so instrumental as a curator at the Museum of Modern Art that they just published a book about him. (He has also created a book of writings and drawings with each work in the trilogy.)
In a quick email a few days after the ceremony, this is what Lemon said about the people he met: “Obama is a prince, beyond his presidential highness! And 90-year-old Brooks is a genius joke machine; every time he opened his mouth something hilarious filled the room. Met Berry Gordy too. I told him his music made my young life a joyful dance. He was remarkably convivial and generous.”
It was a good day for dance and music.