Lizzie Leopold | Interview

Lizzie Leopold, artistic director of the Leopold Group

Lizzie Leopold, artistic director of the Leopold Group Photograph: Arn Klein

It’s hard to keep up with Lizzie Leopold. The Northwestern doctoral student and artistic director of the Leopold Group manages to balance academia with fine art, and everything in between. In her latest work, A Correct Likeness, playing at the DEFIBRILLATOR gallery Saturday 27 and Sunday 28, her dancers move among portrait photos of themselves. She chatted with us about the work’s intention, her field of study and why Dirty Dancing is a good source of balance in her multifaceted life.

What have you been studying as a doctoral student at Northwestern?
My dissertation is broadly based on the intersection of American concert dance and the non-for-profit structure, so a little bit about economics, mostly about the buying and selling of dances and repertoire.

That doesn’t seem like your typical subject of study.
Most people don’t like to talk about art and money. [Laughs]

Why do you think so?
It’s sort of a taboo subject in some circles. People pretend that art is unsoiled by the business of it.

Money and art seem to be tied together one way or another.
I think people like to fantasize that there was a time when the two weren’t such close neighbors.

So, what do you hope to achieve coming out as a Ph.D.?
I made the decision a couple years ago when I did my master’s. I found myself making dances and needing to be more eloquent about what I was doing. I thought, This is the route I’m choosing to become well versed in—the theory and the history of the thing that I’ve been studying since I was two years old.

How do you see your interest in history playing a role in your work now and maybe in the future?
I think it’s always played a role in my work, and I just didn’t know it. The things that precede you on the stage—whether it’s literally the dance that happens before you or metaphorically—influence your audience and how they see what you’re presenting. So to have a better understanding of the general role of spectators and how that has been shaped is important.

Do you think an understanding of history is lacking for a lot of young dancers?

Yeah, I think as a young dancer I was lacking that, too. I think there’s such a focus on technique and steps and skills. The spectacle of dance in popular culture is becoming more and more prevalent with all the TV shows and whatnot. The history of it gets second credit. I think that’s very common, especially in higher education. When you’re pursuing a B.F.A. in dance—technique, technique, technique, and then you take a history course.

You mentioned that, as a young dancer, you may have lacked an understanding of history. How is it different now that you have that advantage?
Well, I’d like to think it’s made my choreography more interesting. [Laughs] I hope that’s the answer. This is sort of like the old cliché, but you have to learn the rules before you can break them; just thinking a little bit more broadly about what I can do and what I want to do. There’s a lot of repetition for a lot of young choreographers and I definitely was subject of this. You get comfortable in what you’re good at, and it’s hard to imagine what else there is. Dance training can be really insular.

In your eyes, what’s the value of education in a dancer’s life?
That’s a very loaded question. It depends on what you want to do. That’s a question our country’s dealing with in a very complicated way right now, in general. There have been two camps of dance in higher ed since it started: One is training professional dancers, and the other is that dance is part of a well-rounded human being.

Do you get the sense that, because people are doing higher art or fine art, that it’s not necessarily about education, it’s more about…

That’s definitely a debate now, and has been for a long time. I don’t know how to answer it, other than saying it’s individual to whatever you hope to get out of the degree. I have a B.F.A. in dance performance, and I think the time I spent earning that degree is much more important than the piece of paper. I learned a lot about how to dance, and I met a lot of people. But unlike a lot of other professions, I’m not sure the degree itself was important to my career, if that makes sense.

In describing the inspiration for A Correct Likeness, you wrote, “Artists were charged with the task of recording people and events, blending fact with fiction to represent things strategically, but recognizably.”
I think in the quote you’re talking about, I was talking about early portrait painters. Before photography, you hired a portrait painter to paint your portrait, but you wanted to look rich and pretty. You also wanted a picture that looked like you. There’s a tricky balance of truth and fiction going on, how art history is told. I like that metaphor, the fallacy of recording. Photographs are something we come to believe as truth, but there’s also a level of innate mediation. I like the idea of putting the dancers next to their portraits and having them negotiate which is more true, for lack of a better word. I like the idea of extracting dancer from person, and I like the opportunity that the stillness of the photograph gives us, this sort of stop and reflect that dancing, which happens then disappears, doesn’t provide.

In a way, it seems like the dancers are confronting themselves. What’s their reaction been like, having to play off that?
We’ve had a lot of conversations. It’s a cultural turn to document everything—cell phones and cameras; we take pictures all the time. Their reaction to the picture is to critique themselves physically. “Oh, I don’t like that one. I look funny in that one. My butt looks big.” It’s painfully predictable the way that these beautiful, trained dancers look at themselves in a picture and can’t get past their own bodies. That’s sort of a problem, though I don’t know if calling it a problem is productive. Maybe that phenomena. But the reaction has been hyper-personal and critical, whereas they can look at another dancer’s picture and talk about how beautiful it is.

You’ve said that balance is a potent metaphor for running a dance company. What’s been the most difficult balance for you so far?
The balance of administrative and artistic work is always a challenge. I much prefer to be in a studio than on a computer, but I can’t do one without the other. I have to balance both sides and be proficient, because there isn’t much infrastructure, as far as manpower behind the Leopold Group. If I don’t do it, the administrative work doesn’t get done. That balance has been the most profound, which brings me to what I’m studying: How does the rise of the multimillion-dollar non-for-profit shape the dance field right now, and how the field has changed because of that.

Do you have a sense of what the multimillion-dollar non-for-profit is a result of?

I guess I could go back and say it’s a result of the Industrial Revolution and the rise of corporate America, but if you think about modern dance, it’s not that old. These companies now, and in the last 20 years, are losing their founders. That’s a profound difference; when the person who’s advocated for the art is no longer there, these corporations have more trouble with the balance of the artistic and the administrative.

So I have to ask: I saw that your favorite movie is Dirty Dancing.
I know. It’s terrible, right?

Must be that Swayze charm.
[Laughs] I’m sort of a sucker for bad pop culture. I feel like it balances the overly academic world that I’ve put myself in. I just love that movie. I couldn’t tell you why.

See the Leopold Group perform
A Correct Likeness at the DEFIBRILLATOR gallery Saturday 27 at 8pm and Sunday 28 at 5pm. Purchase tickets at

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