The venerable Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, a collaborative dance troupe led for thirty years by the MacArthur Award-winning choreographer, brought its new work to Duke’s Reynolds Theater for two performances as part of a large multi-department exploration of genetics and genomics. Ferocious Beauty: Genome tackled these sprawling subjects with a combination of dance, talk, video and music.

It was one of those performances that one was glad to have seen, but that didn’t thrill the spirit. It was an educational piece on big ideas, rather earnest, but because its subject was so broad, the coverage was necessarily shallow. For a bred and born Southerner, raised on the intricacies of inherited traits and how they are recombined in each new family member, some of the material was rather basic. (The idea that we have more in common than not, genetically, recalls the old joke: When two Southerners meet, they don’t wonder if they’re related, but how.) I didn’t learn very much, although I hadn’t thought of myself as knowing much at all about this field, and I certainly wasn’t moved to any great epiphanies of understanding. Clearly, the large contingent of freshmen in the audience found the work more revelatory, and its questions novel.

The Dance Exchange is famous for its variety of dancers, who range widely in age and abilities. It is really wonderful to see older bodies in motion, along with younger ones. The most compelling person on the stage was someone who wouldn’t ordinarily be thought of as a dancer. Suzanne Richard used, alternately, a cane and a wheelchair, to execute some very interesting motions, and her arms and hands were magnificently expressive. While the younger dancers dazzled your eye, she riveted your attention. The whole troupe is a beautiful living argument for the human value of inclusiveness, and being so inclusive they naturally are well-suited to express ideas about the human genome, which includes the pattern or stimulus for every possible human trait.

While there were some good dances the dancing was not continuous, and this episodic nature lessened its impact. Overall, I found the “background” video elements more intriguing, although some of it was awfully like the grade-school filmstrips that people of a certain age will remember, or a PBS Nova program. Interspersed with hugely magnified and very beautiful images of DNA chains, gene structure and so forth were interview clips with scientists, many of them from Duke. What they had to say was pretty interesting, and the video design and technology was fantastic, as was the “soundscape.” I loved the layered imagery, where complex edited video was overlaid by live-action video of the dancers moving in front of it, but at several other times I wished the dancers would get out of the way of the projections. This may have been an intentionally evoked response, since the relationship of the scientific technology to human needs and desires was one of the piece’s topics, but it made me sad that the mediated material more fully captured my interest than the live people moving on the stage.