Liz Lerman

Liz Lerman, MacArthur-winning choreographer. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun / December 20, 2011)

It's been a century and a half since the Civil War split the United States, and to mark the 150th anniversary of the country's bloodiest conflict, Baltimore choreographer Liz Lerman has founded a multi-sided commemoration called the National Civil War Project.

Lerman, a MacArthur Fellow, partnered with the University of Maryland, Center Stage and Harvard University, among others, for the project, which launches Thursday with a presentation in Washington and continues with numerous events through 2015. It aims to raise questions about the war and its repercussions.

"This is an opportunity for Americans to reflect on our own history and present," Lerman said, "that it might make us more compassionate to what is happening around the world or open to the possibility to understand it in a different way. ... I know how powerful it is to bring people of different disciplines together, so I had a feeling artists and scholars would be fantastic."

American culture has gone through remarkable shifts, such as the civil rights movement, since the Civil War's last major anniversary in the 1960s, Lerman said.

"It was 50 years ago that we were in the midst of the civil rights era, so the whole take on the war is different," Lerman said.

Center Stage teamed up with the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center to present a day-long civil rights symposium Sept. 6, along with a performance commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, said Paul Brohan, director of artistic initiatives at the center. The event will include speakers in partnership with the University of Maryland School of Public Policy, he said.

"It's a snapshot of where we are in relation to the historical aspect of civil rights and where we have yet to go," Brohan said.

A commissioned piece opening in May 2015 will include music and spoken word, Brohan said.

A commissioned play at Center Stage will look at the war from a global — particularly British — perspective, according to Gavin Witt, the theater's associate artistic director.

George Washington University and Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater will host events including panel discussions, a national conference in December to discuss the civil war in Washington and a dance theater piece by Lerman about the civil war as well as wars today.

The project also has counterparts in Atlanta and Boston, with Emory and Harvard universities and other arts organizations in those areas participating.

In Maryland, programs at Center Stage and the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center will focus on the civil war and related themes over the course of the next few years.

"I think when people encounter history alive on stage, it's a very different relationship than when they read about it," Witt said. "It becomes a different experience."

cjaskot@baltsun.com