By Darlene Donloe
Anyone familiar with the world of dance knows the name Lula Washington.
The reasons why are too numerous to mention. Suffice it to say that since she hit the dance world more than 30 years ago, forming the Los Angeles Contemporary Dance Theatre, later to be called the Lula Washington Dance Theatre, she has made an indelible mark.
On Sat., Aug. 10, the Lula Washington Dance Theatre will take part in “An Evening of Dance: Complexions Contemporary Ballet and Lula Washington Dance Theatre.”
(Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson are the artistic directors of Complexions Contemporary Ballet.)
Part of the Ford Theatre’s inaugural Zev Yaroslavsky Signature Series, it will be an evening of dance featuring a mix of repertory and new works. This two-concert program benefitting the Ford Theatre Foundation pairs world-renowned performers with a local artistic troupe, celebrating Los Angeles as a destination for world-class artists, who find here both collaboration with, and inspiration from, celebrated local artists.
The Lula Washington Dance Theatre is a Los Angeles-based repertoire 10-member dance ensemble that performs innovative and provocative choreography by Lula Washington. The company tours internationally.
The Company has danced in over 150 cities in the United States, as well as abroad in Germany, Spain, Kosovo, Mexico, Canada, China, and Russia.
Washington has steadfastly focused on using dance to explore social and humanitarian issues, including aspects of African-American history and culture.
The company, founded in 1980 by Washington and her husband, Erwin Washington, has risen to become one of the most respected African-American contemporary dance companies in the country. Known for powerful, high-energy dancing, unique choreography and exceptional educational residencies the dance company’s repertoire unveils honesty, integrity, and creativity. The company is composed of 10 young athletic dancers, many of whom were groomed in Lula Washington’s inner city dance studio.
I caught up with Lula Washington (LW) recently to talk about the upcoming performance, as well as her dance career.
DD: How does your dance company and Complexions complement each other?
LW: I think we complement each other because we are two sides of a coin. We are both established artists. My company is 33 years old. We have major accomplishments. We both believe in the value of the arts to change the world and our communities. I do that with my school, education outreach and giving back to the community. I don’t know how he (Dwight Richardsom) does it, but he has spoken about it. I focus on telling the stories of African Americans through dance, spoken word and music, all kinds of music, bringing forth voices that aren’t always heard. I explore things and issues, which is different. My company is entertaining. I blend all the dance styles. I blend ballet. It’s recognized as the ultimate dance technique. All of my dances don’t have the pointed foot. Both companies shine brightly.
DD: When two dance companies come together is it about learning from each other? If so, what have you learned from Complexions and what do you think they could learn from you?
LW: Well, Ok, I think everybody that comes to Los Angeles looking to get in the dance world can learn a lot from the Lula Washington Dance Theater. I know that to be a fact. There are many up and coming African Americans choreographers that have danced with my dance company, gone through our dance company and sought our assistance through asking questions about how we do it. Our dance company has been a jewel in our community that sometimes gets overlooked. Sometimes people don’t value what’s here at home. If you’re on TV everyday, people run behind you. If you’re not, they don’t. We give history, culture and just giving back. Our dance company gets called more than any other company when there is a civic or cultural event. I’m glad for that. We are known for our quality. Several people, including Debbie Allen, have come and studied our place and our floors. We have a state of the art studio, which is what I wanted. I’m still working on improving the outside, but once you walk through the door…. There is opportunity for everyone here.
LULA WASHINGTON DANCE THEATRE
DD: Do the two companies dance together or are there two separate programs?
LW: It’s two separate programs within a program, with the exception of something Dwight has created. He has incorporated some of my people into it. It’s done to Stevie Wonder’s music. We use James Brown, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Chuck Berry as part of a piece called, ‘Ode To The 60s.”
DD: Have you worked with Complexions before?
LW: We haven’t worked like this before, but we were on the same bill in New York.
DD: Your thoughts on Complexions Artistic Directors Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson?
LW: I think they are two wonderful young men with a bright future. They are going far. They have their own creative ideas and beliefs.
DD: How has your dance company changed or progressed since its inception?
LW: We started with no money and pulling costumes out of our closets. Now we pay our dancers. We have stability and are able to offer our dancers work. We have created partnerships with schools. We have come quite far. We have our own permanent center that is paid for. $1.3 million is paid off. We have five studios. We have a state of the art facility. We still have financial needs, though.
DD: Why is dance important?
LW: It gives people a voice, people who are too shy to speak or afraid to speak. They can express themselves through movement. Art is powerful. It has the power to heal and change lives.
DD: Back in the day you were initially turned down for admission in UCLA’s dance department because you were 22. What is your feeling about age and dance in terms of beginning a career?
LW: Where there is a will, there is a way. Once I discovered dance was what I wanted to do, I wasn’t going to let a professor tell me I couldn’t do it. Dance was what I wanted to do. In the dance world that’s still what they tell you – you’re too old. With modern dance you can dance forever.
DD: You seem to have a real sense of community. Where does that come from?
LW: The fact that once I studied dance, I became a follower of C. Bernard Jackson, who was at the Inner City Cultural Center. He was a wise man. He was doing things for the African American community. He was bringing all kinds of people under one roof - some through dance, acting and directing. We would go and have meetings with him and he would talk about the importance of everyone being able to be creative. It was community that helped us through the Northridge earthquake. Community helped us get recovery money. Art is valuable in our society.
DD: You’ve accomplished quite a bit, what are you most proud of?
LW: I’m proud that my dream of giving back is coming true. We have established our company as a major force. I have the love and support of my husband, Irwin Washington and have had it for many years. My daughter wants to spearhead our school. She is being groomed to handle all of this. I’m also proud and humbled that there are people who are angels of support standing at the sidelines waiting to help.
DD: What is left that you want to do?
LW: We have land. We are trying to develop low- income artist housing. We are trying to get funding for it. They have this in New York. Because our project isn’t financially big enough, those who have the money aren’t giving it to us. It’s really silly.
DD: Why not make it bigger?
LW: We don’t want it so big that we can’t maintain it in the event a funding source pulls out.
DD: Anything about the show I should know?
LW: Yeah, I might be making a cameo performance on the stage with a friend. We danced together at UCLA. It’s going to be a great evening.
DD: Who is the friend?
LW: Can’t tell you. But, just know it will be great.