By Darlene Donloe
It was 50 years ago on January 25 that Erwin and Lula Washington got married and never looked back.
It was 40 years ago this year that they launched the Lula Washington Dance Theatre and decided to only look forward.
The Lula Washington Dance Theatre, a repertoire dance ensemble, was founded in 1980 by Lula and Erwin Washington. The company, which tours internationally, is now known for its powerful, high-energy dancing and innovative and provocative choreography.
To commemorate the dance company’s 40th anniversary, a celebration is taking place at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts January 30 through February 1 only.
Mixing jazz, hip-hop, African movement, ballet, modern, tap and other dance styles, the show’s program will explore social and humanitarian issues through performances that include Christopher Huggins’ To Lula with Love/Warrior (world premiere) Lula Washington’s King (excerpts from The Movement) Tommie Waheed Evans’ Hands Up: A Testimony (world premiere), Esie Mensah’s Zayo (West Coast premiere), Lula Washington’s excerpts from Fragments (work in progress) (world premiere), plus Reign, a favorite by world renown hip hop artist Rennie Harris.
Huggins is a former member of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre and an alum of Lula Washington Dance Theatre. Evans, received a 2019 Princess Grace Foundation Honorarium Grant to create his work, which focuses on his experience growing up in Los Angeles and what it meant to him to be a product of that city.
Washington’s Fragments is a work-in-progress she describes as “a reaction to the chaotic times we live in,” and King, which she created in 2007, is about the struggles of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the civil rights movement.
An inspiration in the dance community, Washington, who grew up in Watts, has long cemented her status as a creative driving force.
Last year Washington and her husband, Erwin, whose daughter Tamica, is associate director of dance company, were recognized with the Dance/USA Champion Award for their impact on dance.
The Champion Award is given to an organization, business, foundation, or individual in appreciation for their achievements, leadership, outstanding service, and dedicated efforts that have sustained and significantly advanced the dance field in the annual conference host city.
I recently caught up with Erwin (EW) and Lula Washington (LW) to talk about the dance theater and its upcoming 40th-anniversary celebration at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts.
DD: How long have the two of you been married?
EW: This month on January 25 we will be married 50 years. The company’s anniversary is virtually the same day. It’s been 40 years for the company.
DD: You’ve been running the dance company for a very long time.
EW: It’s a difficult field. It can put wear and tear on a relationship.
DD: Where and how did you and Lula meet?
EW: We were high school sweethearts at Washington High School. We met in physiology class. Then we went our separate ways when we went to college. We kind of broke up. Then she did a dance concert and invited me. We reconnected and lit the flame while watching dance.
DD: Tell me about the conversation you had with each other to launch Lula Washington Dance Theater.
EW: We were sitting in the living room. Lula was sitting on the floor. She loves to sit on the floor. She told me her vision, which was to create a place in the community where young dancers could get nurtured, learn the craft of dance and practice their art form.
I said to her, “Wouldn't you like to tour around the world and have a dance company like Alvin Ailey?
She said, “Yeah, that would be nice to.” We put both our visions together. Everything we wrote down 40 years ago we’ve done.
Having a place in the community was important to her. Having a place to do the art form was important.
DD: You are the logistics guy. You book all of the tours.
EW: Yes, I book the tours. I got the company booked in Russia, China, Israel, and Brazil. This week there is a show in New Jersey. This year we’re also booked in Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, San Luis Obispo, Houston, and Arizona.
DD: When you talk about the dance company – your voice smiles.
EW: Yes, I love it. When we go out and do shows and the audience loves what we bring to them we know we’re doing something special.
LW: – My goal was to always give back. I would like dance introduced to my community – so they can experience it at an early age. The arts help people heal.
DD: 40th anniversary???? Can you believe that?
EW: It went so quick. It’s never boring or repetitive or dull. The years careened by. You stay busy. Always ongoing activity. Always fundraising and marketing
DD: When you first started, did you think you’d be around this long?
LW: I didn’t think about the realities. The most important thing was to get it started. I never thought about longevity.
DD: What was happening in the city in the 1980s?
LW: The energy was different. There were few opportunities. We had very few opportunities to dance. Few dance companies. The most prominent company that was black was Inner City Rep out of the Inner City Cultural Center. I wanted to be a part of it, but that never materialized for me. I auditioned. They only needed one female. My dance teacher at UCLA got the job.
DD: Why do you think you’ve lasted that long?
LW: Self-determination and persistence. When you believe in yourself and work hard and fill a void – that’s something other people recognize as well. I had something important to say.
DD: Lets talk about what the audience is going to see.
LW: Christopher is an alumni member and Alvin Ailey American dance theater. She gave him an opportunity to choreograph when he left Ailey. He’s an amazing choreographer. Tommie is also an alum of ours. Rennie is going to do a work we’ve done before. It’s high energy and a promising piece of choreography.
DD: Tell me about Fragments and King. What are you saying with your work?
LW: The King solo is something I’ve done before. It was well-received. It’s a moving and powerful work about Dr. King that is done to one of his speeches.
Fragments speaks to the era we’re living in.
DD: Have you thought about the impact you have made on dance in Los Angeles?
LW: I thought a little bit about it. A number of African American choreographers have come out of my dance company. I’ve given them jobs, also some non-African American choreographers. When I go to see a show, I realize 50-60 members of the cast came out of my organization. We are making an impact. Nationally we’re also making an impact. We are one of the founding members of the International Association of Blacks in Dance. People call us the Alvin Ailey of the west. We give scholarships. Many of our dancers have gone on to dance on Broadway, on cruise ships, Disneyland and more.
DD: Your family is involved. A lot of people don’t think family affairs work. How did the Washingtons make it work?
LW: It’s difficult. We fight all the time. It’s not a bad thing. It’s defending your concepts and ideas. It’s being able to get along at end of the day. It doesn’t always end up being your way. Listening is very important
DD: You have said that you want dance to reach for your soul. Does it always have to do that – or can it just be fun to move?
LW: Even if you want to have fun and move – you can still touch someone’s soul. It touches you. Your soul is your inner deepest feeling.
DD: You started dancing at 22, which some thought was too old. What do you tell your students who may be coming in a little long in the tooth?
LW: All things are possible. You still have to do the work. You can’t wait for someone to sit around and do something for you.
DD: How has your approach to dance changed since the beginning?
LW: My approach hasn’t changed. I’ve always had spoken text and singing. it hasn’t really changed. Still the same process. No reason to change it. Artists stay true to themselves.
DD: Advice for anyone getting in the business?
LW: If you want something bad enough, you’ll find a way to make it happen. No one can stop you – but yourself. The only one who can stop you is you.
Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts Presents LULA WASHINGTON DANCE THEATRE 40th Anniversary Celebration; Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, Bram Goldsmith Theater, 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills, CA 90210; Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020, 7:30 p.m. (artist talk-back immediately follows the performance); Friday, Jan. 31, 2020, 7:30 p.m. (champagne toast immediately follows the performance) and Saturday, Feb. 1, 2020, 7:30 p.m.; $29 to $79 (prices subject to change); (310) 746-4000.
Running time is 100 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission.