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Lula Washington Dance Theatre – Celebrating 30 Years

by Rachel Levin
May 15, 2010
Luckman Fine Arts Complex
5151 State University Drive
Los Angeles, CA 90032
323-343-6600
In a program that looked both back and forward and clocked in at three plus hours, the Lula Washington Dance Theatre feted three decades of their eclectic brand of African-influenced modern jazz. While the first half of the evening was dominated by new pieces and premieres, the second was a retrospective of Washington's works spanning 1980 to 2008. Though this ambitious agenda was fitting for a company that has gone from homegrown troupe to respected player on the national stage in the past 30 years, the volume of material presented was too vast to digest in one evening. As the show extended past the 11:00 p.m. hour, audience members (especially those with children) began making an exodus well before the grand finale.

The opening pieces were steeped in technology, from computer artist J Walt's animated, choreographed computer figurines (a demonstration that went on for too long, stoking anticipation for the "real" dancing bodies) to "www.connections.2010," a series of dance vignettes that hopped from cell phones to texts to tweets to online dating. "Connections" was unique in that it didn't merely use dance to comment on technology; it explored technology's effects on dance. Increasingly in public space, a group of people may be together but not interacting, withdrawn into their respective cell phone activities. Washington's piece posits that the "together but apart" mentality has repercussions on the dance floor, where youth are less likely to partner or even reference one another in dance than in previous generations. In another segment, the "chicken dance" was presented as the kinesthetic equivalent of a tweet, a comment on our shrinking attention spans for complex movement in the digital age. Collectively, the vignettes showcased Washington's signature wit, which transmutes the exuberant performances of her highly able company from pure dance to hybrid theatre.

Stepping back from technology to something more organic was an excerpt from "Songs of the Disinherited," a repertory piece from 1972 choreographed by Washington's mentor Donald McKayle. This gorgeous solo was danced to "Angelitos Negros," and the flowing white gown and impossibly high leg extensions of the dancer manifested the ethereal theme. Flamenco-like movements conveyed the impassioned pathos, pain, and power of this black angel. Contrasting to this solemnity was a high-energy entry from visiting choreographer and hip hop wunderkind Rennie Harris, "Reign," a dose of pure fun with attitude set to a gospel tinged techno soundtrack.

The second half's retrospective varied wildly in mood and style, from the goofy antics of "Rites 2000" (dancers crossing the stage with bubble guns and teddy bears, "surfing" on fabric, and singing "I'm a Little Teapot"), to the bluesy lament of "Muddy Waters," to the masculine one-upmanship of "Urban Man," to the political realism of "Little Rock Nine." Taken together, Washington's body of work speaks to the pain, triumph, and exuberance of the African American experience and seems most invested in moments of transformation, as when the utter despair of the downtrodden "Women in the Streets" turned on its heel to become a near-manic high.

Washington has drawn much attention as of late for her work choreographing the characters in the film "Avatar," and it's easy to see from this showcase why she excelled at coining a movement style for a fantastical fictional world. Not bound by the arbitrary distinctions of seriousness and frivolity or the genre boundaries between jazz, modern, and African American idioms, she is able to play in the realm of possibility. The only problem on Saturday is that it was perhaps too much of a good thing.
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