By Olu Alemoru, Staff Writer
It may surprise people that the acclaimed Crenshaw-based Lula Washington Dance Theatre (LWDT), which has built an international reputation with overseas tours to countries like Russia, China, Brazil, Mexico and Germany, hasn’t performed as a full company in Los Angeles for about a decade.
But that is set to change this month with when LWDT teams up with New York’s Complexions Contemporary Ballet Company for the Zev Yaroslavsky Signature Series at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd., East Hollywood, on Aug. 10.
The benefit, choreographed by Washington and Christopher Huggins for LWDT and Dwight Rhoden for Complexions, is sponsored by County Supervisor Yaroslavsky and presented by the L.A. County Arts Commission. The event is part of an annual partnership Ford and L.A. County-based arts organizations to showcase culturally diverse music, dance, theatre and film and proceeds go to the Ford Theatre Foundation.
According to Washington, her dancers will perform some its signature work as well as a new piece she created called “Turn the Page,” which is a tribute to Yaroslavsky’s love of classical art.
“Zev shared a very unique story that the reason he fell in love with classical art and dance is because when back in the day he would travel with his parents, his job was to turn the page for the orchestra conductor while the ballet was going on,” she said. “Classical music is not what I usually use, but I searched around and found a piece I liked. I created a trio and two solos as all part of this concept of Zev being motivated by just doing that one [simple] thing.”
Lauded for her interpretive style of dance, she will also unveil a piece that speaks to the slaying of Trayvon Martin. “It explores the national, emotional and interpretive inner feelings about what happened,” she explained. “Not with demonstrations, but with the silent, emotional feelings people are carrying in their hearts, souls and guts.”
Interviewed last week at the company’s home on the corners of Crenshaw Blvd. and Coliseum St., the building was a hive of activity with LWDT’s annual summer dance camp as well as an expressive boys camp, designed to encourage young males to take up the art and a professional development class.
The summer and expressive camp features youth 7 to 16, while the development program goes from 16 to 25.
Once the camps are over and the Ford Theatre benefit is in the rear-view mirror, the company will gear up for a three week 13 city concert tour of Russia, starting Nov. 30. It reprises a tour LWDT made three years ago when they enthralled dance fans in 18 cities.
Putting together such an undertaking is a family event at the company, with artistic director Washington taking care of the creative decisions and her husband Erwin, co-founder and executive director, handling the management and administrative side. The third principal, their daughter Tamica Washington-Miller, is the associate director.
“I have worked to get us national and international bookings and touring performances,” said Erwin. “We never wanted to be just local and I hunt out performance opportunities all over and find the funding to make the tours happen. Like our tour to China, that took two years. I wrote grants to the United States state department and got a six figure return.”
He added: “Same with Russia, I had a connection over there. I noticed that Russians would come to our concerts for years and I finally met a Russian fan that lived here and was bringing Russian artists to the U.S. He had never taken an American artist to Russia, so I suggested he take Lula and he contacted friends there and sent information over and they fell in love with the company. So he got in touch with a former ballet dancer, who went to all these theaters and helped put together the tour.”
Washington noted that it was eye opening for the company, who had to contend with 40 below temperatures. “The bigger touring companies go to Moscow and St. Petersburg, but we went too little known places where there was crime and gangs,” she recalled. “But they loved us; people were crying and gave us flowers. They usually only saw Black people on MTV.”
However, the reaction in China was off the chart. “We took our grandkids and not only do Chinese people never see Black people [in the flesh], but they’ve never seen Black kids. We would be followed everywhere and people would be taking pictures. Our grandson was like ‘no more pictures, I’m tired of you taking pictures.’”
A native of Watts, Washington grew up in the Nickerson Gardens Housing Projects and with great belief began her dance career as a 22-year-old newlywed mother, switching from nursing to convince a skeptical UCLA Dance Department to admit her to the program after initially being denied.
Three decades after founding the company, she has trained a legion of inner city kids to not only appreciate the art of movement, but also build the qualities that help them navigate through life. It was through her reputation that she was an obvious choice when mega-director James Cameron was looking for a choreographer to interpret the movement of the Na’vi, his humanoid species chronicled in “Avatar,” which became the biggest grossing film in history.
Nevertheless, Washington also revealed that keeping LWDT going is a more than challenging exercise, especially when the 2008 recession made it ultra-competitive to secure grants and donations. But she noted that they seek to give out as many scholarships as they can and have been described as an “oasis of beauty” in the community.
“I have parents, grandparents and great grandparents that bring their kids and love to see the joy on their faces.” She said. “Growing a successful dance company is one of the hardest things to do, but we’re still here. I believe in the old values; when one door closes another opens, where there’s a will there’s a way and if you can dream it you can achieve it.”
Center stage, Lula Washington with her young charges. Gary McCarthy/Los Angeles