BWW Review: The Lula Washington Dance Theatre Celebrated its 40th Anniversary in Style at The Wallis
The Lula Washington Dance Theatre has risen to become one of the most admired African-American contemporary dance companies in the world. It is known for its powerful, high-energy dancing and innovative and provocative choreography primarily by Lula Washington along with other established and emerging choreographers. The company, which tours internationally, has steadfastly focused on using dance to explore social issues, including aspect of African-American history and culture.
The venerated Los Angeles-based dance ensemble returned to the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts to celebrate its milestone 40th anniversary with a dynamic and powerful program exploring social and humanitarian issues from January 30 through February 1 in the Bram Goldsmith Theater. The program, which launched The Lula Washington Dance Theatre's year-long anniversary celebration, included three world premieres and a West Coast premiere, with new works from new voices, some of whom are a generation younger than co-founders Lula and Erwin Washington.
Mixing jazz, hip-hop, African movement, ballet, modern, tap and other dance styles, the company has built an international reputation for the vitality, energy and depth of its repertory and the charisma and interpretive power it brings to each and every performance. Based in the Crenshaw District of Los Angeles, the multi-ethnic company express both inner city and international culture. I was fortunate to be in the audience for a talk-back with Lula, her daughter Tamica, and each of the performing company members during which I learned more about each one of them individually and gained further respect for the company's evolution during the past 40 years.
For this special event, the dance troupe presented the world premiere of "To Lula with Love" which was created for the occasion by celebrated choreographer Christopher Huggins, a former member of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre and an alum of Lula Washington Dance Theatre. Brilliantly lit in bright blue, the work was presented by ensemble members as a tribute to Lula Washington for keeping the company going for 40 years despite many obstacles. And what a thrill it was to see Lula take the stage at its finale!The world premiere of "Hands Up: A Testimony" by company alumnus Tommie Waheed Evans, who received a 2019 Princess Grace Foundation Honorarium Grant to create the work, focused on his experience growing up in Los Angeles and what it meant to him to be a product of that city. Ensemble members appeared from the shadows as if moving into a fantasy world where hard times can be endured and success achieve through artistic collaboration with others also searching for themselves.
Additionally, the program featured two works by company Founder/Artistic Director Lula Washington, including the world premiere of excerpts from "Fragments," a work-in-progress she describes as "a reaction to the chaotic times we live in." I especially enjoyed this longer segment as it gave each ensemble member a chance to be featured performing a solo, allowing us to see a wide variety of dance styles, all performed to athletic perfection.
The most emotionally moving for me was "King," which Lula Washington created in 2007 about the struggles of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the civil rights movement. Solo performer Michael Tomlin, III danced in front of slide projections by Myshell Curry which displayed not only King himself but many instances of blatant racial segregation which he fought to outlaw. Tomlin's performance skills were riveting, focused on precision and a wonder to behold against such incredible historical wrongs.
Other repertoire included the West Coast premiere of "Zayo," a bold, Afro-fusion, dance-theatre work about self-discovery, destiny and personal strength by Esie Mensah, who hails from Toronto, Canada and Ghana, and "Reign," a joyous gospel-fueled work by hip-hop concert pioneer Rennie Harris commissioned by Lula Washington Dance Theatre in 2010 for its then 30th anniversary. This piece features male and female ensembles working separately and in unison, ending with a joyous celebration of mutual respect and joy.
The Lula Washington DANCE THEATRE 40th Anniversary Celebration ran 100 minutes with a 15-minute intermission as well as short breaks between numbers at The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts is located at 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd, Beverly Hills. You can find more information of the dance ensemble, programs and future performances at http://www.lulawashington.org/. For more information about The Wallis, please visit TheWallis.org.
Lula Washington performance photos by Kevin Parry