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A Black Company With Little Black Support

February 21, 1988|DOUGLAS SADOWNICK

Lula Washington of Los Angeles Contemporary Dance Theater has been celebrating black achievement and suffering black indifference lately.

She honored Black History Month (as well as her company's eighth anniversary) in a dance program at USC's Bing Theatre last weekend, where four leaders from the black community--state Sen. Diane Watson, Assemblywoman Maxine Waters, actress Virginia Capers and KABC-TV newsman Larry Carroll--introduced and praised Washington's work but criticized the black community for not supporting its own local artists.

Back in her company studios in the Crenshaw District, she also wonders why the local black community consistently overlooks home-grown black dance when it comes to support.

"I'm artistic director of a small (eight members) but solid black dance company . . . one that has become a major force of black dance in L.A. despite the fact that we have received no substantial black support," Washington, 37, says. Her lighthearted, athletic, even sassy dance style is complemented offstage by a tough-talking, sometimes angry attitude when confronting what she sees as the injustices of her career.

"Please, I'm not equating myself with Arthur Mitchell (artistic director of Dance Theatre of Harlem), who comes to town and who gets much deserved attention. But in my community, dance is not a high priority unless you have some movie-star status attached to you."

Black choreographers in Los Angeles "have discovered that we receive support from (grant) systems which are primarily white," Washington says. "I'm hurt at the oversight. We received no major support from black organizations or from black business or black people with money who could make a difference.

"Virginia Capers did donate $1,000 in support of a scholarship fund. And in 1984, we did receive $1,000 from the League of Allied Arts, a black organization, but that's all the black support we have ever gotten in eight years." She estimates her company's total annual budget as $100,000 ($40,000 in cash and the rest in in-kind services and donations).

In contrast, last year Washington received what she calls "votes of confidence, which enabled us to get our heads above water," from the California Arts Council ($12,000), the National Endowment for the Arts' Expansion Arts Program ($6,000), the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department ($2,500) and the National/State/County Partnership ($3,500).

So when Washington had to match the state arts council grant, she turned for help to what she calls "the white Establishment." Pacific Telesis donated $3,500, Xerox gave $2,500, as did Arco, and Washington pulled together the rest through benefit performances, dance classes at her school and earned income.

But her real life-saver came in the form of Toshiro Ogawa of USC's Drama Division and Program Board, which "made a big difference in our ability to self-produce" by waiving theater costs and donating flyers. "No, these were not black people, just people," Washington says.

She says she's not bitter, just "bent on improving the situation. I want to think about the future. If we just educate the audience to the value of art as a way of stopping malaise in the black community, support would be forthcoming."

At the recent International Conference for Black Dance Companies in Philadelphia, Washington spoke of "the schizophrenia of being a black contemporary artist--about wanting to make conceptual, modern-dance pieces like 'Urban Man' and 'Women in the Streets,' the two I'm premiering this season, and yet feeling the need to satisfy black audiences with the tried-and-true 'Wauyacanyaga Suite,' " a pop showpiece by Jho Jenkins.

Does Washington wonder that some blacks may not support her company because they don't like her choreography?

"That is their choice," she answers with a good-natured laugh. "But L.A. Contemporary Dance Theater is much more than choreography."

Washington is referring to her company's community outreach programs, which "translate my sense of black historical pride into ways that directly help the community."

She has even put pressure on local government to clean up the drug traffic on the street near her dance studio. Enrollment in her dance classes had plummeted because, she says, "you had to wade through the addicts to get through the dance studio door." After the drug dealing stopped, she says, enrollment grew.

Washington claims that local black businessmen are proud of what she's done, but she is tired of "just words." "If they don't put their money where their mouths are," she says, "one day we will be gone because the truth is, we can barely pay our rent.

"L.A. is not a dance town. The entire local scene is in crisis." Last year's Los Angeles Festival, she believes, created a "false impression that L.A. supports the arts. You tell me how many local artists were included in the festival or who were helped by it.

"When you talk about a black modern-dance company in this town, you are talking about the bottom of the totem pole--the low end of the priority list."

Nevertheless, Washington believes there is enough to go around for everybody. "There are a lot of rich black people in L.A," she says. "One of the black corporations could lend us a person to be administrative director. It would be their way of giving something back to their own community.

"There is supposedly a service group put together to support the arts. They may be supporting somebody, but right now it's not us."

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