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DANCE REVIEW : Washington Acknowledges Riots, South-Central Dancers : Los Angeles Festival: "HOME, PLACE and MEMORY" A Citywide Arts Fest.

September 20, 1993|DONNA PERLMUTTER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Some people say it with music, some with words. But to speak her heart, Lula Washington makes dances and, like any choreographer with a keen intelligence for the craft, she knows how to lean effectively on music and words as well.

Take the Los Angeles Festival's presentation of her 13-year-old L.A. Contemporary Dance Theater, for example, seen Friday at the Vision Complex in Leimert Park. With this major platform there was no way that Washington, a self-respecting African-American with deep roots here, would fail to acknowledge what is variously called the '92 riot or rebellion or uprising.

And while "Check This Out!"--an agitprop montage of the event--seemed to be so much preaching to the choir, it could hardly miss. Photo images that are part of a collective unconscious by now--entire streets of burned buildings, National Guardsmen standing duty, looted mattresses tied to auto roofs--form the backdrop.

The dancers, in workmen's overalls, move singly into the spotlight to deliver rap speech. One fiery piece of rhetoric asks what the difference is between L.A. and South Africa, designating the riot as nothing less than a civil war.

Another quotes Rodney King ("Can't we get along?") and Martin Luther King ("Keep hope alive"), but with piercing skepticism for those encouraging words, and more credibility in Thurgood Marshall's: "Stop saying how far we've come and start asking how far we have yet to go."

Even with the bid for audience participation--raised fists in the air demanding justice--Washington's tone is not bellicose. And the formally choreographed sections, an uncommonly coherent blend of karate, jazz and aerobics accented in street gesture, delivers a genuine dramatic punch that her dancers revel in.

So do they sparkle sometimes in "Circle of Dance," which, although it reveals the choreographer's jubilant nature--including a wonderfully cheeky, fringe-and-satin Cotton Club number--it also lapses into indulgence and shows a serious deficit of discipline and focus. Reeling off the names of unheralded hoofers from South-Central L.A. is not the same as evoking their art.

Still, Washington cannily showcased the gifts of her own dancers--among them Maisha Brown, Vernard Davis, Ronnie Willis--in brief cameos that exulted in cool, dancer virtuosity propelled by the cosmic lyricism of Bob Dale's electronic score. Unfortunately, she drove them to the point of haggardness.

Still, there were positive distractions in this big-hearted if fool-hardy grab-bag: the jazz quartet Four-Seven-One, for example. The marathon evening ended around midnight with Djimbe West African Drummers and Dancers.

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