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Troupe Steps Closer to Its Dream Home

November 03, 1996|Zan Dubin | Zan Dubin is a Times staff writer

With $1.5 million in new funding, the Lula Washington Dance Theatre can begin construction early next year on its long-planned expanded studio and education facility.

The troupe was forced into temporary quarters on Pico Boulevard after the 1994 Northridge earthquake nearly leveled its Mid-City studio on Adams Boulevard. But in October, the Federal Emergency Management Agency approved the troupe's application for $800,000 in federal disaster funds to rebuild the Adams facility, which was once a Masonic temple. About the same time, the Los Angeles City Council approved a $600,000 combination loan-grant from the Community Redevelopment Agency to be used to convert property across the street from the temple into what Erwin Washington, Lula's husband and the troupe's executive director, calls an "arts incubator." That annex will be leased to area arts groups.

"We had three theater groups and several dance companies rehearsing and offering classes at our old building, and even now, at Pico, we house other groups," said Erwin Washington, who wants to upgrade the area around the Adams facility into an arts district.

With an additional $100,000 recently donated by an anonymous local foundation, the troupe also plans to turn a fast-food restaurant beside its main building into a parking lot or, if more funding materializes, into a small performance space.

With the reconstruction of the Adams facility, the Washington troupe will mark the end of a period of transition. For about six months after the quake, until the troupe relocated on Pico, most of its well-regarded dance education programs for at-risk children and youth went on hiatus.

In the meantime, the Washingtons took the professional troupe on the road as much as possible. As out-of-town critics cheered, the question surfaced: Should they keep kids' programs on hold to concentrate on the professional troupe? The answer was no; the Washingtons wanted to get back to providing positive alternatives for youths. Also, those kids spoke up.

"They'd literally call me every single day," Lula said, "and say, 'When are we going to have class again, when are we going to go out and perform again?' They really were missing that."

Remaining in the quarters on Pico, which Erwin said is a safer area than the old Adams location, had also been an option, but that too was easily dismissed.

"Lula started dancing in that [temple] building when she was young," he said, "and we didn't want to abandon the neighborhood. We're really committed to trying to improve it and we felt we could have a bigger impact there."

The 16-year-old company needs still more funding to make that impact, added Erwin, who has had to pay for flood and liability insurance and other unexpected expansion costs. He also wants money to add staff to help manage things during construction and after.

"It's still just me and Lula," he said.

With the rebuilding project gearing up, though, he sees the two parts of the troupe's work meshing.

Last summer in New York, the Lula Washington Dance Theatre premiered "What About Watts," inspired by the unsolved shooting death of Lula's teenage nephew. The work, which candidly explores drug addiction, street crime and gang violence, will have its local premiere at Cal State Los Angeles Nov. 16 and 17.

"We're on stage dancing about these things," Erwin said, "and we're out there in the real world trying to make things happen."


* The Lula Washington Dance Theatre performs "What About Watts" and other works Nov. 16 at 8 p.m. and Nov. 17 at 4 p.m. at Cal State L.A.'s Luckman Fine Arts Complex, 5151 State University Drive. $12-$30. (213) 365-3500.

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