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Lula Washington: A life changed by dance

From creating steps for her dance troupe to moves for 'Avatar's' Na'vis, the African American choreographer has done it all.

January 31, 2010|By Debra Levine
  • Lula Washington, above, and members of her dance troupe rehearse for a tour at her Los Angeles studio.
Lula Washington, above, and members of her dance troupe rehearse for a tour… (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los…)

"There is no gum chewing allowed anywhere inside Lula Washington Dance Theatre," a sign warns on the dance academy's front door. Dwarfed by the big-box retail stores of Crenshaw Boulevard, the unassuming low-rise shell belies its explosive contents -- dance, music, kids, creativity. Enter the House That Lula Built, headquarters for Washington's school and her touring modern dance troupe and a place where you'd better leave fooling around on the sidewalk.

Washington, 59, is Los Angeles' best-known African American choreographer, a community organizer and an advocate for the arts. She takes dancing dead seriously. Directing one of the few companies in the region that commands national attention, Washington is celebrating her troupe's 30th anniversary this year.

Over her career, she's seen the funding environment for the arts deteriorate to a climate that can be described only as hostile.

And yet she survives, initiating new projects as a concert dance maker and lately in film.

She's riding high since choreographing the movements for the Na'vis in "Avatar." And her company has bookings from New Mexico to New Jersey as well as L.A. dates this week at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts and later this year at the Luckman Fine Arts Complex, the Hollywood Bowl (with trumpeter Terence Blanchard) and at downtown's Grand Performances.

That's a lot of hustle.

In 2004, as she received California First Lady Maria Shriver's Minerva Award for women's achievement, the choreographer said, "Dance, for me, is life. You came into this world moving. Dance can change your whole life."

Washington's resolute tone offers clues to her staying power; her softness belies strong drive. It manifests in her 12-member touring ensemble, a multiracial tribe of real movers. It's evident in her eye-popping choreographic mélange of jazz, funk and African-derived movement fused into theatrical modern dance. And it explains how she's garnered top African American choreographers, notably Donald McKayle, Katherine Dunham, Donald Byrd, Louis Johnson, Rennie Harris and Christopher Huggins, to create dances for her troupe.

Beyond the concert stage, Washington's brand is deeply associated with community involvement. The school's annual Kwanzaa Celebration, now a Leimert Park Village holiday tradition, provides a robust outlet for neighborhood kids to channel energy while building self-esteem.

Every December for 19 years, Washington has unleashed a pageant of dance virtuosity on a packed house of beaming parents. The engaging performers, many with talent to burn, range from tap-dancing tots to the school's Youth Dance Ensemble on pointe to some serious senior citizens in dashikis and turbans. Directing this wild cabaret is Tamica Washington-Miller, Washington's daughter and protégée, who coaches from the wings as the three-hour show builds to its blistering finale: a squadron of percussionists propelling a half-hour of African dance.

A relative latecomer to dance, Washington grew up the oldest of eight kids in Watts' Nickerson Gardens housing project. Only after she saw a UCLA performance of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater at age 22 did the onetime nurse conceive of life as a dancer. She committed to her career with the spiritual support of two men: her husband, Erwin, a playwright and journalist who is now the company's executive director ("I told her to pursue what she loves most in life and I'd take care of the money," he remembers), and McKayle, a choreographer who was then working in film and television. He has since contributed several of his works to Washington's troupe, adding historical weight to the repertoire.

Friends in high places sing her praises. Among them is "Avatar" filmmaker James Cameron. Seeking a movement language for his imagined world on the moon Pandora, he hired Washington to create a proprietary way of moving for the 10-foot-tall, blue-skinned members of his cast.

Cameron's producer-partner Jon Landau says in a telephone interview: "Since our early days [developing 'Avatar'] in 2006, we thought about bringing in a movement expert. But we wanted more than motion. We wanted emotion. Lula had the most insight into the motivation behind movement."

In her first meeting with the director, Washington offered Cameron the "third eye" greeting, a light finger touch to the forehead by the Na'vis. Her familiarity with ritual got her the gig.

"We wanted movements that were original but had a touchstone of the familiar." Landau said. "She said, 'This gesture here is a sign of aggression; this gesture here is a sign of acceptance.' A nod means something across cultures. We wanted to lose the nod and find other ways to express those emotions."

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