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Dancing on Pandora (Pasadena Weekly)

March 04, 2010

Lula Washington has come a long way from her hardscrabble upbringing in the Nickerson Gardens Housing Projects in Watts. As the founder of the Lula Washington Dance Theatre, she has performed in some of the most prestigious settings on Earth — from the Kennedy Center to the Olympics.

But for her most challenging job yet, Washington was transported to another world — the fictional planet Pandora — to design the movements of the native alien race known as the Na’vi in “Avatar,” the highest-grossing film of all time.

“Avatar” has also earned rapturous notices from most of the world’s critics, in addition to nine Oscar nominations, and Sunday night Washington will learn whether her contributions helped the blockbuster win the award for the year’s best picture.

Not a bad achievement for a woman who didn’t have a chance to study dance as a child, unlike most professional choreographers who start as toddlers. But she has learned never to keep her interests earthbound when she can soar like an eagle, even drawing the attention of one of the world’s most successful filmmakers, “Avatar” director James Cameron.

“Cameron had several teams looking for choreographers to work with and my name kept coming up,” explains Washington, who will turn 60 on March 13. “He was looking not just for a typical Hollywood choreographer but someone who could combine his idea of the Na’vi tribe’s culture into the whole framework of the planet Pandora and the movie.

“The challenge was finding a way to show the Na’vi as a fully formed community that had common things that united them together: Healing rituals, prayer rituals, ways of greeting each other,” Washington continues. “It wasn’t creating movement for the sake of a movement, but creating a culture and movement — ideas that go with that theme. The Na’vi people were a tribe of people, elegant when they gave thanks or asked permission every time they took something from the universe. They were very connected and sensitive to their environment, so the movement needed to do the same thing.”

Choreography in the case of “Avatar” didn’t mean creating dance moves for the beloved blue creatures, but rather providing a realistic feel to the entire scope of the film that would help viewers fully suspend their disbelief while experiencing the Na’vi world of Pandora. That even meant devising the way that the Na’vi creatures would walk, a fundamental process that was deceptively difficult.

“When we walk, we don’t think about it, and we don’t necessarily propel our chests forward,” explains Washington, who has danced as a model for other animated classics, including “The Little Mermaid.”
“The Na’vi would do a writhing walk — a writhing small pulse of the chest of the heartbeat — so you really could not see that part that much. But you could see the movement of the torso somewhat.”
That attention to detail carried over into the scenes where Neytiri, the lead female Na’vi, shoots her arrows while hunting or engaging in the film’s intense battle scenes.

“In the movie, we only did a stag leap in fourth position, where both her knees were bent. It’s very striking. When she would shoot her arrow,” says Washington, “you saw her do that right away, then saw her doing that fantastic leap, showing how fluid, physical and strong she was. That particular movement was derived from a dance created for the hunt.”

While “Avatar” was created over a staggering four-year production process in studios and exteriors in Los Angeles, Hawaii and New Zealand, Washington was fortunate that her involvement came in occasional phases. As a result, she was able to continue setting the world on fire on real-world stages as well as in the green-screen studio sets.

She was also fortunate that the notoriously mercurial Cameron didn’t display any on-set tirades while she was around, leaving her with singularly positive memories of her experiences on the film. Her favorite moment came when she returned from lunch one day to find that the crew had set up a model of the film’s biggest creature — a flying beast that resembles a dragon — for her to personally ride.

“At the time we were working on it, I had no idea how we were going to change the look of the film or that we were involved in such an amazing project,” says Washington. “I knew it was big to work with James Cameron on a project, but I had no idea how it would impact the whole industry. It was a huge opportunity to have a modern jazz company be part of that kind of vision.”

Washington’s appreciation of Cameron arose not only from his vision, but from the respect he showed her and her dancers on a personal level. Rather than focusing on flesh-baring sexiness, as many directors who use dancers would, Cameron had Washington and her team of performers wear full-body motion-capture suits that were transformed into 3D animation during post-production effects work.

“Normally, you have to be sexy and do a lot of hip gyrations and not wear much clothing. This wasn’t that. It was pure and honest, developing a way of movement and way of life for a type of people,” she explains. “That was a big difference for the film. It wasn’t just flash, as in many other movies. That in itself makes a statement, and I think that’s how my work is received when I create choreography for different projects.”

Washington actually started her life’s passion of dancing at 22 and has gone on to surpass the accomplishments of many who had nearly two decades of experience by that point in their lives.

“I never studied dance formally in the beginning. I started when I was 22 years old after I had my daughter, while most dancers start at age 3 or 4,” recalls Washington. “I learned about the concept of dance steps and moves onstage when taken to see the [famed African-American troupe] Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre by Harbor Junior College, where I was attending classes.”

Washington had joined a dance class at Harbor on a lark, opting to perform at a dance audition simply because it was something new to try. Yet because this was the early 1970s, Washington believed that the racial cards were stacked against her and felt that it was too risky to pursue a full-time career as a dancer. She had to make up for lost time through hard work and determination. So rather than fighting for opportunities against a sea of other dancers, she started her own nonprofit dance troupe with her husband, Erwin Washington, in 1980.
“Lula always has her own approach to dance that’s different from everybody else,” says Erwin, chuckling. “Her style and approach to dance was different from her other teachers. She brought African-American artists to UCLA to teach dance classes and produced her own performances on campus because very often the people at school wouldn’t want Afro-American choreographers due to their using jazz or blues instead of classical. In the end, the school had to accept it.

“Once she knows she likes something, she’s set on it,” adds Erwin, a former reporter for the Daily News of Los Angeles. “We go back to 11th grade and a biology class at Washington High School [in Los Angeles]. She’d always be late for class and I always held the door for her. We married in 1970 and both of us were 19, so we just celebrated our 40th anniversary. One daughter, Tamica Washington-Miller, she danced in ‘Avatar’ too.”

Says Lula, “We had about 20 dancers and we were very naïve and we weren’t paying our artists. Everyone was doing it out of love because they wanted to dance. Then we realized we had to start paying our artists to help them stay serious and focused.”

That effort paid off with Lula Washington coordinating the first Olympic Black Dance Festival in conjunction with the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games. In the 26 years since, she has created anti-drug programs in schools and provided dance scholarships and training for hundreds of dancers. Most recently, she was awarded the prestigious Minerva Award by California first lady Maria Shriver.

And yet, it is Sunday’s Oscar telecast that has her most excited of all. She’ll be cheering Cameron on with Erwin and their daughter at their own private party, but she’ll never forget the experiences on the film.

“He was pretty cool. We had no problems, and the only thing he said to me was, ‘I know you’re going to give me long 20-minute ballets.’ That was about it. It was a wonderful experience. He shared what his ideas and his concepts were, but most everything I came up with was accepted with just a few tweaks. I think he enjoyed being around the dancers as much as the dancers enjoyed being around him.”

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