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Lula Washington Showed Hollywood Some Dance Moves

Lula Washington

October 16, 2010
By Jane Vranish, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Lula Washington Dance Theatre is known as the company that served as the real-life inspiration for the Na’vi tribe in James Cameron’s blockbuster movie “Avatar.” But when the company appears at Shady Side Academy tonight, Ms. Washington wants people to expect more, to be “interested in the art for the art.”

And she plans to deliver.

Mr. Cameron found that out when he sent several teams to scout the Los Angeles area for dance specialists.

“They all came back with one name, and that was mine,” says Ms. Washington.

The movie director then invited her for an interview.

“He had his own idea about what he was looking for — communal dance that the whole tribe could do,” she says.

Her thoughts automatically went to the traditions and rituals found with Australian aborigines and in Africa.

“They have a certain way of greeting each other. They have a certain way of hunting. They’re very, very thoughtful of the environment, and they’re very spiritual. That helped to flesh out the kind of movements that I used.”

She demonstrated for him a yogic gesture, touching her forehead and extending her arm. Called the “third eye,” it means, “I see you.” She got the job.

Ms. Washington went on to design a dozen formal dances in her company home before taking to the movie studio. There, the dancers were outfitted with motion-capture suits to be transferred onto the screen. Her dancers worked for two years between their own performances and tours to record the movement. In the end, the dances themselves were not used, and Ms. Washington knew that would be the case. She just wanted Mr. Cameron to have plenty of material from which to chose.

“It was exciting,” she says, adding almost wistfully, “I just wish that my modern dance company had the resources they had at their disposal.”

Filmgoers might spot the residue in a leap here or a gesture there, and, of course, the “third eye” played a prominent part. The pivotal scene where the Na’vi prayed to Eywa was the most literal, but the dance also impacted the overall movement of the tribe.

Ms. Washington likens the whole experience to the “glorious” burst of flame from a match. For 30 years she has worked hard to keep her own flame alive, maintaining it with a larger-than-life personality and a commitment to the dance.

While studying to be a nurse, she saw a performance of the Alvin Ailey company and set out to dance at age 22. But her application to the University of California at Los Angeles dance program was rejected. They considered her too old to begin a dance career.

Ms. Washington didn’t take no for an answer. Appealing to the dean with her soon-to-be trademark passion and eloquence, she was accepted and went on to finish her master’s degree.

Husband Erwin threw his support behind her, and the pair established a dance company, originally called the Los Angeles Contemporary Dance Theatre. The company drew from some of the biggest choreographic names, including prime supporter Donald McKayle, Katherine Dunham and Donald Byrd among them. By 1983, they had established a school in Los Angeles’ Adams neighborhood that offered low-cost and free classes to the neighborhood children, given in the local Masonic Temple, which they rented. Veteran Pittsburgh dance percussionist Charles Hall began his career there.

“I was a little intimidated by her because I had only been in dance a couple of years,” he recalls. “But she and her husband, Erwin, were the warmest and most wonderful people. When you got close to her studio, you could hear the drumming. When you opened the door downstairs, this heat and this funk would rush out the door and almost push you back. But once you got in and came upstairs and were a part of it, it was the most wonderful experience.”

The company was almost evicted from that home, but the Washingtons came up with a $176,000 loan in 1991 to buy the building, only to have it leveled in the 1994 Northridge earthquake. The company rented various spaces for seven years, but Ms. Washington didn’t give up. Eventually she and her husband took on corporate interests to buy a prime piece of property in the Crenshaw district of South Los Angeles and erect a new building.

The company finally regained that “stability” that she so prizes. Ms. Washington has received many honors along the way. In 2007 she received the Carter G. Wilson Civil Rights Award for her “Reflections in Black” school performance and the “2009 Uncommon Angel Award” from the community for transforming Crenshaw Boulevard. And she was the first woman to receive the Minerva Award from the state of California and the state’s first lady Maria Shriver.

But it still isn’t easy. The Washingtons continued to struggle when a $200,000 stipend from the Los Angeles School District disappeared despite the Wilson award.

Those kinds of problems haven’t affected the artistic product. The program that the company brings to Shady Side Academy contains work by noted contemporary black choreographers Rennie Harris and Christopher Huggins. Her daughter Tamika will offer a tribute to Venus and Serena Williams and their “extremely competitive relationship.” Finally, Ms. Washington will provide “We Wore the Masks,” a piece that speaks about many issues and “what we have to do to survive,” and “The Healers,” which touches her spiritual side.

Penn Hills native Queala Clancy is a member of the company and made the move to Los Angeles because of Ms. Washington.

“She’s dramatic and she’s emotional,” Ms. Clancy explains. “But she allows you to be yourself. She allows you to work on your artistry and to find yourself as a dancer and as an individual.”

With support like that, you get the sense that Ms. Washington will never stop.

“I’ve just been trying to stay true to my work and true to my voice,” she says. “I continue to believe that the funding that we need to maintain our actions is going to happen if we keep working toward our goal — being able to share with audience and communities who we are.”

Former Post-Gazette critic Jane Vranish: at jvranish1@comcast.net. She also blogs at pittsburghcrosscurrents.com.
First published on October 16, 2010 at 12:00 am

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