More than 2,400 Chinese students packed the Rome Amphitheatre at Sias International University in Central China’s Xinzheng City two nights in a row to watch the Lula Washington Dance Theatre (LWDT) in concert. Students filled all the seats and then sat on the ground in front of the outdoor stage to watch.
Following both concerts students cheered and yelled out “We Love You Lula!” and scrambled to take photos with Lula and her dancers. “Amazing!” said Debra Levine, a dance critic and blogger who is travelling in China with LWDT. “Lula’s company is amazing!”
Dr. Shawn Chen, chairman of the Board for Sias, the only privately owned university in China, reported that students, faculty, Chinese media and high ranking government officials expressed great joy and satisfaction with the performances. They were particularly pleased, he said, because they saw African-American dancers performing traditional Chinese dance — which showed the interaction between American and Chinese dancers.
The two evening concerts were part of a week-long residency with Sias where Lula Washington conducted master dance classes; choreographed a dance for Sias Students to perform in their Homecoming ceremonies; and performed at Sias’s sister campus, the City University of Zhenzghou. Lula and her dancers took part in the graduation ceremonies; a homecoming parade; and joined graduates in taking a graduation class photo.
At the Homecoming events LWDT and her company performed alongside Sias students doing traditional Chinese dances that they learned while in China. Sias University is located in the same region as the Temple of the Shaolin Monks, who are famous for their martial arts athleticism. The Monks performed on the Homecoming program at the City University of Zhengzhou immediately following Lula Washington Dance Theatre, delivering the audience a double dose of spectacular movement.
As part of the visit, Lula and dancers sang songs at a Karaoke party; taught hip hop and line dancing to students; and ate true Chinese foods with local dignitaries at banquets held in recognition of the dancers and the tour.
Lula Washington Dance Theatre’s tour to Central China may be the first of its type in history by an American modern dance company because it reaches such remote locations, said Keith Lommel from the US Embassy in Beijing. Lommel, who speaks fluent Mandarin, accompanied the dancers at the first third of the tour. He said he had never seen anything like the response to the dance company and he had also never seen Americans as willing to interact with the Chinese in the way that LWDT did.
The tour takes the dance company to 12 cities in remote areas far from the big cities of Beijing and Shanghai.
The response to LWDT and its dancers has been the same from the beginning of the trip, starting with performances at the 2011 International Horticulture Exhibition in the city of Xi’an, home of the Terra Cota Warriors. There, crowds also sat in rapt attention as the company performed. Lula’s “Global Village” drew praise in Chinese newspapers. “Reign” by Rennie Harris wowed crowds in Xi’an and at Sias; as Did Donald McKayle’s “Angelitos Negros”.
Other crowd favorites were “Love Is…” by Christopher Huggins; “Together” by Tamica Washington-Miller; and Lula Washington’s “The Healers”, “We Wore The Mask”, and “Spontaneous Combustion”. The dance company is rotating a variety of programs as it moves from city to city.
As part of the tour, the dance company is visiting Chinese historical and cultural sites. Dancers visited the Terra Cota Warriots excavation site and museum; they climbed the Great Wall of China; toured the Forbidden City and toured the national Museum in Xi’an City. Along the way, they learned a great deal about 5,000 years of Chinese history and culture.
The idea of the tour is to go beyond performances but to engage in a true cultural exchange between the dancers and the local people. So far, the tour appears to be meeting its goals.