With energy to spare the Lula Washington Dance Theatre set the stage for the companies 40th Anniversary at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. Founded by Lula and husband Erwin Washington in 1980 the company has become a beacon of creativity for the inner city and the world at large. High octane at all times this celebration includes new provocative works and favorite gems from the past. The Bram Goldsmith Theater as always was the perfect venue for this production from the beautiful lobby entry of the Wallis to the ideally sized stage and seating area. It’s truly a house where every seat is a good one.
Tommie Waheed Evans, a winner of a 2019 Princess Grace Honorarium Award for Choreography, began the evening with the world premier of his piece “Hands Up: A Testimony,” with the sub-title of “Our LA.” Coming out of darkness into the light the dancers appear and disappear by simply moving upstage into the inky blackness created by Lighting Designer Michael David Ricks. This is clever and effective but is achieved only by keeping the downstage area somewhat dim, which leaves the performance area murky. The hard-working dancers are dressed in black tops with rust colored pants that look muddy in the dim light. The music by Michael Mindingail and Communion is, however, a full-throated soundscape of operatic gospel, joyous and “alive,” a word that is repeated throughout. Evans work is a fusion of jazz, modern and contemporary dance with a clear Ailey influence. Because it is fast moving, highly energetic and very ambitious he sometimes puts the dancers at a disadvantage as they struggle to keep up. Their line and balance become compromised distracting from the overall piece. Evans does make great use of the cast’s jumping and turning skills although again simplifying might make for cleaner more synchronized combinations. Also effective is his use of arms as the performers fall into a frenzy of devotion to a higher spirit. Even though fast paced, the piece begins to ramble and the point is obscure. With judicious cuts, some simplification and a little more focus this will be a joyous spirit-raising event. The company members performing here were Joniece Boykins, Quron Clarks, Ongelle Johnson, Kazue Kasahara, and Courtney Goffney.
A past favorite was brought back with “King.” Lula Washington in an ode to the great Martin Luther King choreographed this excerpt from “Movement” in 2004. Projected onto the back scrim is a collection of disturbing photographs from the segregated South, “Whites Only,” “No Coloreds Allowed,” hangings, Klansmen etc., runs as a backdrop throughout. A voice over of Martin Luther King Jr. giving a sermon is the music and his voice is mesmerizing, a melody that captivates and sings to our souls. Onto the stage dressed in a simple black suit reminiscent of King is dancer Michael Tomlin, III. The sermon is powerful, filled with the fear and angst that MLK is beginning to feel, as violence becomes a real threat to him and his family. He is not sure he should move forward but resolves that he will, in the name of God. This then is the lyric of the choreography. A dignified Tomlin dances beautifully and with full commitment. But it is Kings voice that has the stage and the performer is dwarfed by his presence. The best of intentions are clear. The choreography follows the dread that King feels but the dance does not have the heft needed to embody the weightiness of the words.
Another World premier followed “To Lula With Love/Warrior” choreographed as a tribute to her by Christopher Huggins, an Alvin Ailey alumnus with a multitude of important credits. As the curtain rises, the company dancers are in a tableau reminiscent of a dance class. Wearing a long caftan Lula slowly walks through with all her magisterial being, the supreme teacher. It is an affecting moment. The work was very much in the style of what we have seen before. The dancers strive to do well but the choreography is intense and often beyond their ability. Some sections worked nicely but mostly it feels effortful. Dancing hard isn’t necessary to make the dance relevant. An unfortunate costume choice (concept by Lula Washington) also made things look sloppier than perhaps they were. An excess of material, kneepads and black socks did not help with line or precision. Sadly, the work never reached the height created by Lula when she made her passage across the stage. Martez Mckinzy, Jack Virga-Hall, Danny Guerro and Glen Rodriquez joined the company members mentioned above. The music was by Kodo & Flying Lotus.
“Zayo” a Lula Washington Company premier with choreography by Canadian Esie Mensah was up next. This is about identity and destiny. Mensah changed things up by adding dancers in black robes against the white clothes of the lead woman, a strong Joyneice Boykins, who we can assume is Mensah’s alter ego. The dancers in black seem to represent obstacles as they menace her with and without sticks. Using the sticks as both weapons and rhythmical instruments adds an element not seen in previous numbers. The bullying sequence has a real sense of intimidation, which the character seems to overcome, making the overly dramatic conclusion confusing. Mensah has a point of view and makes her intentions clear therefore some interesting choreography emerges. It was easy to stay with this piece with percussive music by Memeza, DJ Joejo Remix. Performers were Quran Clarks, Tehran Dixon, Danny Guerrero, Ongelle Johnson, Kazue Kasashara, Martez McKinsey.
“Fragments” “Excerpts 2017-2020” a “Sneak Preview/Premier” by Lula Washington brought in the fraught politics of today. With the multitude of problems plaguing our nation this is a lot to take on. Lula makes a valiant attempt, however. Using spoken word, dance and drama she addresses, identity, love, sexual harassment, voting, death, respect, peace and so much more with energy and wit. Some of the choreography works well and some does not but it’s the essence of the piece that hooks you. Though lengthy and sometimes untidy, Lula’s effervescent energy is on the stage with her earnest company of dancers. Adding to the mix is the powerful and charming Tamika Washington Miller, Lula’s daughter and associate director. Moving beautifully and reciting poetry or inciting the audience to join her in calling out the names of lost love ones or finally singing “peace, peace,” she lit up the stage with her every appearance. “Fragments” is too long and needs development but it abounds with good ideas and with refinement it could become a hallmark of Washington’s work. The satisfying music is by Sun Ra, Marcus L. Miller, Nipsey Hussle and a very moving John Lennon’s “All You Need Is Love.” Indeed.
The final piece of this very long night was “Reign” choreographed in 2010 for Lula Washington Dance Theatre’s 30th Anniversary by Rennie Harris and reprised here a decade later. Dance evolves very quickly and the hip-hop style that Davis is known for has moved into a more sexualized and aggressive form in the past ten years. However, this vibrant and explosive piece works just as well today as it did the day it premiered and preserves the style of the day. A bolt of lightening strikes a female dancer and we’re off and running with nonstop even relentless dancing. Harris incorporates African, jazz, gospel and ballet technique into this work, which while fun to watch can flummox the dancers who try but cannot conquer every style. Michael Tomlin III was the exception executing flawlessly and bursting with charisma, it was hard to take your eyes off of him. His is a name to remember.
Near the end of this exuberant piece a surprise freeze and slo-mo section was a great touch. The dancers must be complimented for sheer endurance of this aerobic marathon and the audience was visibly exhausted for them as they took their bows. Overall this piece is fun, fun, fun. Some tightening and cleaning would make this the dance of the night. The music was mixed and produced by James “JT” Wilconson. Haniyyah Tahirah and Leonora Castillo apprentice joined the full company.
An icon in the dance community Lula Washington and Company brings everything they have to the table. Their commitment to the message “reaching for your soul” with an aim to move people “to a place of humanism and fairness for all” is loud and clear.
However careful editing, attention to the ability of the dancers and moments of quietude would benefit the performance by letting the audience breathe and feel the emotional depth of this important mission.
Additional credits: All lighting design is nicely done by Michael David Ricks with Sound design by Darryl Hoffman.
Written by Tam Warner for LA Dance Chronicle, February 3, 2020.
To learn more about the Lula Washington Dance Theatre, click here.
To visit the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, click here.
Featured image: Lula Washington Dance Theatre performs the world premiere of “To Lula with Love/Warrior” by Christopher Huggins, featuring Lula Washington (pictured) at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on January 30, 2020 – Photo by Kevin Parry