If you’ve seen Avatar — and we’re guessing you probably have, since it’s the most successful movie in history — you’ve seen the sinuous, sensual movements of the extraterrestrial species known as the Na’vi.
Lula Washington did that.
The founder and artistic director of the dance troupe bearing her name choregraphed the movements of the Pandora natives for James Cameron’s beyond–blockbuster film.
Washington began the Lula Washington Dance Theatre with a $25 loan — not a typo — in the middle of South Central Los Angeles in 1980. Working with dancers primarily from disadvantaged backgrounds in one of America’s most poverty–stricken urban areas, Washington built the company up into not only one of the premiere African American dance troupes in the country, but one of the most daring modern dance ensembles in the world.
When accepting California First Lady Maria Shriver’s Minerva Award for Women’s Achievement in 2004, Washington famously said: “Dance, for me, is life. You came into this world moving.”
Which pretty much sums up her point of view.
We spoke to the 59–year–old dance impresario last week, just as she was getting out of rehearsal on the program she is bringing to Savannah in a free performance that’s part of the annual Black Heritage Festival.
Harlem is usually considered the center of African American dance, but you’re on the west coast. Has that influenced your approach any differently?
Lula Washington: Well, I’ve never had that question asked before. I’m not sure if it has or not. I kind of think I would be the same choreographer wherever I am because of the person that I am. And because of the things that motivate and inspire and encourage me. I don’t know if the west coast makes a difference or not.
Your choreography deals with weighty issues like racism and homelessness. Do you ever find yourself trying to lighten the mood, or do you just go with it?
Lula Washington: I think there’s always, as we used to say, a brighter day. So of course it’s done from the point of view that there’s always hope for change. So it’s not just that we beat up on a subject and leave it hanging. There’s always a resolution to it that’s hopeful and celebratory and joyous.
It seems that dance is uniquely suited to that full expression.
Lula Washington: Dance, and probably theatre. Theatre can do that too.
Do you expect that your dancers will have classical training as well as a modern background?
Lula Washington: Dancers come as just dancers. We ask them when we audition them if they do other things, and what are those things, because we’re a dance company that uses spoken text and singing in our repertoire. We’re not looking for them to be equally trained in singing as they are in dancing, but we look for our dancers to be able to carry a tune and be interpretive with their voice.
My work incorporates all the styles pretty much. I incorporate ballet, jazz, hip hop, folk, tap, and we use a wide range of movement. Ballet technique is just one that I use. I’ve always incorporated all different styles in my work. It makes for range and it brings some diversity to the work.
What can we expect to see this weekend from your company?
Lula Washington: We’re doing a work by a famous choreographer named Donald McKayle called “Songs of the Disinherited.” It’s a piece that deals with the social concepts of slaves moving toward freedom, and black people moving from the south to the north, and the journey that it took. The other pieces incorporate spoken text. One piece is a tribute to Paul Lawrence Dunbar, a very famous African American poet who wrote a poem called “We Wear the Mask,” and our dance is called “We Wore the Mask.”
The overall theme of the festival is Black Heritage, but what message in particular will you be trying to get across?
Lula Washington: We’re coming to share our cultural voice in dance. It’s an opportunity for your community to experience a range of choreography from traditional modern dance to much more contemporary works. It’s a dance experience from the Afrocentric point of view. It incorporates African American history, but African American history is American history. It’s all blended together.
Lula Washington Dance Theatre
Where: Johnny Mercer Theatre, Savannah Civic Center, 301 W. Oglethorpe Ave.
When: 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 12
Cost: Tickets are free (call the box office)
Phone: (800) 351-7469
Artist’s Web site: www.lulawashington.com