Moving history

Lula Washington Dance Theater arrives in Israel for the first time.

(photo credit: JACK HATIN)
If you have ever wondered who is responsible for the effervescence of movement in The Little Mermaid’s key scene, “Under the Sea,” or mused over who came up with the “I See You” gesture in Avatar, the answer is Lula Washington. These moments represent two of Washington’s forays onto the silver screen, however, her main focus is on the Lula Washington Contemporary Dance Foundation, which includes the Lula Washington Dance Theater and Dance School.
Early next month, Washington will arrive in Israel for the first time to present her company at the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center. The engagement, which came as a lastminute addition to TAPAC’s 2015- 2016 season (Paris-based Carolyn Carlson Dance Company canceled their scheduled performances), marks an opportunity for LWDT to bring its version of contemporary excellence to a completely untapped audience.
The company will perform a mixed program consisting of several works by Washington as well as pieces by Rennie Harris and Donald McKayle.
“I think this program represents elements of what I’m about,” said Washington in a recent interview with The Jerusalem Post.
Washington explained that her company has always performed different types of dance fusion, whether they called it that or not.
“Since I started, I’ve always incorporated different dance styles into my work. I include African dance movement, jazz dance movement, modern ballet... I always use those dance styles in my work.
When I started the company, it was called street dance, now its hip hop or fusion. My husband works in theater, so I’ve always been connected with theater and spoken word has always been part of my work. Today, my dancers are younger so they call things a different name but it’s still the same thing.”
Washington was born and raised in Los Angeles.
After happening upon the works of Alvin Ailey, Washington decided to pursue a career in dance. At 22, married and the mother of a little girl, she applied to UCLA’s dance department and was rejected because of her age. Washington refused to accept this decision and petitioned the admissions board to reconsider.
Eventually, moved by her gumption, a retiring dean offered Washington a place. During her time at UCLA, Washington met and worked with many local and international artists such as R’Wanda Lewis, Margalit Oved, Cher, Al Green and Barbara Streisand. In 1981, she founded LWDT, a contemporary repertory company dedicated to promoting black artists.
“When I created the dance company, my motto was ‘reaching for your soul.’ I was trying to connect with the audience, to show a different way of seeing African American people,” said Washington. In recent years, the company has toured the United States extensively and has been invited to perform as far as Russia and China.
“Around the world and even in the States, people don’t see what companies like mine do. They might see Alvin Ailey come to bigger cities but outside of those areas they don’t see it. What LWDT does is making a difference. We are sharing different views, sharing our culture and history through dance.”
Shortly after establishing her company, Washington opened the doors to her school, offering classes to underprivileged youth. Using the slogan, “I Do Dance, Not Drugs,” Washington provides kids with a home base in which they can explore artistic expression. As Treasurer of the International Association of Blacks in Dance, Washington continues to promote and protect the rights and opportunities of black artists in the dance sector. Together with its peer companies, LWDT tackles the issues facing black individuals and institutions.
After 36 years at the helm of a many-faceted foundation, Lula Washington knows that there is little you can take for granted. Styles come in and out of fashion, funding structures are tweaked and winnowed down, audiences grow, recede and reshuffle. The Los Angeles culture-scape, which is deeply connected to Hollywood’s fancies, is evershifting.
“Funding is always the biggest challenge. I want my dancers to be paid, move up the economic ladder, to live a good life and be paid for the wonderful work that they do and to do that, we need funding.”
And though keeping all of it afloat is a daily battle, Washington takes great pleasure in what she does.
“My favorite part of what I do is being able to share the work and take it to places where it might make a difference, where it might be able to change how people see a group of people. We are able to show the history; to show how we’re connected. To go through the world and do this work is incredible.”
Lula Washington Dance Theater will perform at the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center on June 1-3. For more information, visit