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Lula Washington Dance Theatre heading to China for 12-city tour

May 19, 2011 | 12:23 pm

A standing-room-only crowd cheered the Lula Washington Dance Theatre at its Crenshaw Boulevard studios Wednesday night, as the modern dance company threw itself a bon voyage showcase and party on the eve of its first tour to China. 

After three years of preparation and an earlier trip cancellation due to the H1N1 scare, the Friday-to-June 13 tour includes performances in 12 cities and a range of cultural outreach activities for the company and with Chinese students. 

“It’s such a big deal. Lula’s mission was always to have a world-class modern dance company and it’s been a long time coming,” said Associate Artistic Director Tamica Washington-Miller, Lula’s daughter and a dancer, teacher and choreographer.  

At the showcase, the troupe previewed two works-in-progress that founder and chief choreographer Washington created especially for the trip, which is sponsored by Sias International University in Henan province. In addition to private donations, the U.S. State Department and four Chinese provincial governments provided additional funding, said Erwin Washington, executive director and Lula’s husband.

This trip and a 20-city tour of Russia last fall, are milestones for the ensemble, now in its 31st season. In addition to ballets by Washington and Washington-Miller, the repertory includes pieces by esteemed and iconic African American dance-makers such as Rennie Harris and Donald McKayle. The multi-racial company ranges from 12 to 16 dancers (depending on the project). Washington received her greatest celebrity when director James Cameron tapped  her to create movement for the Navi in “Avatar.” 

Her choreographic style is known for its eclectic mix of jazz steps, African, hip-hop, modern dance and ballet. She incorporated Asian elements in the new pieces, such as costumes with shirt sleeves that extend several feet beyond the dancers’ fingertips for “Global Village” and, in “The Yellow River,” a story of a mother seeking protection for her child from Guanyin, a venerated Buddhist figure. 

Washington also created a piece especially for students of Sias International University, and her troupe will appear in several joint concerts with them. 

“The only thing I bring to them is my experience as an African American person, my African American culture and history,” Washington said. “That’s what I’m sharing with them through my own dance voice.”

Dancer Michael Battle said it’s particularly important for black dance companies to receive recognition overseas. His personal goal for the tour, he said, is to “hit it every night with energy. And to put all my love on the stage for the audience.” 

Lula Washington Dance Theatre, like many modern dance companies, has had an often challenging time just surviving. It owns its current home -- an 11,000-square foot, five-studio complex near Leimert Park. The company has taken an active role in the surrounding community through its school and youth company, and through educational opportunities for area public schools. 

“The space has given us permanency, has given us a home, and a place to develop dancers. They’re going to be good dancers,” he said. 


Lula Washington: A life changed by dance

'Avatar's' choreographer, and then some

Donald McKayle, a life well-danced

-- Laura Bleiberg

Photo: Lula Washington Dance Theatre company performs "Global Village," choreographed by Lula Washington Wednesday. Credit:  Eric "Mesiyah" McGinnis.