Art Talk with Lula Washington
Los Angeles, California
Lula Washington. Photo courtesy Lula Washington Dance Theatre
Lula Washington, dancer, choreographer, teacher, and founder and artistic director of the Lula Washington Dance Theatre has been inspiring people with her mix of contemporary modern and African-American dance traditions for 30 years. From a home base and school in Los Angeles to stages and studios in such far flung places as China, Mexico, and Kosovo, the company has performed an exciting mix of work that reflect the different voices of the African-American dance experience.
When we spoke with Washington, she and the company were preparing for a four-week tour of Russia and Turkey. We wanted to know how she assembles dances for a season, how she manages to be creative with other artists? creativity, and what it means to be an artist working very closely with those from her central LA neighborhood.
NEA: How do you define creativity?
WASHINGTON: Creativity just happens. We don?t define it. If you have to define creativity, you are not creative. Creativity is solving a problem. How you solve a problem shows your creativity. Having the ability to express what you feel in a creative way is creativity. The ability to problem solve is creativity.
NEA: How do you put together a season for the Lula Washington Dance Theatre?
WASHINGTON: We look at each upcoming calendar year as its 12-month season. Our dance company has been fortunate to have touring engagements each year along with local performance requests. These become our ?season?. We do not self-produce a season; we respond to invitations and requests to perform. Our bookings become our season.
NEA: What factors are involved in choosing the work the company performs?
WASHINGTON: I constantly create new works based on whatever I am feeling at the time. When I finish a new work, it goes into the repertory. I am also asked by presenters to create specific material. These works become part of the repertory also. Tamica Washington-Miller is now a resident choreographer and Associate Director. Likewise, her new works become part of the next year?s touring repertory. We also have amassed works by guest choreographers over the years. Some works, like Donald McKayle?s classic Songs of the Disinherited remain part of the ongoing active repertory. Other guest works are performed based on their appropriateness for specific engagements. During the process of securing performance engagements, we are heavily influenced in decision-making by requests from presenters.
NEA: How do you choose work from other choreographers for the company?
WASHINGTON: We choose outside choreographers based on their artistic voice and our personal relationships with them. We are focused now on African-American pioneer choreographers. Some are still alive and some have transitioned. We want to preserve works from these artists. We also work with choreographers who have had a direct impact on me; we look to acquire works from people who inspired me. We also pick choreographers who understand how our company functions and who can work within our limited financial scope. We try to choose choreographers who are exciting and dynamic and whose works add to the company and its audience base.
NEA: What do you see as the role of the artist in the community?
WASHINGTON: The role of the artist in the community is to help society maintain its sanity. That is what art does. It helps society stay sane. It helps society heal. The role of the artist is to bring art into the community, to help people experience the arts, and to help them practice the arts in their community. The artist must provide opportunities for people at every level of society to experience the arts, to participate in the arts, and to help people create their own art.
Our dance company is part of the community. We work in schools or in the local community. We consider this work to be a core part of our mission and our ?season?. All year long we are heavily involved in the teaching and running of our own dance school. Our dancers teach in our school and they help mount the school?s annual recital, Summer Dance Camp, and Kwanzaa celebration. We also involve the dancers in performing and teaching in the community and in local K-12 public and private schools. By combining concerts, teaching, and community work, our core group of dance company members work with us year-round.