Lula Washington Dance Theatre at Publick Playhouse

Lula Washington Dance Theatre performs a program focusing on the African American experience.
Lula Washington Dance Theatre performs a program focusing on the African American experience. (Djeneba Aduayom)
By Lisa Traiger
Friday, February 18, 2011

Lula Washington used her nearly 40 years of dance experience to choreograph the movement of the Na'vi people in the movie "Avatar." But this weekend at the Publick Playhouse, she brings it back to earth with a program focusing on the African American experience, particularly the civil rights era of the 1950s and '60s.

Washington founded her Los Angeles-based company, Lula Washington Dance Theatre, 30 years ago, not long after she began her own formal dance training. The company performs her choreography as well as classics from the African American modern dance tradition, including modern master Donald McKayle's 1972 "Songs of the Disinherited."

This weekend's excerpt, "Angelitos Negros," is one step in the journey the dance takes from slavery to freedom. "Little Rock Nine," Washington's tribute to the nine African American students who integrated Central High School in 1957, is dear to her heart because she lived in Little Rock, Ark., before her family moved to California. An excerpt from "The Movement" is performed to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. The piece, Washington said, "reminds us of just how far we have come and the hopes [we have] of going further."

Washington, 61, discovered dance unusually late. As a 22-year-old community college student who grew up in the Watts section of Los Angeles, she auditioned for the school's dance program. "I thought I was a dancer because in high school we did a dance exercise class. When I auditioned, I had a big eye opener," she said.

"I didn't understand anything [the teacher] was saying. But my teacher saw my tenacity and said, 'I like your energy and your enthusiasm.' " A class trip to see Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater cemented her desire to pursue dance as a profession, and she never looked back.

The program at Publick Playhouse closes with Washington's infectious "Ode to the Sixties." The work, set to such artists as the Beatles, Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and James Brown, explores the pivotal social and cultural eruptions of the period.

"I grew up in that era," Washington said, "so I tried to create movement that had connections to the '60s, while I tried to be a bit more contemporary. Some of the same issues from then are still going on today - like war. . . . The '60s was such an important decade that changed the way the country thinks and moves."

Traiger is a freelance writer.

Lula Washington Dance Theatre Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. Publick Playhouse, 5445 Landover Rd., Cheverly. 301-277-1710. $15-$20.

© 2011 The Washington Post Company