Sunday, February 2, 2020

Douglas Messerli | "Pleasure and Faith" (on the Lula Washington Dance Theatre at The Wallis Annenberg Center for Performing Arts)


pleasure and faith
by Douglas Messerli

Lula Washington Dance Theatre / the performance I saw was with Lita Barrie at The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, Bram Goldsmith Theater on January 30, 2020

As I recently wrote in another review, Los Angeles has suddenly been blessed by a plethora of dance performances in the manner of our long-time wealth of art exhibits, theater presentations (we do not have a Broadway here, but we do have dozens and dozens of smaller venues that might make New York independent theater envious), and, the always plentiful presentations of great music throughout the city. The Wallis Annenberg Center for Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, Redcat (the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater in the lower level of the grand Walt Disney Center), the Broad Theatre in Santa Monica, the downtown Amundsen Theater, the UCLA series, and numerous other venues have suddenly perceived, thank heaven, that Angelenos also have a desire to experience dance in all its various manifestations.
       How wonderful, accordingly, that the Wallis determined to celebrate a local, but internationally-famous African-American company that has been here, under the tutelage of Lula and Erwin Washington, now for 40 years.
       This primarily black company, moreover, does not itself lack diversity in its company, which in the performance I saw the other night, includes Joniece Boykins, Quron Clarks, Tehran Dix, Danny Guerrera, Ongelle Johnson, Kozue Kasahara, Martez McKinzy, Haniyyah Tahirah, Michael Tomlin, III, and Jack Virga-Hall—which to these tired old eyes seemed to represent also Hispanic and Asian dancers.
       The diversity of the company is a perfect fit with Washington’s own choreographic achievements.
        First of all, the dances of this program—“Hands Up: A Testimony” (choreographed by Tommie Waheed Evans), “King” (by Washington), “To Lula with Love/Warrior” (by former company dancer Christopher Huggins), “Zayo” (by Esie Mensah), “Fragments” (by Washington), and “Reign” (by Rennie Harris)—suggest Washington’s ability to incorporate a wide range of choreographic partners, which strengthens her vision. Two of the “world premiere” performances—“Hands Up: A Testimony” and “To Lula with Love/Warrior”—are the most exciting works of this event, although Washington’s “King” is a dance one desires to see over and over again.
        Like many a youthful company, Washington’s dancers grandly leap into air to return nearly effortlessly to ground, rolling across the stage floor only to stand and express their energy yet again. This is a company of true dance pleasure, a joy to behold, and in accordance which Lula herself attempts to engage the audience, getting them to stand at their seats, clap in rhythm, and basically enter into the process of simple movement. It is almost as if she were turning her obviously brilliant abilities as a teacher upon the visitors witnessing her results. Brava.

       But there is something entirely different here from most other dance companies. Dancers, even some of the most contemporary, generally express their art as a series of group simulations of congruities. Yes, there are always alterations to the more patterned dancing, the grand jet├ęs of male and female performers, the constant shifts of patterning and deconstruction. Yet Washington’s company seem almost to represent a paring of mismatches, women of height and wide girth, with thinner males, taller males poised against delicately dainty females.

       And because of this, most of Washington’s dancers work in what I might describe (and my theater-going partner, Lita Barrie, described) as a kind of syncopation. At moments it appears that each dancer is performing slightly to a different beat from the others, which creates another kind of energy based on the individual instead of the corps de ballet. In Washington’s works, bodies themselves are diverse, and they move differently from one another.
        There is a kind of honesty here, a revelation of the difference as opposed to the similarity of most dance companies. It is almost as if she has invited a group of remarkable dancers onto her stage to figure it out for themselves.
         I found the least interesting work of the evening to be Washington’s long and evolving political commentary, “Fragments.” It was not that I—or anyone in the audience in which I sat—disagreed with her dancer’s stated sentiments which they then transformed into emotional expressions through the movement of their bodies. Indeed, they applauded them. They were powerful, but perhaps too plentiful. We all got the idea, in the era of Trump, immediately; yet in her attempt to give each of her company members their own attempt to express their anger and love, we eventually lose interest in something we might all care very much about.
       Yet, the last piece, “Reign” seemed to redeem it all, as the dancers attend a wild Saturday night evening before returning to church the next morning to express those same emotions in a completely new manner. Pleasure and faith for most of us do not always make a perfect fit; but for this community, which Harris created for Lula Washington’s 30th anniversary in 2010, we suddenly perceive that the two are the very same thing. The expression of the body is both pleasure and faith, and we cannot help but believe that one is totally necessary for the other.

Los Angeles, February 2, 2020
Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance (February 2020).

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