The superb dancers of the Lula Washington Dance Theatre sure know how to bust a move, and they had the audience up on their feet, dancing and applauding, as the evening closed with a hip hop crescendo! Performing in Israel for the first time, the company merges an exuberant, theatrical style with movement that draws on modern dance, African dance, jazz, ballet, and hip hop. One of the many pleasures of this evening was the live jazz that accompanied most works, performed by the Marcus L. Miller Ensemble.
The close connection between movement and music was especially powerful in the evening’s opening work, Spontaneous Combustion. In this abstract work that leaps, swirls, rises and certainly lives up to its name, movement and music were equal forces, each pursuing an individual path while enhancing and magnifying the impact of the work as a whole. Supple, athletic, energetic, the dancers leapt in the air like flashes of fire in a joyous dance.
Their role as an African American presence on the dance scene is a central aspect of the company’s vision, and the repertoire reflects this vision in different ways. Most prominent is the movement language which features a wide-leg stance, stamping, crouching, beautiful shoulder work and other elements of African dance. Other works relate thematically to African American history, culture and current issues. Searching for Humanism is a work that literally cries out against police brutality, opening with soloist Quela Clancy pleading: “Don’t kill my babies… don’t shoot my babies.” While the program notes indicate a reference to Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement, the work feels very painfully current when one considers the deaths of young black men while in police custody – Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Eric Garner in New York, and sadly, many others.
Most intriguing was We Wore the Mask, a sophisticated and complex reflection on the various masks and roles forced upon African Americans in their struggle to survive – whether obsequious bowing, or the exaggerated smile of the ‘happy’ entertainer. The title refers to a poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar, which is also quoted in the soundtrack to this work, with original music by Marcus L. Miller. The work opens with a female soloist wearing a grotesque mask and performing the gestures and poses of the stereotypical roles and personas. Once the mask is removed, another dancer enters, a black man in what has become a street archetype: jeans and a hoodie. Yet this too comes off and the dance takes off into something jazzy and free, with large movements that feel like they come from the heart.
Global Village is a colorful, vivacious celebration of different dance styles, performed to the spirited music of Fela Kuti. Washington’s choreography places an emphasis on beauty and entertainment, and it’s a pleasure to view. Reign, the final work of the evening, is choreographed by Rennie Harris. A hip hop gospel revival, this exhilarating piece showcases the muscular groove of these outstanding dancers, ending the evening on the highest of high notes.
Performances: Thursday, June 2nd at 20:00; Friday, June 3rd at 13:00; Saturday, June 4th at 21:00. Israeli production: Pinhas Postel. This production has been made possible with the assistance of the U.S. Embassy in Israel, Culture Department. Tickets may be ordered online via The Israeli Opera/Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center.