PERFORMING ARTS : Dancing on Eggshells : Lula Washington's company is marking its 15th anniversary, but artistic and community acclaim don't guarantee financial security.

Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

On a sweaty late August afternoon, the risers inside the Pico Boulevard studio are packed with a chatty crowd. Kids cavort while their parents catch up on neighborhood news, in a room decorated with festive banners, homemade quilts and walls full of dancers' photos.

This former warehouse is the current home of the Lula Washington Dance Theatre, and the occasion is a celebration of the troupe's 15th anniversary. In a way, though, it's also a family reunion.

Dancers from years past, former students, parents of students, longtime supporters and others have all come here to pay tribute to a woman and an institution that have touched many lives in Los Angeles' African American community.

After a program featuring the company's Youth Dance Ensemble and other dancers performing the works of Washington, Jamal Story, Raymond Johnson and Jho Jenkins, the tributes begin.

One by one, audience members take the mike, offering testimonials about how Washington and her dance classes gave their daughters and sons chances they might not otherwise have had, pointed them in a new direction, helped them to succeed. The murmuring among the listeners suggests there are many more such tales left untold.

All of which should come as no surprise. Washington is, after all, one of the great triumph-over-adversity stories of the L.A. arts community.

Raised in the Nickerson Gardens Housing Projects in Watts, Washington didn't even begin dance training until she was in her early 20s--an age when some dancers contemplate retirement. But she went on to found a dance company that is as well known as a touring ensemble as for the good it does here at home.

The Lula Washington Dance Theatre will celebrate its 15th anniversary with concerts at Cal State L.A.'s Luckman Fine Arts Complex, this Friday and Saturday. Both evenings will include performances of "This Little Light," Washington's dance about the life of Harriet Tubman, featuring the West Angeles Praise choir and other guest artists, as well as works by other choreographers.

Making it to the 15-year mark would be distinction enough for many companies. But Washington has never been content to ride on such laurels.

For this dancer-choreographer, giving back to the community is part and parcel of how she defines success. "Each artist is driven by whatever their own passion and desire is," says Washington, perched on a worn ottoman in a corner of the company studio. "When I was growing up, I never had the opportunity to study dance. So, as I started to grow and develop, [my work with children] became part of what I wanted to do with my dancing."

Where most artistic directors spend their non-dance energy courting wealthy backers, Washington has taught classes and created programs to keep children off the streets and drugs. But she doesn't regret it.

"I don't think it has held me back," she says. "Actually, I see what I do in the community enhancing what I do choreographically, because I get so much out of [it]."

Washington was first introduced to dance in her senior year of high school, but it wasn't until she was a young wife and mother, at age 22, that she started her serious training.

After earning a master's degree in dance at UCLA, Washington worked in film, TV and stage shows. Her goal, however, was to found a modern dance company (known, until recently, as L.A. Contemporary Dance Theatre), which she did in 1980.

From the start, Washington placed an emphasis on recruiting boys and girls from the neighborhood for dance classes, offering them not only movement training and the discipline that comes with it, but also friendly guidance and a place to go to, and programs to participate in during the after-school hours.

Slowly but steadily, the company has matured. In the past four years, the troupe has had an increasing number of national and international engagements, performing at such respected venues as Jacob's Pillow, in Massachusetts, and the Walker Arts Center, in Minneapolis.

Yet Washington, now 45, concedes that it hasn't been easy. "The thing that has held me back is not having the support underneath all these programs that we offer here to help propel our organization to where it really should be," she says.

It isn't just money that has been tight, but also human resources. "We have an organization behind us, but the organization is small," Washington says.

"We have to compete with Paul Taylor, Alvin Ailey, Donald Byrd or Cleo Parker Robinson," she continues. "even though we have the least of the resources."

Still, Washington has managed to garner some high-profile engagements, such as a commissioned piece, "Circle of Dance," in the 1993 Los Angeles Festival. Unfortunately, her choreography has not always been as well received as her community work.

Washington has also had other setbacks. The Northridge earthquake seriously damaged the troupe's longtime studio, a 7,200-square-foot former Masonic Temple on Adams Boulevard at La Brea, forcing it into the temporary Pico space.

Yet, Washington manages to bounce back. Just last April, when she took the company east to perform "This Little Light," the New York Times' Jennifer Dunning wrote that it "proved to be a vibrant, beautifully trained ensemble with an important message."

One secret of the Washington Dance Theatre's staying power is its long-term nurturing of talent. "One of our strengths is that we've always worked with kids, and the kids always grow up and come and dance in the company," says Erwin Washington, who is Lula's husband and the company's executive director. "That's one reason we're still here."

The much-needed next step, however, is to be able to pay those dancers.

"As of last year," Lula Washington says, "we were able to pay a small stipend to two or three dancers, but we really have to get beyond that. Right now, we work around the dancers' schedules, and all of my [eight] dancers have [outside] jobs. Every major company has their core dancers on salary, and that's what we're trying to achieve."

And that isn't all that they're trying to achieve.

The company also has plans to build a new performance and studio facility, across the street from its old home on Adams Boulevard. There, it plans to house not only the dance troupe, but also other arts groups.

"The theater will be a multi-use facility," Erwin Washington says. "I want to build an arts center, with serious art people. We'll open our doors to a lot of other people to come in and do things."

To meet this goal, the company has created a new 22-member board of trustees, headed by Esther Wachtell, former president of the Music Center, and charged with seeking new backers for the troupe. "The purpose," Erwin Washington says, "is to try to build some economic support for . . . the building and the ongoing artistic life of the company."

Still, the Washingtons realize that it's hardly the best of times for such an undertaking. "The artistic and economic survival for a dance company is like an eggshell," Lula Washington says. "It's always been that way, but it's worse now.

"People tend not to want to give you money to pay your dancers. They'll give you money to do some of the outreach programs, but they don't want to support the creative development of new work."

Still, after 15 years of beating the odds, she isn't about to shrink from the challenge now.

"We still have a long way to go," she says. "But the building and the opportunity, hopefully, to generate more energy in our community for the cultural arts is exciting. I'm optimistic about what the future has for us. I feel excited that we've made it this far."

LULA WASHINGTON DANCE THEATRE: Luckman Fine Arts Complex, Cal State L.A., 5151 State University Drive. Dates: Friday-Saturday, 8 p.m. Prices: $18-$25. Phone: (213) 466-1767.

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