To begin its two 15th-anniversary celebration concerts, the Lula Washington Dance Theatre chose two pieces that looked to the past and the future for strong evocations of the African American experience.
Using a beautiful blend of African and modern dance movement, Washington's "This Little Light" told the story of slave-liberator Harriet Tubman. There were songs that rocked the house (from the West Angeles Choir and Laurence Hill), painful and powerful narrations, and postures that ranged from abject humiliation and exhaustion to inspired determination.
In "Taratibu," young students danced their hope and determination to a different beat. Choreographed by Arla Harvey, with help from Tamica Washington, the piece was made of smart stepping and slapping patterns with chanted affirmations that centered on the notions of respect and keeping the dream alive.
These two thematically strong pieces opened both Friday and Saturday nights' programs at the Luckman Fine Arts Complex on the campus of Cal State L.A. Each evening featured different second acts, which had in common only Washington's "The Prize"--a fun interlude featuring one pinup boy and three women with attitude--and the fact that they were way too long.
Washington's choreography--seen to worst advantage in a work in progress called "This is Your Dance Life"--builds in a lot of empty space that often stops a piece cold. Judicious trimming from "This Little Light," for instance, would allow its considerable spark to glow brighter. In general, there are too many bursts of elegantly stretched or frantic movement which, while often eloquent, are like glittering patchwork pieces that never get stitched into a quilt.
The dancers' strengths--preening, articulate extensions and definitive thrusts--are often overused, but sometimes just right, as with Andre Craven in Raymond Johnson's "Ceremonies", Jamal Story in his own "Catharsis" and Tamica Washington (also a powerful singer) in many pieces.
The company's women looked particularly strong in "Ceremonies" as well, and positively transcendent in L. Martina Young's "Pearls of Obsidian." On Saturday night, perhaps the highest point was a dancer/singer jam in "This Little Light," when Nabachwa Ssensalo was moved to move on the rhythms of "Go Down Moses," sung by Hill.