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Imaginative Homage to Indigenous Lore

TIMES DANCE CRITIC

Back in 1972, Donald McKayle choreographed “Songs of the Disinherited,” one of the two or three signature works in his distinguished, wide-ranging career. At UCLA on Friday, he celebrated the 20th anniversary of the locally based Lula Washington Dance Theatre by launching a project that might be called “Dances of the Dispossessed,” a series evoking the lore and environment of indigenous peoples.

In “Death and Eros,” the first work in that series, McKayle used four Washington dancers to portray the turbulence of northern waterways, with Jeremy Tatum balletically whirling between them as the embodiment of a storm, and guest Albert Jones carefully paddling a kayak across the stage of Royce Hall in the role of a fisherman. As in Inuit legend, he caught a skeleton-woman (Keisha Clarke) who seemed to dangle magically in empty space when lifted by figures wearing black. Later, she changed into a fully fleshed-out but equally magical female (Tamica Washington) or, if you prefer, from nightmare into romantic fantasy.

Unfortunately, Jones worked doggedly through their love-duet, moving from task to task, and never generating much chemistry with Washington, who danced with exceptional flow. However, the indispensable performances here arguably took place in the pit, where vocalists Eloise Laws and, especially, Kingsley Leggs delivered the full-throated wailing of Jon Magnussen’s bold new score with feral intensity.

Both McKayle and Magnussen managed to suggest an entire culture and world view with a few essential images: a masklike projection, a recording of waves, the lovers bumping behinds affectionately and even delicately as if inventing a folk dance, a flute scampering above the action like a bird high over the water.

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A few mismatches need to be resolved: places where Magnussen grew pointlessly overbearing Friday and others where McKayle needed more drama than we could hear. But this thoughtful and often deeply imaginative collaboration between such major artists and the Washington dancers served everyone splendidly--including the local dance community.

“Rites-2000,” Lula Washington’s own birthday offering to the company she founded 20 years ago, turned out to be far less thoughtful or imaginative. Commissioned to allow her to work with classical music for the first time--or, in the words of her program note, “to move outside my normal creative comfort zone to try something different"--it looked unexpectedly familiar, exploiting the same tired formula as her 1998 “Mahal Dances” on the same program.

Deconstructing that formula represents the choreographic equivalent of trivial pursuit. Start with the use of gritty vernacular gesture to punctuate academic dancing (see Alvin Ailey’s “Night Creature” from 1975). Or the suspension of a dance-suite for an interlude of nursery rhymes delivered in vibrant black street style (see Urban Bush Women c. 1984).

For “Rites-2000,” Washington borrowed a few secondhand classical formulas, such as the kind of Baroque breeziness pioneered by Paul Taylor in the early ‘60s, plus a processional tribute to such dance pioneers as Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Alwin Nikolais and Arthur Mitchell, some more recognizably impersonated than others.

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She didn’t include Pina Bausch in her tribute--and no wonder. On this very stage last season, Bausch savagely parodied all the audience-courting strategies that have become Washington’s trademarks: the nonstop smiles and cutesy-poo face-making that Bausch portrayed as morally bankrupt but which formed the inner sanctum of Washington’s comfort zone in both “Rites” and “Mahal.”

Nobody in local dance would deny that Washington makes invaluable contributions through such projects as her dance-not-drugs children’s programs, dance-advocacy activities and the development of her fine company. But that company looked much finer when working up to McKayle’s standards Friday than when working the room in her pieces. So the question arises whether they’ve now outgrown her artistically.


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