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Toward secure footing

Special to The Times

WITH the Southern California real estate market hotter than ever, it’s no surprise that everybody wants a piece of the action, including arts organizations looking for permanent homes. But having moved into a new $1.3-million headquarters last year, the 25-year-old Lula Washington Dance Theatre has bigger plans.

According to Executive Director Erwin Washington, 54, the company -- which will appear Saturday at the Ford Amphitheatre as part of its silver anniversary celebrations -- is about to construct a $1-million housing project in nearby Leimert Park.

“We closed escrow to buy a lot on Leimert Boulevard, mirroring what [contemporary African American troupe] Philadanco has done in Philadelphia,” says Washington, who’s been married to the company’s eponymous artistic director since 1970. “They provide affordable housing for some of their dancers as a way to help sustain the company.”

So continues the saga of a high-energy, eclectic modern dance troupe founded in 1980 with an investment of $25. After more ups and down than an amusement park ride (see accompanying timeline), it suffered a huge blow in 1994 when its West Adams Street building was shut down by the Northridge earthquake.

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The Washingtons relocated to rental quarters, then sought to rebuild on the damaged site. The city promised $1.3 million in Federal Emergency Management Agency funds, but by the time plans were in place in 1998, the Community Redevelopment Agency had decided it wanted the location for a possible mall.

Protracted battling ensued until late 2000, when Erwin successfully petitioned to use the FEMA money to buy a new building instead. The company closed a deal on its Crenshaw-area home the following year.

Now Lula, 55, sees the disaster as a blessing.

“Even before the earthquake, I knew we would get to this point,” she says. “What the earthquake did was help shift our purpose to really develop our school, have a permanent home, a salaried company and a salaried staff. We’re almost there.”

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Indeed, after selling the Adams property for $800,000, Erwin is partnering with Fred Lawson -- owner of Brothers Construction, which did the $500,000 renovation of the new building -- to provide the troupe with “renewable money as well as housing.”

He plans to put up five town houses, sell four and keep the fifth to house dancers. “Real estate is like an endowment we can derive income from,” he explains. “It’s the first of about 10 projects we want to do.”

Despite reaching the quarter-century mark, however, the Lula Washington Dance Theatre continues to face the same problems that plague nearly all Los Angeles dance troupes.

Consider the dancers, who at any given time number between eight and 12. They are paid hourly, on a project-to-project basis, for rehearsals and performances. Should one become injured, there is no safety net of insurance.

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What’s more, says Erwin, many performers -- after years of training -- leave for greener pastures, joining companies such as Philadanco and Alvin Ailey’s. It’s a problem the Leimert project could help remedy.

In short, the Washingtons may have realized myriad goals -- the ultimate being the 12,000-square-foot headquarters, with four studios, men’s and women’s dressing rooms, six bathrooms, a costume room, and an in-progress computer room and library. But their struggle seems to have just begun.

Says Philadanco artistic director Joan Myers Brown, who founded her troupe in 1970 and has mentored the L.A. company: “When you take a giant step like Lula did to get the building, renovate it and try to do more for the dancers, that’s a big responsibility.”

In the past, more resources could go to creative pursuits. “Now we can’t do that,” Erwin says, “because the real institution-building has begun. It costs significantly more to run this building and pay all the people.”

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Coping with loss of grant money

GIVEN today’s climate for the arts in the U.S., the Washingtons can at least take solace from the fact that struggle is more the norm than security.

John Munger, director of research and information for the Washington, D.C.-based service organization Dance/USA, says the art form is going through challenging times.

“This is particularly true for companies that are modern or contemporary, or dance-theater troupes with budgets under a million,” Munger says. “The recession of the last several years has made the amount available for granting go down. Touring also tends to be cut back for a lot of companies on the state level.”

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Munger adds that there is less acceptance than in the past of singular choreographic visions such as Martha Graham’s, Paul Taylor’s and Merce Cunningham’s. “What’s valued,” he says, “is institutions and social impact. What is not valued is the individual artist.”

Although the Washington troupe is strongly identified with its artistic director, who has choreographed more than 50 works, it has also showcased other repertory, routinely presenting works by such African American dance-makers as Katherine Dunham, Donald Byrd and Irvine-based Donald McKayle.

McKayle’s “I’ve Known Rivers,” the setting of a Langston Hughes poem, will receive its West Coast premiere at the Ford. Says the 75-year-old choreographer: “I go back with Lula to when she danced for me in TV shows in the ‘70s. Their reaching 25 years is a real celebration. The fact that she got a new headquarters out of the whole earthquake debacle, a place that is well used as part of the community to go with an artistic vision that is professional, is a very nice mix.”

That mix, though, remains incomplete. The company is currently in the black: Of last year’s nearly $1.5-million income, less real estate/capital income and expenses and funds restricted for real estate investment to support dancer living expenses and salaries -- it was left with an operating surplus of $15,000. But it still needs $100,000 to purchase lighting and sound equipment. And missing the Crenshaw building is easy, because the Lula Washington Dance Theatre lacks a permanent sign -- something Erwin says would run about $50,000.

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Nevertheless, the couple remain optimistic. Among their other goals are adding to the membership of the board, currently 10, and focusing on individual donors. To that end, Erwin has hired a staffer to run yearly fundraising campaigns, in hopes of increasing the annual operating budget to $2 million

He also wants to deepen community outreach and increase performances and tours. Upcoming dates include Las Vegas and Miami Beach.

Laura Zucker, executive director of the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, understands the challenges the Washingtons face, despite federal, state and local grants last year of nearly $100,000.

“Although an organization has been around for a long time,” Zucker says, “one should not confuse that with financial stability. One of the difficulties in art-funding dynamics is that very few funders want to fund infrastructure but see their funding as project-based.”

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She adds that it’s “hard to generate donors who tend to come out of audiences.” So building a public for a home season beyond their annual smattering of local gigs is also part of the Washingtons’ plans.

Lula acknowledges that such a season would be costly. But she’s convinced it’s possible.

“The work has continued when we had the dollar and when we didn’t have the dollar,” she says. “I’m still creating works rooted in what’s going on in the immediate environment and the world. If anything, the earthquake made me more determined to continue to find a place to develop and grow in.”

Says her other half: “It’s constant work, but we wouldn’t want to be doing anything else. If you can dance and make a living and survive, you’re very successful.”

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Lula Washington Dance Theatre

Where: John Anson Ford Amphitheatre, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East, Hollywood

When: 8 p.m. Saturday

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Price: $20 and $25

Contact: (323) 461-3673

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

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Forward moves

Some of the highs and lows in the history of the Lula Washington Dance Theatre:

1967-79: Lula Watson meets Erwin Washington in 11th grade at Washington High School; they marry in 1970. Lula attends UCLA, majoring in dance; creates the Black Dance Assn.

1980: Lula and Erwin found Los Angeles Contemporary Dance Theatre.

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1983: LACDT takes over the R’Wanda Lewis Dance Studio. Lula starts her own school with five students.

1984: Lula coordinates the Olympic Black Dance Festival.

1988: LACDT makes its New York debut at the 14th Street YMCA.

1989-92: LACDT is L.A.'s first dance company to buy a dance studio building; debuts at Jacob’s Pillow dance festival.

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1994: Building is damaged and shut down by the Northridge earthquake. LACDT secures grant to put up a new building at its old site.

1995-96: Lula is honored as a Woman of the Year by the California Legislature.

1997-99: The company changes its name to the Lula Washington Dance Theatre. City of L.A. blocks its plans to build a new studio at its old site.

2000: LWDT files suit against the city.

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2001-03: LWDT purchases a new building. The lawsuit against the city is resolved.

2005: LWDT hosts 17th International Assn. of Blacks in Dance Conference; closes escrow on Leimert Park project.


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