Ballet and modern dance are kind of like the Oscars. They can be really, really white. Lula Washington Dance Theatre, performing Saturday at the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts, is an exception.
Lula Washington and her husband Erwin started the company in 1980 as a platform for minority dancers in Los Angeles to learn, perform, and explore issues relevant to the African American community.
The program performed by Lula Washington Dance Theatre includes a tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King by Washington. It’s a solo from a larger work, choreographed to one of King’s speeches. There’s also a gospel-inspired piece for the company’s 40th anniversary called “This Is Alive,” created by former LWDT dancer Tommie-Waheed Evans.
In an interview with WGLT, Lula Washington said the dances her company creates are not just supposed to address African American experiences.
“It’s a universal experience as well,” she said. “I look at my work as trying to bring forth the honesty and truth of what the reality of our survival has been.”
Washington said she was surprised a venue the size of the BCPA would bring the company to central Illinois. She says larger houses still see her company as a risk, even after touring to more than 150 cities.
“Let me put it like this: Midsize houses and larger houses need to make money,” she said. “And concert modern dance, these days, does not necessarily do that. I’ve been told that the work is too edgy for communities and they would rather I bring some other works that are not so truth-revealing. I take my hat off to (the BCPA) for wanting to expose their community and audience participants to a really different point of view about what’s going on in the world today.”
A BCPA board member recommended bringing the company to Bloomington. Another hook for Bloomington-Normal is Cara Peterson. She is the venue’s development manager. Peterson is a fan of contemporary dance, and said she wants to help audiences appreciate dance as much as she does.
“It’s about the BCPA providing a platform, bringing an amazing company like Lula Washington Dance Theatre to showcase African American culture and history,” said Peterson. “Bloomington might not be ready for it, but we need it. We need these types of performances.”
The subject matter of Washington's performances has changed over the decades to reflect current events and themes. But Washington said many of the concerns about the lack of African American voices in dance that drove her to start the company remain.
“I have works that have dealt with Eric Garner’s situation - “I can’t breathe,” being killed - and gun violence. I have always had issues that spoke about gangs and gang violence. I’ve always had works that spoke about the conditions that we have found ourselves in. So, I don’t really see that has changed. The thing that has changed is the desire to really get this type of work viewed by more audiences.”
In any given year, Bloomington-Normal audiences can see a version of “The Nutcracker.” Over and over again, “The Sound of Music” comes back. Illinois Wesleyan University’s School of Theatre Arts director Jean Kerr said the mainstream emphasis raises the importance of seeking diverse programming.
“Bringing in the Lula Washington dance company, I think, is a terrific step forward,” said Kerr. "It is about time to show the stories and experiences of what is happening today in our contemporary arts scene.”
It is possible to see diverse dance programming in the twin cities. Kerr said the universities work at inclusion to make sure their students’ experiences represent their perspectives and experiences. But she said universities can be insular and community audiences might not know what’s available.
“I think building success is a multi-stage process for those performing venues,” Kerr said. “It’s a little bit field of dreams. If you build it, they will come. I think that between Bloomington-Normal, and also what’s happening at the Civic Center in Peoria, we have terrific programming in our community. Can it also go a little bit further into shaping the idea of reflecting back on humanity today? I think so, I think the answer is yes.”
There’s a tension between potential financial performance of the BCPA’s season and the goal of presenting more inclusive cultural offerings to the community. In an interview with WGLT, BCPA manager Jim Mack said the center plays a pivotal role in making Bloomington-Normal a cultural hub.
“That is our goal. We’re not satisfied just taking care of our local base, our local audience. We want folks from outside the community, perhaps even outside of the state, to say the Bloomington-Normal area is the place to go for the arts.”
Mack said the BCPA is changing as a response to growing diversity in the community.
“As a result of the census, we’re going to learn that Bloomington is not anything like the community it was even 10 years ago. It is much more diverse. There are multiple cultures represented. All we are trying to do at the BCPA is catch up to that which is already transpiring here in the community.”
Mack said he would like to say the BCPA is the vanguard, charging forward, but it’s not. He said they are simply catching up to what is already happening.
Lula Washington Dance Theatre’s appearance at the Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts takes place Feb. 15 at 7:30 p.m.
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