The Lula Washington Dance Theatre headquarters is a typical one-room dance studio located in the middle of nowhere: stale air, bathroom with no lock, mirrors lining one wall. On top of that, the room reeks of the universal sweat smell particular to Marley floors, poorly ventilated rooms and grubby leg warmers.
"Be careful it doesn't get too hunky dory!" shouts Lula Washington at one of her dancers, a euphoric Brazilian who stomps his way through the African movements with a smile. "Make it a squiggly wiggly," she says to another in lime green, her eagle eye seizing on the dancer's arms, which were supposed to waft in front of her face as she leapt in the air. It's crazymaking: the choreography is still being fine-tuned before the upcoming performance at the Cerritos Center, with pieces set to Bach, Marcus Miller and Daniel Bernard Roumain.
As the dancers sweat, bicker over different rhythms and rework sections of the piece, Washington, clad in an African-print shirt, keeps up a steady stream of philosophic soundbites. She's talking about her choreography, giving the kind of answers the journalists usually need, like the meaning of this piece I'm watching—Spontaneous Combustion. Its m.o. is to make dancers work with movements they aren't comfortable with. So the nine company members mix it up, with the modern ones performing tap gestures and the African specialists incorporating jazz and hip-hop.
Most of the stuff works, especially one duet with African elements that requires a lanky male and electrifying female dancer to stare each other down as their upper bodies pulse back and forth and they gyrate their hips in slow, sensuous circles. Then the duo glares out at the audience and slashes its hands like scythes chopping through the brush.
When you watch dance, it's easy to get lulled into a dull, comatose state: the pretty patterns, leaping bodies, the rhythmic beat. But then somebody will do something bizarre and fabulous, like my newfound favorite member of the company, Taz (I can only assume he is named after the cartoon character). Dressed like Jay-Z with head wrap, heavy-duty cargos, sneaks opening up at the ankles and his huge burly arms embroidered with tattoos, his whole look translates "intimidation," except he keeps smiling this huge goofy smile—off-puttingly sincere—as he struts back and forth in the back, occasionally throwing handstands.
Let me continue my paean: then he starts his breakdancing solo, and I am in love. Totally intent on his freestyling, he changes levels, working against the floor before springing up and breaking it down with his upper body in slow motion. In a circle around him, the other dancers do the same movements with lyrical influences. Gorgeous.
I start wondering why it's such a battle to keep this type of dance alive in LA and Orange County—except for the easy answer: Washington's kind of dance certainly doesn't give off the highbrow, holier-than-thou vibe that would attract big bucks. Washington's work is distinctly LA: urban, ethnic and genuine. She tells me she wants to recall the days of her childhood, when people would hang out in their back yards and try to outdance one another. "Nowadays, people can't do that because of the drive-bys," she says.
Lula Washington Dance Theatre performs at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, 12700 Center Court Dr., Cerritos, (562) 916-8501 or (562) 916-8500. Fri., 8 p.m. $25-$45.