Lula Washington Dance Theatre celebrates cultural diversity

Though all was quiet outside Wadsworth Auditorium on Saturday, inside an audience of students, faculty and the general public was blown away by the look and sound of a dozen performers of the Lula Washington Dance Theatre.

The Lula Washington dancers leaped and stomped across the stage in a show that celebrated cultural diversity and marked the first performance of the fall 2010 Limelight and Accents Performing Arts Series.

Formed in Los Angeles, Ca. in 1980 by Erwin Washington and his wife Lula, the Lula Washington Dance Theatre has since made a name for itself through its unique mixture of African techniques combined with western dance genres including contemporary and ballet.

This blending of cultures has led to the creation of a thoroughly original performance experience that boasts a sense of energy, intensity and variety not often found in a standalone show.

Lula Washington Dance Theatre presents a stylistic amalgamation that audiences have responded well to for 30 years, and Geneseo's performance patrons expressed appreciation. "I liked that it was very different," junior Jen Gonzalez said. "I liked it a lot. It was colorful and vibrant … there were people of all ages and colors up there."

In addition to being visually stunning, the show catered to the intellect of viewers. The organization has been committed in its history to the expression of art, but also to community and humanitarian efforts. The troupe created a foundation devoted to dance education for young people living in economically disadvantaged urban environments and has dedicated itself to philanthropic endeavors. The dancers' love for helping and inspiring others is evident in the dances, where every movement and expression tells a social and personal story.

Each piece doubles as a narrative, sometimes simple like that of the Williams sisters' tale in the tennis-inspired choreography of "Beautiful Venus and Serena," and sometimes complex, as in the more interpretative and upbeat saga of love and religion in the show's closing number, "Reign."

Perhaps the boldest social message was expressed in "We Wore the Mask," the last dance of the first act. When the lights rose on this poignant number, there sat but a single woman on a stool, hunched and turned away from the audience. For a long moment there was no movement, and then the woman slowly spun around and revealed her grotesquely masked face bearing a caricature of the African persona.

The reaction to her appearance was one of palpable shock. The audience watched her wander the stage like Stepin Fetchit, presenting a clear commentary on the stereotypes associated with black culture until she paused and, with a great and emotionally-wrenching struggle, ripped the mask from her face.

"I loved how it started with such a clear image of a mask," junior Michael Vaughn said. "Then it became about the more general idea of the mask we all wear every day."

The transformation was stunning. Freed from the mask, the dancer began to move in the purely-African manner most prominently displayed in the earlier routine, "The Healers." A beautiful sight, it was as if the music had hooked into her skin and was compelling the movements.

"The aesthetics were gorgeous," Vaughn said.

Though not every dance in the routine was as engaging - the second act was arguably more pleasurable than the first - the performance was an experience. Between the assortment of styles being presented and the sense of openness built when audience members were pulled on stage to join the dancers, everyone could find something to enjoy.