Lula Washington Dance Theatre show at NJPAC has powerful civil rights theme

Members of Lula Washington Dance Theatre in "


Members of Lula Washington Dance Theatre in “Flyin’ With the Wind,” which was part of the company’s Thursday night show at NJPAC.

Dance is an art form that trades in fantasies. The sight of beautiful bodies soaring, or nuzzling together, inspires us to dream of superheroes and soulmates living in perfect harmony.

Choreographer Lula Washington, whose company, Lula Washington Dance Theatre, performed on Thursday in the Victoria Theater at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, understands those dreams, and is happy to satisfy them. But she understands something else, too. In a society corrupted by racism, sometimes the most inspiring images are those that reflect the truth, validating the experiences of real people and acknowledging their pain.

So, two days after the U.S. Justice Department disappointingly announced it would not indict Trayvon Martin’s killer on civil rights charges, it felt liberating to watch this dance troupe from Los Angeles perform Washington’s “Search for Humanism,” a piece that brushes aside the lies and excuses and screams, “Stop killing my babies!” Tamica Washington-Miller utters those words. As the mother figure who opens the piece, she poses in a series of spotlights, doubled over with grief or leaning heavily on her pilgrim’s staff. Then “Humanism” takes us from a solo by a young man in a hoodie, skittering and anxious, to a circle of people gasping and coughing, as they cry, “I can’t breathe!”

“Humanism,” created earlier this year, fits into a repertory that also recalls the history of Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement. In a piece called “The Little Rock Nine & the Movement,” dancer Raymond Ejiofore portrays the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., his body stretched like a sail — filled with the spirit, but never breaking — as we hear King sermonize, and grisly photographs of lynchings flash on the backdrop. More playfully, in “We Wore the Mask,” Washington invites a cast of doll-like characters to reject stereotypes, and shed the “happy face” of accommodation.

Then there are the “dancey” pieces. True to its name, “Flyin’ With the Wind” is a breezy romp with the whole cast spinning, vaulting and sliding. Krystal Hicks was the standout, her shirt-tails flapping in an electric solo. The ultimate feel-good piece, however, is Rennie Harris’ 2010 commission, “Reign,” in which the dancers become style-conscious evangelists locking-and-popping for Jesus. Set to a thumping remix by James “JT” Wilconson, and with the soundtrack preaching “He reigns!”, the dancers fan themselves and march with knees lifted high. A leap looks impressive with the men kicking behind themselves in perfect unison, but Harris is just setting us up for the moment when the whole group — men and women both — take flight together. Wow!

The company’s enthusiasm is infectious; and just to make sure no one leaves feeling glum, Washington throws in an unapologetic fantasy like “Random Thoughts,” where glamorous lovers make out against a sunset backdrop. You’ll want to book your cruise today.


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