The L.A.-based Lula Washington Dance Theatre returned to Ordway Center in St. Paul on Saturday for an evening fueled with jazz and African rhythms, dances running the gamut between meditations on love to politically driven treatises on violence and oppression, with time for celebratory crowd pleasers.
Using an eclectic mix of styles, including West African movement, ballet, modern, jazz, hip-hop and even a dose of tap dancing, the work was emotionally driven, and offered plenty of spectacle.
While the music for the show wasn't performed live, it offered a diverse and irresistible mix. Terence Blanchard, Fela Kuti and Marcus L. Miller and the Freedom Jazz Movement were just some of the composers helping to propel and drive the rhythm of the dancing — and to color the mood.
Miller's music was used in the two works that delved into sociopolitical commentary, beginning with Tamica Washington-Miller's "Message for My Peeps," that touched on violence, racism and inequality. Enveloped by a giant projection of television static, the piece drummed up the anger and frustration that has erupted from injustices that plague society, and it suggested turning off the TV and building community strength as a solution to these frustrations.
Washington's work in progress, "Search for Humanism," evoked more specifically the Black Lives Matter movement, and the devastating effects of oppression on African-American bodies. The harrowing work, set to music by Marcus L. Miller and the Freedom Jazz Movement, acted as a clarion call for social change. It was a soaring piece, deeply affecting.
"Love Is …," a piece by Christopher Huggins that opened the show, relied heavily on well-trodden tropes, decorated with showy moves and lifts.
From its flirtatious opening about falling in love to the second section featuring a love triangle, the piece felt clichéd as it took on such a universal theme. In the third section, "Pain," performed by Queala Clancy, Huggins was able to break through sentimentality in order to find something much more raw, helped along by Clancy's riveting performance. Her movements were almost birdlike as she evoked anguish and loss.
The evening included plenty of joy, as well. Rennie Harris' gospel piece, "Reign," brought high energy and fist-pumping, hip-hop exuberance, while Washington's "Global Village," with music by Kuti and colorful, sweeping costumes, ended the first and second acts with satisfying jubilation.
Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis arts writer.