An evening of living, breathing dance

Lula Washington Dance Theatre has graced the roster of the Virginia Arts Festival several times over its 21 seasons, offering impressive, creative dance. Its return appearance in this year's Festival, Friday, in the Peebles Theatre of the Ferguson Center for the Arts, was met with joyful anticipation.

That anticipation was well rewarded in a program that highlighted the diverse dance styles that are artistically blended into Lula's unique form. Created to offer an outlet of expression for inner city African-American youths, the company has evolved into one of the more innovative ensembles in the dance world. Largely featuring dance derived from African and Afro-Haitian movement, Lula's creations also draw on such styles found in modern, gospel, ballet, street, hip hop and theatre movement, all the while incorporating those movements into works making social and political commentary.

Lula's nine dancers are superb specimens of physical prowess and talent. Sculptured bodies, of which much was seen, represented the strength of the company's mission of allowing dance to speak to the humanity of life and its beings. Lula Washington and Tamica Washington-Miller's choreography was extremely complicated in its mostly rapid-fire steps and physical manifestations, their use of finger wagging, lower body thrusts and rotations, and hand fluttering motions added interest and often seemingly symbolic emphasis to the invigorating and innovative movements.

Unlike many modern dance companies that program works to allow dancers a bit of breathing time off stage between numbers, Lula's works find her dancers making rapid costume changes and equally rapid returns to the stage. It was amazing they had the strength to stand after a nearly three hour program. The stamina level was extraordinary, especially in works that found them in tableau positions, motionless for what seemed to be an eternity.

Performing largely to jazz influenced music, both live and recorded, and to Earth, Wind & Fire, Lula offers viewers images that are lasting, as well as thoughtful insight or messages. There were plenty of vivid moments in this event, among them the high energy, high jumping choreography in "New Day" and the seductive and sensual "Choices" from "Random Thoughts"; the somber and powerful reflection of the senseless killing of people on the street in "Search for Humanism"; the intriguing "There's Always Tomorrow," in which dancers explored the relation between wearing rose-colored glasses and reality; and the gossamer, iridescent wing structures in constant motion that created a stunning blur of color in "Fantasy," and the sensitive and touching male pas de deux in "Devotion," from "Open Your Eyes," the summation of which found dancers verbally proclaiming thoughts of allowing peace and love into your life.

Particularly interesting was "The Message," in which dancers performed within the confines of a box outlined on the floor, each representing various aspects of society. At the end, each read brief socially and politically focused statements, ranging from support for the LGBT population and to stop tweeting and release tax returns to let the American press into the Oval Office, the latter two anti-Trump references that brought applause.

The spirited evening closed with an appropriately fiery "Spontaneous Combustion," performed to the live music of the Marcus L. Miller Ensemble. Here, the non-stop motion of dancers dressed in red and yellow with scarf-like material flowing everywhere created the image of dancing flames. It was the perfect ending to an evening of top notch, insightful, and totally engaging dance of diversion and dimension.

Shulson, a Williamsburg resident, has been covering the arts for over 40 years. He makes a guest appearnce in Margaret Truman's "Murder at the Opera."

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