Step by Step: An Interview with Lula Washington

The 2014 Summer Amphitheater series at the Skirball is in full swing. One of the new acts this season is the internationally renowned dance company Lula Washington Dance Theatre, performing on Saturday, August 23. For the first time, the company will be performing at the Skirball for families, so I thought we should take some time to get to know Lula and hear about her thirty-year career as a dancer, choreographer, and mentor on the LA dance scene.

How did you get started in dance?
When I was in high school I enrolled in a class where the teacher played music and we danced and exercised to the music. It was a dancercise class, not a real dance class, but I got the dance bug there. I only took the class because I wanted to get out of Physical Education. Later, when I went to Harbor Community College to study nursing, I walked past a dance class. I had never seen anything like it before. I had only seen dance on television. I kept watching and I eventually went in and asked if I could take the class. The teacher told me to show her what I could do. It was obvious that I did not know how to do anything. She said, “You’ve never had a dance class, have you?” I said, “No, but if you let me in this class, I will work real hard and I will do my best to catch on.” She let me in. That’s how I got my start. I had no dance training. I did my first dance concert with my teacher at Harbor Community College. She is also the one who took me to my first dance performance. She drove me and her other students to Royce Hall at UCLA to see Alvin Ailey. Seeing the Ailey company sealed it for me. I decided to dance.

 

The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performing “Wade in the Water” from Revelations.

 

What part of performing for live audiences do you enjoy the most?
I believe that the art of dance has the power to change people’s lives. Dance can inspire people and uplift people. Every time we perform for live audiences, I know that someone will be moved in a deeply personal and powerful way. That gives me joy. The direct feedback from our audiences is what I enjoy most. After our shows, people come up to me and they tell me how much they were touched by our performance. I also enjoy it when I see a dancer reach a new level of excellence. When I see the dancers step up and hit it, and when I see them grow and surpass where they had been before, I get so excited. It gives me great joy.

 

The Lula Washington Dance Theater performing Spontaneous Combustion in China.

 

Dance has remained popular on television and in films. What do you think is the difference between seeing dance on a screen versus seeing it live in a performance space?
You can feel dance when it is live. There is something intangible that does not come through on the flat screen. Dance is more powerful when it is live. You can hear the feet on the floor, the breathing of the dancers. You see them flying through space and have a truer sense of how high they are leaping, or falling, or sailing across the room. There is no comparison to seeing dance live and seeing it on screen. Live is better.

 

What is one memorable moment from your performing or choreography career that stands out?
My work with James Cameron on the movie Avatar is what stands out most in my mind. I choreographed movement, rituals, and the Na’vi greetings to each other for the film.  My dancers had to wear these motion capture suits Continue reading

Talking Ladino with Guy Mendilow

A sneak preview of Tales from the Forgotten Kingdom, to be performed by the Guy Mendilow Ensemble at the Skirball on March 27:

Guy Mendilow is not only an incredible musician, he is also quite a scholar of Sephardic culture. He and his ensemble’s concerts not only present the music of Sephardic tradition in a contemporary style, they also share the stories and culture of the Jews of both pre- and post-diasporic Spain. Their concerts become not just an opportunity to enjoy, but also to learn. I invite you to share in my conversation with Guy and then join us at the Skirball for what is certain to be a great evening.

So what is Ladino? How is it an “endangered” language?
First off, let’s quickly tackle the question of names. The term “Ladino” is arguable. Although it has become the most common name for the language, the spoken language itself is more correctly called Spaniolit, Yehuditze, Judeo, Judaismo, Hekatia (in Northern Africa), Saphardi, or, as was the case for older generations, simply Spanish. Today, the various dialects are often grouped under “Judeo-Spanish,” an umbrella term used mainly in academic study.

What the language is is a great story. The final expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 and from Portugal in 1497 marked the start of large-scale migrations in which the Jews eventually settled in communities spanning the vast Ottoman Empire, from Northern Africa and the Mediterranean to the Balkans, and beyond. In each adopted home, the language, food, customs, stories, songs, and musicality that the Jews brought with them mingled with local variants—and cultural and linguistic offshoots eventually evolved. To some extent, each Jewish community adopted words and expressions from the local languages, including Greek, Slavic languages, Arabic, Turkish, and Hebrew. The language of Ladino is a beautiful illustration of these broader patterns. Another reason that the language is fascinating is that it keeps alive some of the grammar, words, and even pronunciation from the 1500s. It’s like a time capsule.

Judeo-Spanish is still spoken by pockets of Jews, today primarily in Israel. But the culture has succumbed to many of the same forces of modernity and assimilation to which other cultures have also succumbed. Children stopped learning the language, focusing instead on the dominant languages of the new home, like Hebrew or English. When grandparents passed away, the language went with them.

This is the case of Judeo-Spanish today, though thankfully there are a handful of universities—like Tufts, the University of Washington in Seattle, and the University of Pennsylvania—that are teaching the language.

 

Why do you think preserving Ladino through song is important?
Songs—and other arts—can tell us much about a culture. They are a glimpse into a constellation of values and perspectives, occasions, life cycles, and celebrations. Songs are also an opportunity to hear the language, especially when there are fewer and fewer opportunities to do so, for most of us at any rate. Continue reading

Rhythm Is Gonna Get You

The mission of music group Rhythm Child has always been to get people of all ages up and moving. For the past six years Rhythm Child founder, Norm Jones, has been inspiring young drummers and their families to get up and move as part of the Skirball’s Family Amphitheater Performances series. If you’ve been to any of the group’s last six performances, you know that once Jones passes out his instruments and lays down a beat, the Amphitheater comes thumping to life! I’ve always loved the energy and enthusiasm of Rhythm Child, so I thought it would be interesting to find out more about this fun and feisty musical collective as they plan for their Amphitheater performance on July 21st.

How did you get started in performance?
I grew up being inspired by the performance of others (my brother’s band, choirs in church, supper club shows that my mom took me to). I watched how these singers moved the audience with style, humor, and emotion. For years I practiced at the mirror in my basement before I ever took the stage and performed for people.

What part of performing for live audiences do you enjoy the most?
I love the immediate feedback that you get from a live audience. There is an exchange of energy that is unquestionable. There is a feeling of being out there on the edge without much of a safety net and usually the audience is open and willing to go for the ride. What I hope for is that everyone walks away feeling connected and inspired.

What is the most memorable moment from your career?
I must say that performing at the White House was pretty cool. I got to have my family with me on stage for one of the greatest days of my career.

What music or artist inspires you? Continue reading

Destined to Puppeteer: An Interview with Elizabeth Luce

Elizabeth's "Moon Lady."

Elizabeth’s Moon Lady.

Elizabeth Luce is a puppeteer, storyteller, writer. Her puppet performance “The Emperor and the Nightingale,” based on one of Hans Christian Andersen’s most beloved tales, will be performed at the Skirball’s second annual Family Puppet Festival on Sunday, April 7. I sat down with Elizabeth as she was preparing for the show to ask her about the magical world of puppetry.

How did you get started in puppetry?
I think puppetry and I were destined for each other, and would have come together no matter what, but my first important puppet experiences were because of my kindergarten art teacher, Mr. Blake. He would bring puppets out to talk to us. We were enthralled, sitting in a circle around his chair. There was a puppet show of his with puppets that lit up under black light, which made quite an impression on me. He also was responsible for guiding me to build my first real rod puppet (see below). Pretty funny puppet, right? That’s actually the “improved” version; a year later, I ripped off his hair and taped on smaller eyes.

Elizabeth's first puppet.

Elizabeth’s first puppet.

Also, the local library—hurray for libraries!—had a half dozen books on puppets and puppetry in the adult section. I checked them all out multiple times as a child. In particular, I loved the look of the Czechoslovakian puppets, and that has been a visual influence that’s stayed with me always: clean simple lines with nice stylization.

Which puppet or puppeteer captured your imagination when you were younger?
I loved, loved, LOVED “Kukla, Fran, and Ollie,” and to this day I think they are special. The show played during the early days of television (1947–1957) and Burr Tillstrom, the puppeteer, would arrive at the TV studio with only a loose plan in his head for the show, but mostly he just improvised, even though the show was broadcast live! This would never happen nowadays, of course. There was a set of puppet characters and also Fran Allison, a warm and gracious lady who often stood out in front of the stage and talked with the puppets. Although Fran served as “straight man,” she was what made all the funny puppet characters and their special world work so well. Because she believed in them, we did too.

Watch a scene from “Kukla, Fran, and Ollie”—Fran, Madame Ooglepuss, and Buelah Witch rehearse a song from The Mikado:

Where do you get inspiration for your shows?
Continue reading

President’s Greeting: Mar/Apr 2013

The burning bush is one of the vinyl graphics used to help visitors reenact the story of the Exodus in Exodus Steps, a story performed by you, our visitors.

During this season of Passover, the Skirball Cultural Center presents the commissioned work Exodus Steps. It welcomes families of all beliefs and heritages to take part in dramatizing the deliverance of the Israelites from bondage in Egypt.

Passover has assumed the symbolic meaning of human freedom in general and of the universal hope for the end of all oppression. The act of recalling and retelling a people’s journey from enslavement to freedom is meaningful. When we retrace the steps (and even the missteps) of those who struggled for justice and equality before us, we are reminded that we, too, were once slaves. We come to experience liberation as if we ourselves were breaking from oppression.

When we walk in the path of our forebears who sought a promised land—whether in ancient history or modern-day America—we understand that we remain ever in pursuit of freedom.

Continue reading

Sticking Not Stuck

Simon Ford takes notes in front of the Rainbow Arbor, where a “Red Sea” scene will be.

I took this photo of our graphic designer, Simon Ford, as he jotted notes in front of the Rainbow Arbor, where a “Red Sea” scene will be.

Following up on my last SkirBlog post, I wanted to share more about the design of Exodus Steps, but time, time, time! We’ve been working away at it late, late, late. The story’s so big, and the Skirball campus is so full of possibilities, we’ve gotten carried away with ourselves. This is going to have to be fast.

Since agreeing with the Skirball we were going to make Exodus Steps, we have (cutting out all the tedious administrative/visa waiver stuff that no one wants to hear about, least of all me):

  1. Re-read the book and identified all the must-have, could-have, and don’t-need scenes.
  2. Written a draft script.
  3. Decided who needs to say how little to make the story function and have some degree of character/humanity. (Remember, we’re cutting all the text into vinyl speech bubbles, so no one is allowed to soliloquise.)
  4. Thought about what objects the audience needs to see/interact with to tell the story and make the thing look attractive. (As in most movies, we’d like the story to be told by sight and action rather than words.)

    Footsteps in the courtyard, ready to be followed.

    Footsteps in the courtyard, ready to be followed.

  5. Designed most of the props, including feet. As this is the eighteenth edition of the Steps Series we have a fairly extensive archive of designs from previous shows so cow, sheep, dog, and horse footprints don’t need designing. Simon Ford, our graphic designer, has created a new line of footwear for Exodus Steps as we aspire to show gradations of social class/wealth in ancient Egypt through the footprints—which admittedly is a little ambitious (the Sherlock Holmes stories were amongst our inspirations for the series). Continue reading

Planning the Exodus

Years ago I was thinking about “teach-yourself-to-dance” floor mats and how it was unfair that dance had these but theatre didn’t. I imagined that with some ingenuity we could right this wrong. All we needed was an organization to allow us to plaster their building with adhesive vinyl.

In 2008 mac birmingham, our local arts centre, was looking to commission a piece to mark its closure for rebuilding. We pitched the vinyl idea to them, and given that much of the building was due to be demolished anyway, they figured we couldn’t do too much harm.

Stan’s Café Dance Steps. Photo by Ed Dimsdale

Stan’s Cafe Dance Steps. Photo by Ed Dimsdale.

Making Dance Steps was tricky, as we didn’t know how “teach-yourself-theatre installations” worked. We’d never met one before. We had to make up the rules ourselves. We had to learn the art of applying vinyl stickers, which in some cases is more complicated than it sounds (though in other cases my three-year-old daughter was happy to help and couldn’t believe sticking stickers was my JOB!). Continue reading

Gary Cooper Rocked the Vote in Poland

Just a couple of days before Election Day, the Skirball will be presenting Ameryka. A meditation on democracy, this work-in-progress seemed to me a thought-provoking program to present in association with Creating the United States. Ameryka is written and directed by multidisciplinary artist and 2011 USA Hoi Fellow Nancy Keystone, working in collaboration with her Critical Mass Performance Group.

I recently had a chance to ask Nancy a few questions about the work… and I found out that an election poster in Poland was what first inspired it.

What sparked the idea for Ameryka?
I was in Poland in 2009, which was the twentieth anniversary of the “Solidarity” election. Solidarity was the free trade union in Poland, which sparked the modern democracy movement in Eastern Europe, the first semi-free elections in Poland, and the eventual fall of Communism.

It was during that trip in 2009 that I saw the famous Solidarity election poster. It features a picture of Gary Cooper as Sheriff Will Kane, from the 1950s Western High Noon. He’s wearing a Solidarity badge above his sheriff star, and instead of a gun he’s holding an election ballot. At the bottom of the poster, it says, “It’s High Noon, 4 June, 1989.” I was really taken by this collision of cultures, by the use of this very American image to rally people to vote, by what this meant about the relationship between the United States and Poland. What I found was a vast universe of associations between our two countries going back to the American Revolution, and that’s what sparked the idea for Ameryka.

Your work addresses 200+ years of American history. How did you even begin to tackle this massive span of time and how have you chosen which eras to explore? Continue reading

De Temps Antan Encore

De Temps Antan performs at Sunset Concerts next week, Thursday, August 16. Here’s a clip of them performing “La maison renfoncee.” What joie de vivre, what panache. I want a jacket with crossword puzzles printed on it!

While attending booking conferences, arts presenters are overwhelmed with options. From established to emerging, hundreds of artists a day vie for your attention. It’s easy to get a little jaded in your choices and easier still to overlook opportunities.

A few years ago, after one particularly tiring day at APAP in Manhattan (I had crisscrossed the island a few times for meetings and performances all over town), I was leaving my hotel to meet a college friend for dinner and a few more showcases. As I stepped into the hotel lobby, I suddenly heard terrific, foot-stomping music coming from the hotel bar. I stopped dead in my tracks, listened, and walked in.

I could barely squeeze into the packed lounge. To my surprise, the ruckus came from just three musicians having an awfully good time. Everyone, including the bar staff, was joining in on the bonhomie. The sound was upbeat and decidedly Celtic, but also very French. I had noticed on my way in that this was part of the “Annual Lobby Showcase” of “Quebec roots-trad-folk” put together by Folquébec. Not feeling the least bit jaded, I found myself entranced, clapping away until the end of the band’s set. Continue reading

Partnering with Strong Women: It’s Enough to Make a Girl Dance

Check out excerpts from our Women Hold Up Half the Sky dance residency performance. How amazing are these young ladies? I get teary just watching it. And I rarely cry. Except when “Say Yes to the Dress” is on.

While many of my Education department colleagues spend their days enamored with smiling young children or playing with families aboard Noah’s Ark at the Skirball, my job here involves a far surlier crowd: TEENAGERS. [They’re a demographic that puzzles many—so much so that the Skirball recently offered a “Teenagers: Wonder Years or Worry Years” parenting workshop for moms and dads needing some guidance.]

In my role as Associate Educator for School Programs, I develop gallery-based curricula for students in Grades 6–12 on topics ranging from immigration to archaeology to the onion ring collection of artist Maira Kalman (true story). One of our offerings for high school students is a six-week, in-school residency program that relates to the Skirball’s changing exhibitions. Teaching artists engage with students to explore exhibition themes and create original works of art, which they then perform at the Skirball for an audience of fellow students from other schools. These in-depth programs have produced slam poetry, choreography, and short films. They’re also an opportunity for educators like me to really get to know a group of students, most of whom I’d otherwise only get to work with for about ninety minutes on a typical teen tour.

Our 2011 in-school spoken word residency encouraged students to express themselves through poetry and featured original hip-hop choreography. The poems ranged from expressions of deep emotional turmoil to an ode to bacon. Photo by John Elder.

Our 2011 in-school spoken word residency encouraged students to express themselves through poetry and featured original hip-hop choreography. The poems ranged from expressions of deep emotional turmoil to an ode to bacon. Photo by John Elder.

This past year’s residency focused on the topic of empowering women and girls worldwide as explored in the recent Skirball exhibition Women Hold Up Half the Sky. Working with renowned choreographer Robin Conrad, six members of the Westchester Enriched Sciences Magnet (WESM) Drill Team developed a dance performance based on their visit to the exhibition. They also went on a field trip to serve lunch at the Downtown Women’s Center (DWC), one of the Skirball’s many community partners, which provides housing and support for the city’s ever-growing population of homeless women. Continue reading