When Art Forms Collide: Summer Fest Intersections

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Genres won’t be the only things colliding at Summer Fest this year. In addition to a number of genre-busting acts, the festival is also hosting two acts that will be merging art forms on stage. Lula Washington Dance Theater, performing with Marcus L. Miller and Freedom Jazz Movement, will be coupling modern dance with jazz, and Avotcja and Modupue will be adding poetry atop a world music backdrop.

Just as Summer Fest is a celebration of musical artistic expression, dance can fulfill a similar role. Lula Washington Dance Theatre works to instill that individual voice in its performers as early as possible. “We begin teaching kids at an early age that the body is an instrument, but at the same time, that instrument needs to have a voice of its own,” said Associate Director Tamica Washington-Miller.

Formed in 1980 by Lula and Erwin Washington to “provide a creative outlet for minority dance artists in South Los Angeles,” LWDT has always added improvisation to its programs, but it wasn’t until they were invited to perform with the Luckman Jazz Orchestra at Cal State Los Angeles that their long-standing connection with jazz was born. “We were invited as the first company to do that,” notes Artistic Director Lula Washington. For the occasion, Lula Washington crafted routines to the music of Duke Ellington, and LWDT have led a peaceful co-existence with jazz ever since. LWDT has also choreographed dances to the music of Kenny Burrell, John Coltrane, Yusef Lateef and others.

Due to jazz’s improvisational nature, Washington-Miller admits that working with the music can be a bit of an uphill challenge at times for their dancers. “[Our] dancers have to be strong enough to just go for it but also be listening to the music and changes to hear the nuance of solos,” adds Washington-Miller. “The dancers have to learn how to lead to a certain degree but also listen and follow at the same time.”

New concepts are conceived by either choreographers Lula and Tamica or Tamica’s husband, drummer Marcus L. Miller, who performers regularly with the company. as was the case with their piece “Beautiful Venus and Serena.” Originally conceived by Marcus as a musical movement called“Beautiful Serena,”  Tamica later expanded the piece to be a narrative about the dual life the Williams sisters lead as both confidantes and competitors. “The dance starts off as if it were a tournament,” explains Tamica. “They go through warm up and the battle is on. . . In duet, we see them going against each other and also helping each other.”

LWDT’s open, collaborative environment seems to work for all the creative heads. “It’s always exciting to have that type of environment, typically when you’re working with something new,” comments Lula. As Marcus relates, he enjoys keeping the possiblities open so that the pieces can continue to evolve. “As artists, we are free in that sense. I’m not trying to lock my music – I even hate to label it jazz. Once it gets out of me and can get out to the band, from that point I want it to grow”

In addition to “Beautiful Venus and Serena” LWDT will be performing “Spontaneous Combustion,” which they recently toured throughout China last year. Inspired by California’s wild fires, this movement will contain elements of live improvisation from both musicians and dancers. Additional dances featured dances will be “We Wore the Mask,” “In the Garden. “Om,” set to the music of John Coltrane, may be revived.

Bringing a similar power to the Summer Fest Stage will be poet and radio host Avotcja, who will be performing with her group Modupue. As Peruvian poet and novelist Camicha raves, “Avotcja’s poetry is music and Avotcja’s music is poetry.  Both are as hot as fire and as soothing as snow flakes.” Oakland-based Avotcja has had quite the impact on her crowd, evidenced by the testimonials on her page. Poet / author Elain Cohen adds that Avotcja and Modupue. “have created a new international music that is indeed beyond category.”

A seeming jack-of-all trades, Avotcja has taught storytelling and drama in public schools. She’s also been artist-in-residence for the Milestones Project and the S.F. Penal System. Avotcja and Modupue will be opening the Castellano Latin Stage Saturday at noon, the first act of our stage series on women in Latin Jazz.

As both acts prove, jazz encapsulates more than just music. It’s a sentiment, a state of mind that implores participants and witnesses alike to explore the possibilities of the moment. Witness jazz’s amaing mutability by taking in these sets back to back. Avotcja will be on the Castellano Latin Stage at noon, followed by LWDT with Marcus L. Miller and Freedom Jazz Movement at 1pm.