Lula Washington started her own dance company back in 1980 because she wanted to make a statement -- a statement that could be made with movement.
"I wanted to create stories and images that might give people perspectives that they didn't have before," she said from her studio on Crenshaw Boulevard in South Los Angeles. "That's one thing that hasn't changed through the years. I always wanted my work to have a voice."
While her career was motivated by greats such as Alvin Ailey, her own style of dance has made inroads into some unexpected places.
Her dances may be new to Memphis, but her physicality may evoke a sense of deja vu when the company performs Friday at the Buckman Arts Center at St. Mary's School.
More than two decades ago, Disney animators videotaped her company members pretending to be a group of dancing sea creatures. Imagine them the next time you watch "Under the Sea" in the 1989 movie "The Little Mermaid."
When the director James Cameron (of "Titanic") approached her with a script about humans scouring a foreign planet for precious natural resources, she immediately connected with the script.
"One of the beautiful things about (the movie) 'Avatar' is that if you understand the history of how indigenous people have been treated on Earth, you can see how this script reflects our own past," Washington said.
Her dancers were attached to movement capture sensors and they became the models of the Na'vi tribe -- the tall, svelte, blue natives of the planet Pandora.
Their ritualistic gestures, tribal dances and catlike movements are her invention.
"Mr. Cameron wanted the Na'vi tribe to have a sense of purpose, a way of worship, prayers and rituals," Washington said. "They were very connected to their world. It was a spiritual place and they valued the life of every animal. In the study of yoga, we learn about the third eye, or that state of enlightenment. That's very much a part of their culture."
Washington created a handful of ballets for the film, but most may remember the simple gestures that they use to express love or affection.
"This is very traditional in many African and aboriginal cultures," she said. "The group speaks with one voice."
The seven pieces her company will perform at the Buckman Center also unites different histories, cultures and styles.
Washington likes to pay tribute to historical and cultural figures in her dances. Her 2008 work, "Beautiful Venus and Serena," has her dancers swinging tennis rackets in honor of the sensational Williams' sisters. In another piece from 2008, she uses gospel music and spoken text to paint a picture of school integration in "The Little Rock Nine." Washington was born outside of Little Rock, shortly before the event in 1957.
She evokes the politics and spirit of the 1960s in "Ode to the Sixties." And in "For Those Who Live and Die for Us," she honors men and women in uniform.
"I wanted to find a way to make a work that would demonstrate the commitment and the endurance of people in the military," she said. "They fight to the last inch to make us safe."
"Global Village" was inspired by a company tour through China as cultural ambassadors. She was surprised to find many similarities between the ancient Chinese people and the ancient African people. She set it to the music of the South African activist and songwriter Fela Kuti.
"It became a piece that was encompassing different dance styles, such as American, jazz and Caribbean," she said. "It's very joyous and uplifting."
Washington says that while her choreography draws from various dance styles, it has a look and feeling that is all her own.
"I recently worked with a dancer from the Dance Theatre of Harlem," she said. "He wanted to expand his dance vocabulary. Now he likes to say that he has been 'Lula-ized.'"
Lula Washington Dance Theatre
Performance at 8 p.m. Friday at the Buckman Arts Center at St. Mary's School, 60 Perkins Ext. Tickets are $25 adults, $22 students. Call (901) 537-1483.