Lula Elzy Dance Theatre perfomances have usually featured collaborations with musicians and artists. The approach has helped draw new audiences.
"I sometimes hear people coming out say, 'And there was dance, too,'" she says with a laugh.
The company celebrates its 20th anniversary with Retrospective, a collection of works from past shows. Some pieces feature live music by Ellis Marsalis, Jason Marsalis and Jason Stewart and many are set to music by local composers, including Harold Battiste, Moses Hogan and a King Oliver piece arranged by Dr. Michael White. Other dances incorporate the music of Duke Ellington and Stevie Wonder.
Many of Elzy's collaborations with local musicians are born out of her longtime relationship with NOCCA. Elzy taught dance at the high school for 17 years, and that was where she first met Ellis Marsalis and other music faculty. All of the female dancers in Retrospective are former NOCCA students Elzy taught, and some also have taught at the school. Some of Elzy's students have gone on to dance professionally, including one principal dancer with Alvin Ailey's American Dance Theater. Colette Williams, who was a finalist on the third season of So You Think You Can Dance, is pursuing a career in film.
Elzy also is a graduate of NOCCA and discovered her interest in dance at her audition. An English teacher at Booker T. Washington High School suggested she apply to NOCCA for her senior year of high school. Though she had not previously studied dance, Elzy decided to try it.
"I was always in the library," she says. "I found some books about dance, and I just brought the pictures to life."
As a dancer and choreographer, Elzy focuses on modern dance, based on the Horton technique, developed by Lester Horton and based on his ideas about a whole body approach emphasizing flexibility, strength and freedom of movement. Elzy attended SUNO, but she finished her degree at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center, which offered credits for dance study. She lives and works part time in Dayton, Ohio, where she is a choreographer for The Muse Machine, a high school arts program. Her list of accomplishments and credits include a Kennedy Center fellowship in Washington D.C., and a choreography credit for a classical ballet adaptation of Porgy and Bess in the former Soviet Union.
But Lula Elzy Dance Theatre was created out of a break with classical ballet.
"I wanted to do a holiday show that wasn't the same old thing for Christmas," she says. "(Clarinetist) Victor Goines is a friend of mine. He told me there was a Duke Ellington arrangement for Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker. (Ellington's) Nutcracker Suite became the basis for our first show."