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Urban Bush Women - More Resources

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Urban Bush Women (1984- )

by Nadine George-Graves

Founded in 1984 by visionary choreographer Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, Urban Bush Women is a company devoted to using performance as a vehicle for social change. Rooted in the dynamism and attitude of the African American communities of her youth, the creative work quickly grew into an aesthetic of complex vulnerability and audacious sassiness spotlighting a population underrepresented on the concert dance stage. Audiences are often brought to their feet during performances to testify to the honest and powerful feelings that the company elicits. Unafraid of tackling difficult social issues and tapping into raw emotions, Urban Bush Women provokes its audiences to interrogate and celebrate the complexities of race, gender, class, sexuality, spirituality, social relations, politics, power, aesthetics, and community.

Jawole Willa Jo Zollar

Zollar (born December 21, 1950) began dancing when she was about six years old in Kansas City, Missouri.  In the 1950s and 1960s, her neighborhood in Kansas City was all black so her role models and cultural world was black. Her early training was primarily at the Joseph Stevenson School of Dance where she learned a form of Afro-Caribbean Dunham technique. Classes were accompanied by drumming or jazz music and Stevenson taught Zollar to dance from the “inside out” and to be true to her own style. Jawole’s mother was a jazz vocalist so she was at home with these rhythms and the movements they inspire. She moved from performing in community variety shows to studying theater and dance at the University of Missouri where she earned a BA in dance and developed her interests in using dance as part of the black liberation and other social movements of the 60s. Her early influences included poet and activist Amiri Baraka, writer and scholar Larry Neal, choreographers Deborah Hay, Trisha Brown, and Steve Paxton, the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Power Movement, the Black Arts Movement, and second-wave feminism. While working towards her MFA at Florida State University she became involved with women’s support groups, the Black theater guild, the dance department, and the local Yoruba community. She was inspired by the writings of Antonin Artaud, Peter Brook, and the work of the Free Southern Theater to aim to create work that had an impact. At FSU, she studied more dances of the African Diaspora and worked with local companies. She moved to New York in 1980 and began working with Dianne McIntyre at Sounds in Motion deepening her engagement with jazz improvisation and the choreographic possibilities from strong dancers with different body types. In 1984, she and six other dancers (Terri Cousar, Anita Gonzalez, Christine Jones, Viola Sheely, Robin Wilson, and Marlies Yearby) formed a company and called themselves Urban Bush Women. 

Repertory

Zollar’s choreography style is a blending of African, African American, modern, post-modern, experimental, and Eastern movement traditions. She is also interested in pedestrianism, strength, breath, pace, emotion, playfulness, vocalization, and different energy sources. These are the tools that Zollar and her dancers use to create their art and communicate their messages. The repertory asks us to reimagine the black body in space and motion, the power of story and drama, histories of oppression, the place of spirituality, and the roles of communities in effecting social change. Through choreography, audience members are moved to consider ways of finding the strength to survive adversity; calling upon the spirits and ancestors; overcoming violence and pain; reclaiming heritage, history, legacy, and memory; claiming agency and authenticity over female identity (voice, body, and spirit); using the personal to connect with the universal, the everyday life, and others.

Arguably the most written about and popular dance in the repertory is also the piece that brings these ideas into acute relief. Batty Moves is a piece that asks us to interrogate the personal and political relationships black women have with their buttocks. It is, at once, a celebration of the power and possibilities of that part of the body and a call for us to untangle this hotly contested site.

The repertory also pays attention to story (particularly African Diaspora stories) as in Praise House, Bones and Ash: A Gilda Story, Shadow’s Child, and Les Écailles de la Mémoire (The Scales of Memory), co-choreographed by Germaine Acogny. Many pieces overtly take on real-world issues like homelessness, domestic violence, suicide, and the messages we send to adolescents (Song of Lawino; Heat; Shelter; Anarchy, Wild Women and Dinah; and River Songs). And others use ritual and spirituality that lead to the transcendence of oppression and to healing (Marinesa, Xpuijla, Transitions, The Life Dances).

Throughout these works, even in the quieter and more vulnerable pieces, the image of the strong black woman who triumphs over hardships prevails. This image has been both empowering and threatening but, above all, it is provocative. Zollar is uninterested in uniformity across body types and embraces intelligent individuals who can bring their unique performative strengths and ideas to studio work and performance spaces in collaboration. This brings a harmony and richness to the texture of the movement.

Range

Urban Bush Women is a complex organization. Part and parcel of the work of the company onstage is the engagement with communities offstage. The first community engagement project occurred in 1991 and since then the company has developed original platforms to use dance and other forms of embodied performance to help empower communities to deepen dialogue on important issues. The most enduring project is the Summer Leadership Institute (SLI), a 10-day intensive in which company members work with local arts activists to build techniques for civic work. Over the years, a global network of these change-makers has emerged and the Urban Bush Women model has impacted many communities.

Another popular project emerged during the development of Hair Stories. Company members collected stories about people’s hair everywhere they toured and realized that there were a lot of social issues to be worked out related to hair. They started hosting more formal hair parties in which men and women of all races could gather specifically to discuss the social significance of their hair, enter into a dialogue about hair and life and perhaps persuade each other to change their minds about hair.  Interestingly, these parties continued after the piece premiered and new ideas were constantly available to bring to the piece.

Legacy

The most enduring legacy of Urban Bush Women is the body of work that has inspired so many at the nexus of art and activism. Too, the company has developed generations of artists, social justice workers, scholars, and community leaders trained in techniques of arts activism. Finally, as many audience members can attest, there is an enduring effect of the infectious attitude, energy and assurance of possibility generated at every performance. Images of black women with arms akimbo, in-your-face challenges to bring about change, and loud, vocal calls to push our knowledge of black people, especially women, in the world all feed into the lasting effects of the work.

At the time of this writing in 2015, the company is celebrating its 30th anniversary with a performance entitled Walking with ‘Trane. In many respects this piece is a return to Zollar’s roots in jazz and a pushing of the jazz aesthetic. Working with musicians who composed original music inspired by the music of John Coltrane, Zollar and the latest company members collaborate on an aesthetic of all the signature Urban Bush Women styles figuring out what movement is left to improvisation and what movement is “set,” what is tight, what is loose, what has fierce attitude and what has casual confidence. The music comes alive through the moving bodies. The spirit of Coltrane is evoked and the important work of the company continues.

NOTE: In addition to sources cited in the research guide, this essay draws on an interview with Jawole Willa Jo Zollar by author, November 9, 2015.

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Dr. Nadine George-Graves (BA, Yale; PhD, Northwestern) is Professor of Theater and Dance at the University of California, San Diego. She is past-president of the Congress on Research in Dance (CORD). She is the author of The Royalty of Negro Vaudeville: The Whitman Sisters and the Negotiation of Race, Gender, and Class in African American Theater, 1900-1940 and Urban Bush Women: Twenty Years of Dance Theater, Community Engagement and Working It Out as well as numerous articles on African American theater and dance. She is the editor of The Oxford Handbook of Dance and Theater.

 

Selected Resources for Further Research

Books and Articles

Aduonum, Ama Oforiwaa Konadu. “Urban Bush Women: Building Community and Empowering the Disempowered Through a Holistic Performing Arts Medium.” PhD diss., The Florida State University, 1999.

Brennan, Lissa. “Urban Bush Women.” Essence. September 2002.

Chatterjea, Ananya. Butting Out: Reading Resistive Choreographies Through Works by Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and Chandralekha. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2004.

George-Graves, Nadine. Urban Bush Women: Twenty Years of African American Dance Theater, Community Engagement, and Working It Out. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2010.

Goler, Veta. “Dancing Herself : Choreography, Autobiography, and the Expression of the Black Woman Self in the Work of Dianne McIntyre, Blondell Cummings, and Jawole Willa Jo Zollar.” PhD diss., Emory University, 1994.

Zollar, Jawole Willa Jo. “Jawole Willa Jo Zollar: A Self-Study.” In Black Choreographers Moving, edited by Julinda Lewis-Ferguson, 31-35. Berkeley, CA: Expansion Arts Services, 1991.

Moving Image Materials

A selection of videos of Urban Bush Women in performance are available to view onsite at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts:

https://catalog.nypl.org

A selection of video excerpts is available on Urban Bush Women’s vimeo channel:

https://vimeo.com/urbanbushwomen/videos

Web Resources

Urban Bush Women website:

https://www.urbanbushwomen.org/