“I don’t know but I’ve been told, you keep on dancin’ you never grow old.”
Founder and Artistic Director of Urban Bush Women, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar
On Thursday January 9th, 2014 after seeing a series of dance performances that failed to move or inspire me, I had the pleasure of experiencing the return of Urban Bush Women to the stage after a 2 year hiatus.
What happened on Thursday at the Joyce Theater, brought back the memory of my first encounter with this company 17 years ago. In 1997 they organized their first summer dance institute. Right out of college, and encouraged by my dance teacher Sandra Burton, I flew to Tallahassee Florida for a month long intensive of what I thought was going to be a series of workshops developing technique. Instead we not only took dance class, but we connected it with community engagement as a catalyst for social change.
Like so many young women, I had spent my years training as a dancer trying to tuck my butt and get my thighs closer together. The first night of the institute, the company performed. I was blown away by the strength, grace, and beauty of the women on the stage. This was the first time I saw women, in a modern dance tradition, who looked like me, truly dancing as themselves. Yes there was a choreographer, but the dance went deeper, because each individual on stage was allowed to shine through. Seeing myself represented in them was an overwhelmingly emotional validation of my place in this world. One of the many powers in Urban Bush Women is their ability to give audience and community members a chance to look at themselves and see their own empowered beauty and strength. I will never forget and will forever be grateful for receiving that moment of reflection through the work of Urban Bush Women.
At opening night of the Urban Bush Women summer dance institute in 1997, one of the pieces presented was called Batty Moves. In it, the choreographer and founder of Urban Bush women, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, challenged the definition of body type in dance. These women took pride and inspiration in their curves. After that piece, I was hooked. Urban Bush Women has stayed as an integral part of my life. The experience of that summer became a key component in defining the work I do today and what I dream of doing tomorrow.
From the celebration of African and female energy to the exploration of socio-political issues, this company delves painstakingly deep into the creation of each piece. In Scales of Memory, they teamed up with, all male Company Jant-Bi. Together and over 3 years they collaboratively built meaning and understanding of each other and around the themes of resistance, memory and love to create a piece that rocked me so deeply I could not move from my seat in the Chicago theater where I saw it performed.
Last night the piece black swan choreographed by Nora Chipaumire, transported me out of my seat. I was not an audience member I was a participant dancing with the women on stage. The shaded lighting and African inspired costuming helped highlight the details of their seemingly still bodies as they shook feverishly in one spot with their backs all turned at the same angle to the audience. For several moments we were allowed to take in every detail of each figure on stage. Along side their movements was a sound track and vocalist whose voice was a short hand of multiple emotions and expressions representing each dancer on stage and all of us in that audience. Once the piece was finished and the dancers had taken their bows a woman at the front of the theater got up from her seat and started to shout for all to hear, ‘We want more Urban Bush Women!’ My sentiments exactly.
You can learn more about the company and the work they do on and off stage at: www.urbanbushwomen.org
Other Dance Companies that move me:
Akram Khan Company: http://www.akramkhancompany.net/html/
Batsheva Dance Company: http://batsheva.co.il/en/?iid=11
Company Chameleon: http://www.companychameleon.com/
Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater Wuppertal: http://www.pina40.de/pina40/EN/
also see documentary about her work and company called Pina