It’s been 20 years since Jawole Willa Jo Zollar founded Urban Bush Women to celebrate the “vulnerability, sassiness, and bodaciousness of the women” from her Kansas City upbringing. This season she choreographs a love letter to an “original bush woman,” the late dancer-choreographer Pearl Primus.
“I only got to hear her speak once,” Zollar says, but Primus’s words ripple through her new work Walking With Pearl—Africa Diaries, adapted from the “beautiful lines” Zollar found in the archives of the American Dance Festival. “She was a dark-skinned, powerfully built black woman, socially active in the ’40s. I want more people to know who she is.”
In Batty Moves, members of UBW shake their “batties” —Jamaican patois for buttocks —to make a point. In an age of misogynistic music videos that assess, objectify, and often degrade women on the basis of their parts, Zollar reclaims booty-shaking as an affirmative action. “I was in New Orleans doing a community show,” she says, “and some young women did the rapid hip and pelvis movements to [the Ying Yang Twins’] ‘Salt Shaker.’ We had them do those same movements to African drums and it was totally different. The problem wasn’t the dance. The problem was the lyrics. I give a pre-curtain speech where I talk about the Venus Hottentot and her degradation, so the context is there for the audience.”
Finally, UBW celebrates sisterhood with a signature work, the 1986 Girlfriends. “I feel like my girlfriends raised me,” Zollar says of the piece, inspired by her close female friendships. “When I first started the company, everyone said, ‘It’s never gonna work, they’ll be bitchy.’ But we said ‘No, we’ve got something here.’ ” Twenty years later, they still do. Zollar, company manager Christine King (an Urban Bush Woman for 17 years), and two other “mature members” will perform Girlfriends on opening night at the Joyce.