For the 20 years that Jawole Willa Jo Zollar’s Urban Bush Women have been pulling spectators—whooping and clapping—to their feet, they’ve taught us about empowerment. Empowerment as women, as African Americans, as humans. In
Give Your Hands to Struggle, the gorgeous solo that opens the program, Rhea Patterson’s resilient strength, fluidity, and big, soft jumps embody pride and joy. Her shoulder and torso ripples come from deep inside her body. (The way Zollar blends modern dance and African tradition into a seamless personal language is itself a triumph.) Even the 1986 Girlfriends, a slumber party for four, foregrounds power plays. Tellingly detailed looks, gestures, stances, and walks create a hilarious microcosm of society, in which alliances are formed and dissolved and squabbles resolved.
The 1995 Batty Moves celebrates ample female buttocks and banishes the commercialized image of gaunt, hipless models. The company’s seven splendid women take turns rapping raucously and impudently about their butts, kibitzing with one another, and exhorting wide-assed women in the audience to stand. In a fiercely joyous chorus line, they turn their backs to us and shake their hips before exploding in kicks and leaps.
The power of ritual infuses Sacred Vessel, which UBW commissioned from an “emerg-ing female choreographer,” Bridget L. Moore. In the beginning, the dancers pursue separate smoothly athletic themes, but gestures that suggest washing and cupping water in their hands gradually draw them together into unison. By the end I’m not sure what’s been accomplished, but Moore presents the women skillfully and tenderly.
Zollar’s newest piece, Walking With Pearl—Africa Diaries, the first part of a projected trilogy, elegantly deconstructs the epiphany experienced by the pioneering American dancer-choreographer Pearl Primus during her 1949 trip to Africa. Seated onstage, Zollar reads fragments of Primus’s unpublished diary and later writings, while the Bush Women reveal relationships and powers that express the African heritage and this passionate observer’s view of it. Sounds of nature accompany traditional and tradition-based music. Kevin Rechner’s lighting bathes the stage in hot glare, blue night, tremendous sunsets.
We can imagine that Maria Bauman is Primus, as she watches the energy rippling slowly and luxuriantly through Nora Chipaumire’s long limbs and torso. She needs to be part of this. Perhaps Patterson too is Primus, gazing at Nia Eubanks dancing a wilder, limb-wheeling solo. We observe the women’s quiet gestures to one another, but we feel as well as see how they catch and cradle Eubanks when, fists hitting air, she turns and leaps into their midst. What performers—these four, plus Christal Brown, Chanon Judson, and Amara Tabor-Smith!
Near the end, the image of a blazing sunset becomes part of something sacred, almost too big and ferocious for Primus to grasp; Zollar cries out her words. Those flames become the “unquenchable fire” that drove Primus, that ignited her dance.
The performers in Bill Young and Colleen Thomas’s enthralling new
Dust live in a world of entrances and exits. The stage—bleakly, sometimes drastically lit by Tim Cryan—could be a deserted train station, a wasteland campsite, a spiritual limbo. Always we’re aware of people waiting, surveying the scene. Furious motion erupts from immobility.
The atmosphere is darker than in previous works by Young. The random overcoats on hangers—part of Joanna Seitz’s set, occasionally worn—emit dust when whipped around. In the beginning, when Mio Morales’s music is still only a gentle jangling, Young and Pedro Osorio sit on a rectangular box, staring wearily around. The lights go out and come back on with a burst of smoke, and—
shazam!—a man (Darrin Wright) hurtles recklessly across the stage and disappears. Joseph Poulson, Abby Crain, and Thomas make singular forays into and through the space—Poulson’s so violent that you wince.
Now for the shocker: entering and exiting redefined. Young and Osorio split their box into two cubes, revealing a pair of pathetically limp little legs poking out of one. It’s hard to take your eyes off those legs to watch Wright, Crain, and Thomas dancing in rich, flung-out unison. As the boxes are repositioned, we glimpse the old magic trick: a woman sawed in half, waving legs (Jennifer Felton) protruding from one box, a head (Tamara Riewe) from the other. (I don’t even want to think about rehearsing this.) No wonder Riewe is crazed when she finally pries herself out of the box. No wonder Young is standing at the back shaking.
In their repeated flying forays, the dancers often seem to be making assertions against gale-force winds. Young, having given away a coat, thrashes in place, as loose as a coat himself. Whatever these people are enduring, they’re enduring it together, although tenderness is more implied than stressed. When Thomas lies briefly on top of Osorio, she might just as well be another coat. Those lifted by the group in a wrangle of soft limbs look as if they’ve been pushed upward mainly by the pressure of other bodies.
By the end, Riewe and Felton are pleating themselves back into their boxes. Thomas crosses the stage sifting flour. While everyone else freezes, Young crawls along, gathering the flour into little mounds. Dust unto dust?