Mmm! Those Urban Bush Women! I forget sometimes how strong they are, how fierce, how smart. Dancing can run through their bodies like warm honey, or like steel stiffening them for battle. Their expressive powers shake the theater in artistic director Jawole Willa Jo Zollar’s Walking with Pearl. . .Southern Diaries, a companion piece to her 2004 work centering on the diaries kept by Pearl Primus on her African trip of 1949.
Traveling through the American south, Primus went wherever she heard song rising, wherever she glimpsed feet moving. And, of course, she knew African American history and culture firsthand; her solos Strange Fruit and Hard Time Blues were choreographed in the mid ’40s. As Zollar explains in her introduction to Southern Diaries, she focused her choreography for the piece on the essence of the “ring shout”—originally a shuffling dance in a circle that evaded plantation owners’ ban on slave dancing (defined as lifting feet off the ground), and an element of worship.The custom gave birth to a whole-souled, triumphant “shout” of voice and body, that could be unloosed in church or just about anywhere—a kind of “Yes! I came through! I did it!”
Zollar delivers some of Primus’s words, usually offstage or recorded, and doesn’t introduce a character representing Primus the anthropologist observer (as she did in Walking With Pearl . . . Africa Diaries). We see a society of women, all clad in Trebien Pollard’s costumes of dry-earth-brown pants with long tunics over them and, later, another layer: flowered boleros. In lighting by Susan Hamburger that’s mostly warm sunshine, the eight women create an image of a community in which everyone is quick to pick up another’s rhythm, to come into a circle, to clap and stamp the ground when Sweet Honey in the Rock sings “I Remember, I Believe.” They’re also quick to soothe a sorrowing comrade. The text incorporates words by Langston Hughes and Robbie McCauley, and the choreography filters in “Hard Time Blues” (to Josh White’s recorded voice), channeling Primus’s famous big jumps.
The work makes you feel the heat, the sweetness of rain, the power of belonging to a group—however hard-pressed—in which the individual is free to express her own feelings while others stroll around and give her space. Zollar, wisely, chose not to recreate Primus’s Strange Fruit. For a long time, the women just stand still and stiff, occasionally shuddering or slumping, while together we listen to Nina Simone’s voice murmuring those terrible words about a lynching. When Maria Bauman explodes into anguish, the others surround her, clutch at her, hold her back, even as one, then another, yells out her grief. Then the rhythms build gradually back into joy, and feet begin to stamp, hands to clap. Bauman, Christal Brown, Nora Chipaumire, Nia Eubanks, Wanjiru Kamuyu, Christine King, Paloma McGregor, and Rhea Patterson. All together now!
The rhythmic textures of Zollar’s works are rich. You feel the layers unfold and re-pleat. In the wonderfully witty, zesty Batty Moves (1995), the women celebrate the beauty of well-rounded butts in chanted choruses and individual talking-shaking breakout solos, goaded along at times by Zollar and Junior “Gabu” Wedderburn’s percussion score. When women take lengthier solos, the others gather at the sides and keep up a lively chatter. Skinny Wanjiru Kamuyu holds down centerstage, and they poke good-humored fun at the smallness of the butt she’s shaking so determinedly. “*Littlebig mama,” they concede. Eubanks fares better, and they definitely approve of Brown’s shimmying shoulders and hips.
The rhythms in Convoys, Curfews and Roadblocks (2004), choreographed and performed by Chipaumire, are those of gathering strength and then attacking. This ferocious solo evokes memories of her homeland, Zimbabwe—not just the scent of jacaranda, but racial prejudice and violence. In the dark, we hear her voice reciting all the vicious or condescending names Africa’s whites apply to the country’s black population. “I’m a revolutionary,” her text asserts, “a child of struggle.” Chipaumire’s a formidable figure—tall, with a strong-boned face and a shaven head. When she lifts a bent leg, foot flexed behind her, and slowly brings it around to the front, she primes us for battle. When she leans away, the heel of her front leg anchored to the floor in front of her, she looks like a bowstring being drawn back. And it’s us she’s hurling invisible rocks or clods of earth at, us she’s kicking, us she never takes her eyes off, even though new enemies crop up on all sides to make her grab her belly and retch.
Zollar’s latest work, Sometimes Landscapes Whisper, set to selections of music by Olivier Messiaen, has elements of specific yet mystifying narrative, but clearly it delineates a complex relationship between two women. Patterson and Bauman both wear glamorous outfits by Tasha Monique Carter: flowing black pants and nearly backless metallic tops. Patterson, alone at first, dances as if she’s opening herself to the world. Bauman can mirror her movements, but she’s more somber. They regard each other suspiciously, then come together to watch something—a butterfly perhaps—that can be held in the hands and then released to fly; they lift each other, then become wary again. Finally, they embrace gently and, holding hands, lie down side by side.
This work has more steps that say “modern dance” than the other pieces on the company’s programs, but any swing or thrust of a straight leg with pointed toe has a passionate impetus, and the women deliver every move as if it were part of a fervent dialogue.
It’s great that Urban Bush Women has found a home at the city’s newest performing center, Dance New Amsterdam. DNA’s lobby, seven studios, and small, well-appointed black-box theater—project architect, Michael Nieminen—are fitted into a huge building behind City Hall. Designed in 1846 as a dry goods emporium, it housed the old New York Sun during the city’s newspaper heyday. In these years of escalating rents and lost spaces, it’s a welcome addition to the cultural scene.