I defy any female to walk out of a theater after seeing the Urban Bush Women perform and not feel her hips swinging more than usual as she strides along. So juicily do the dancers in Jawole Willa Jo Zollar’s company project empowerment, self-esteem, and strength under duress that after every dance, you want to cheer.
African-American or Caribbean-born, these eight women (nine counting Zollar) bring images from their heritage and the current scene to pungent life onstage. Zollar is one of the few choreographers who can blend African, pop, and contemporary styles without letting the seams show. Maybe that’s because the precision of her choreography and the skill of her dancers
never squelch a refreshing rawness and urgency. When someone leaps, you never think “grand jeté”—you relish a spring into the air.
Zollar presents the performers as a tribe, and that bond constantly animates what they do. Even though five of them (Catherine Dénécy, Marjani Forté, Lela Aisha Jones, Love Muwwakkil, and Bennalldra Williams) are new this year, they look as seasoned as veterans Nora Chipaumire, Christine King, and Paloma McGregor. When each woman steps from the group to rap proudly about her butt in Zollar’s classic Batty Moves, the others cheer her on. They kibitz from the wings when individuals branch into full-throttle solos (Chipaumire is extraordinary; so is McGregor). In Zollar’s 2005 Walking With Pearl . . . Southern Diaries, one of two works honoring the legacy of scholar-choreographer Pearl Primus, you feel their solidarity—whether they’re toiling, dancing with explosive exuberance, or laughing contagiously. When Nina Simone sings the terrifying “Strange Fruit” and Williams starts flailing desperately, the others cluster and hold her clumsily, even though she’s beyond comfort.
A woman also veers out of control in Zollar’s snappy new
Flashback/Flash Forward….Be Cool, Baby, but this time it’s Zollar herself—so turned on by the music, Parliament’s “P. Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up)” and “Chocolate City,” that she can’t bear to stop her runaway hips from wiggling. Jones telling Zollar to cool it only slows her down a little. In this piece, the women get to show just how funky they can be. Spiffy in lemon-yellow tops and black pants, they give all their heat to looking cool. Donning shades helps a lot.
In a smartly composed premiere, Here We Go . . . Again!?, up-and-coming choreographer Camille A. Brown sets five UBW members spinning, kicking up their heels, and racing around as if they know where they’re going (they apparently don’t, since they unfold a map at the end). Anyone who exits soon rushes back on; she just can’t keep away. A propulsive original score by Anthony-Michael Alexander goads the action, and Dalila Kee lights it vividly. Carolyn Mechka Cherry dresses the women in artfully deconstructed, ice-cream colored streetwear (half a jacket, say, or a nearly backless one). It’s a wonder their stylish hats don’t fall off the way they speed about.
Zollar has also augmented the repertory with Blondell Cummings’s classic 1981 solo Chicken Soup. You can learn something from the projected statistics about women’s roles and earning power that precede and follow the dance, but so much baggage weighs the fine piece down. A taped text from a Grace Paley story tells of the days when women scrubbed floors on their hands and knees and gathered in kitchens to shell peas and talk of birth and death. Cummings’s choreography stylizes the gestures of gossiping and toiling that Forté performs so eloquently, giving them rhythm through repetition. When there’s talk of drinking iced coffee, Forté rocks back in her chair and brings cup after invisible cup to her lips. Laughter and howls alike freeze on her face. Shaking a frying pan becomes a metaphor for ceaseless toil as a part of life. It’s a wonderful piece—offering a different take on the strength the Urban Bush Women so richly embody.