Urban Bush Women - a name awash in a sea of suggestions that stretches from deepest Africa to the concrete jungles of American cities.
Yet "awash" is too passive a word for a dance troupe that has attracted glowing notices both nationally and internationally for its emotion, excitement, vitality and originality in interpreting the black experience.Urban Bush Women, with Jawole Willa Jo Zollar as artistic director, will be in Salt Lake City for a Kingsbury Hall concert on Friday, Jan. 18 at 7:30 p.m. The concert is among free events scheduled by the University of Utah to observe Martin Luther King Day.
Zollar was born Willa Jo in Kansas City, where she was raised by a dancing mother; she added the Jawole (say it just as it reads, with "lay" on the end) from the Yoruba language by her own choice. "I've had several interpretations of the name's meaning, but I just liked the way it sounds," said the enthusiastic choreographer in a telephone interview.
She put together her Urban Bush Women, a group of six dancers, in 1984, to present dance/theatre rooted in the folklore and religious traditions of African-Americans and Afro-Carribeans, through "dance, music, drama, spoken word, a cappella vocal sounds based on field hollars, chants, improvisational vocalization techniques, and most especially, the force and spirit of movement," according to a company brochure. The company tours 25-30 weeks of the year, in addition to its New York appearances.
"We do have African roots, but our urban environment and the black experience as it has evolved here has led to something quite different, something that never existed in Africa. It has developed its own voice, being here in this place," said Zollar.
She believes in individuality and ethnicity. "The melting pot will be supplanted by a gumbo pot," she told one interviewer. "Rather than trying to boil everything down to make this one soup, we'll say that all of these ingredients are needed to make it interesting. America is going to have to accept itself."
Zollar has had extensive training in the traditional techniques of dance, beginning with kiddy ballet, and when she was seven years old with a former member of Katherine Dunham's company. But she credited working in Kansas City clubs as a child with her sister and mother, a shake dancer, for teaching her that art can take many forms. "My mother's act was not the least bit vulgar, just sensuous and beautiful," she said.
She received a B.A. in dance from the University of Missouri in Kansas City, and an MFA in dance from Florida State University, where she subsequently taught. She is well schooled in ballet, and modern dance of the Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham genres. "But what was lacking was what I was," she said. "It was someone else's vision."
No longer is this so. The dance style she and her company have evolved is quite originally her own, based on what's inside her (and them), and the evolution is by no means complete.
"We work from a creative pool of company members and guests, and define each work differently," she explained. "If we have any message, it is that creativity and expression can take on many different artistic forms.
In Salt Lake City, Urban Bush Women will open with "I don't know, but I been told, if you keep on dancin' you'll never grow old." The piece uses "rhythms and movements of drill teams, cheerleaders, double Dutch, social games and dances to provide a refreshingly original look at dance as a community activity."
From a full-evening piece, "Anarchy, Wild Women and Dinah," Zollar has programmed a group excerpt, "Girlfriends." "It's about the support and camaraderie I grew up with," she said. Dinah represents black womanhood in the mythology of the American South, said Zollar, in all her variations, her stereotypes and experiences.
Zollar herself dances several solos, and judging from a consensus of critical opinions, she is a vital, aggressive, even unforgettable dancer, fearless and strong, and a gifted improvisationalist.
Yet she declared that all her pieces are structured, and emotion adds the tone and color; for example, she said of her first solo, a tour de force called "The Papess," "the old woman with her bible and liquor bottle only does a few movements, because that's all her life experiences will allow her to do at the moment." "The Papess" is part of "Life-Dances," an ongoing collaboration between Zollar and others, a group of solos which represent "a personal odyssey . . . manifestations of spiritual impulses."
"Lipstick" is an excerpt from another full-evening piece, "Heat." Jack Anderson describes it as glimpses of "women trapped into conforming to the sexual images expected of them. They put on lipstick, primping to lists of the fantastic names that lipstick names can have." Also from "Heat" comes "Shelter," a powerful depiction of people unable to find a resting place for either their weary bodies or their aching hearts."
Why just Urban Bush Women, not Urban Bush People? Not because of any feminist bias, said Zollar. "We often have men guest dancers and musicians, but it's harder to recruit and keep men dancers. We have just evolved as a company that celebrates not only the African-American experience, but also the unity of all women."