In the beginning was the breath; or was it the rhythm? It's hard to determine which comes first with the Urban Bush Women. Seldom has one seen a group so aptly named, for these seven talented dancers/sing-ers/actresses sweep from one pole to the other - from street-wise, sassy gamins attuned to the confusion and cacophony of city life, to an elemental, hip-swinging primitivism that seems to have sprung full-blown from the African bush.
Then there's the duality of their apparent age and experience - sometimes seeming as wise and timeless as sybils, sometimes full of the exuberant innocence of children.More than most troupes, these dancers seem to dance for themselves. What they have to say is compelling and engrossing to them, and you are allowed to look on until the rhythm and propulsion draw you in; they don't come out to get you, they just make their dance so vital that you must come in.
Nowhere was this more evident than in the serious repertory with which they opened their program. "Meditations on Angels," a striking piece, with superb drumming by Junior "Gabu" Wedderburn. The women seemed to aspire to heavenly heights, only to continually be pulled back to earth.
The unforgettable element of "Meditations" was the constant moon pull of rhythm and of the breath, flowing through individual bodies and through the collective body with a slow, expressive, inescapable pulse and vitality - as if one were caught up in the inevitability of life working itself out.
"Bitter Tongue" is a challenging, dramatic work, with music from Central Africa, subtle drumming, and beautiful, accelerating movement. "Why are your words so bitter? Why, why, why?" cried the women, as if sickened by the bitterness - again with gathering intensity of breath and movement. Their interaction and collective action gave one the feeling of a cleansing; a shamanistic healing, coming from primeval times to lay its soothing hand upon a cynical present.
Zollar was featured in a tour de force solo, "Life Dance II . . . the Papess (mirror in the waters)." Accompanied by a crooning chant from Wedderburn and the women, she stood center stage, her back to the audience, looking like a waif in the throes of revival ecstacy, using her expressive back and hip muscles in a long, magnetic introduction.
Swinging to face the audience, she stood in high metallic heels, elaborate hairdo and sunglasses, undulating to "St. Louis Woman." She sat, kicked off her shoes, pulled an apple from her pocket and took a couple of ferocious bites, as if attacking it.
Again facing the back, she took off her clothes, wrapped herself in metallic cloth and faced front, breaking an egg on her bare breast and rubbing it in, in a gesture somehow important, symbolic, that only she understood. "The Papess" is a strangely affecting and disturbing dance.
"Lipstick, a doo-wop dilemma" is a little psychological drama, a sort of miniature rock opera, acted out by girls that are clearly adolescent or just beyond. Just coming to grips with life, their only weapons of combat are their lipsticks and the sense of security that making up like adults gives them. Sometimes they sang little swingy songs, sometimes sentimental ballads, and it was surprisingly good singing.
They shouted out the names of their lipstick shades, painting on the full lips and pouting expressions that are rampant in lipstick ads. Then one felt the hysteria of tenement living closing in; bad experiences happened, hearts broke, and their little defenses crumbled, only to find reinforcement in the group.
"I don't know but I've been told if you ever stop dancin' you'll never grow old" - so they said, but most of us would grow old in short order if we kept up such a pace. The company's closing explosion of tricks and showing off, spoofed dance as it's being kept alive in American schools, by drill teams, cheerleaders, gymnasts and other stereotypes. This marathon of movement ends with a few impudent choruses - a delightful closing piece for a company of serious proportions that doesn't take itself too seriously.