Urban Bush Women in Jawole Willa Jo Zollar's Walking With 'Trane. Photo by Julieta Cervantes
While some companies thrive on uniformity of style and attack, the dancers of Jawole Willa Jo Zollar's Urban Bush Women find strength in the very opposite: Her movement is human, with an aesthetic that makes the choreography appear to be improvised. That's been a foundation of Zollar's work since she started UBW in 1984.
Three Bessie Awards and two Doris Duke Awards later, Zollar has also created work for companies like Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and Philadanco. Given her desire for all her dancers to share their voices, it's no surprise that many former UBW members have gone on to make accomplished work of their own.
Tsai-Wei Tien in Bausch's Rite of Spring. Photo by Alexandra Campeau, courtesy Tanztheater Wuppertal
In a sheer red slip—dirt-covered and exposed—the Chosen One frantically pleads with the community encircling her, wildly dancing until she at last succumbs to an inevitable death. Part of Pina Bausch's haunting Rite of Spring, this solo is one of the most vulnerable in dance.
"When I perform this role, there is no acting, my struggle is very real—it becomes very spiritual," says Tanztheater Wuppertal dancer Tsai-Wei Tien. "I squeeze everything I have into those final moments."
A truly unguarded performance electrifies the stage and connects deeply with the audience, in a way that surpasses even the most flawless technical prowess.
Today, black women like Okwui Okpokwasili and Nora Chipaumire are dominating the New York City downtown scene with tenacity and genius. Just this summer, Okpokwasili's solo performance Bronx Gothic was featured in Andrew Rossi's documentary by the same name, and Chipaumire premiered #PUNK as part of the French Institute Alliance Française's Crossing the Line Festival.
In celebration of these trailblazers, we're highlighting some of the influential black women who came before them, and have been changing the game in the downtown dance scene for almost four decades. They continue to thrive and survive, although in the case of Cummings, posthumously. As young dancemakers, we have to know the shoulders on which we stand.
Dancer/choreographer Nora Chipaumire is known to confront racial and gender stereotypes in her work. A former member of Urban Bush Women, she learned to tell stories with movement as well as words, in a way that commands the attention of her audience. In her new duet performance #PUNK, part of the Crossing the Line Festival, she envisions the 1980s American punk scene while also delving into memories of her childhood in Zimbabwe. In this episode of "What Wendy's Watching", we visit the French Institute Alliance Française, which is where the piece has its American premiere, Sept 14-15, 2017.
Les Escailles de la Memoire, co-choreographed by Zollar, PC Jack Vartoogian for BAM
The Bessies Committee announced its choice of two bodacious women to receive awards for Lifetime Achievement and Outstanding Service to the Field: Jawole Willa Jo Zollar for the first, and Eva Yaa Asantewaa for the second. Because both women stand at the intersection of dance and social justice, one feels that the Bessies (the New York Dance and Performance Awards) is making a statement in these highly polarized times.
Joshua Tuason and Melissa Toogood in Petronio’s Locomotor / Non Locomotor. Photo by Yi-Chun Wu, Courtesy Stephen Petronio Company.
Stephen Petronio’s residency program
Stephen Petronio Company spent much of 2015 looking back, performing works by Merce Cunningham and Trisha Brown. Now, it’s looking forward. Petronio is creating a residency for choreographers in Pawling, New York, two hours north of New York City and near the artistic director’s home. The program will likely start in the summer of 2017. “I wanted to create a place where dancers could be removed from the pressures of New York City, and separate themselves from the daily grind,” says Petronio. For now, it’s a closed selection process: Petronio will choose artists he’s interested in for the inaugural residency.
Urban Bush Women in Zollar’s Walking with ‘Trane. Photo by Christopher Duggan.
Urban Bush Women Choreographic Center
Don’t let the name fool you: Jawole Willa Jo Zollar’s plan for the Urban Bush Women Choreographic Center doesn’t include a physical center. Instead, Zollar plans on partnering with individuals and organizations in different U.S. cities to help support local artists—more specifically, female choreographers of color—across all stages of their careers. At this time, there is no public start date or list of collaborators. But Zollar, who has been known to encourage her company dancers’ choreographic talents, is sure to bring more attention to talented artists who can add new voices to the field.