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The Bessies' Bold Choices

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.

A sketch of each of them:

Jawole Willa Jo Zollar is a leader as an artist and as a humanitarian. Her works boldly walked into narrative in the 1980s when most respected American choreography was formalistic. She helped develop the new "epic narrative" field that scholars of postmodern dance speak of now. She commanded the stage, whether in the harrowing Walking with Pearl…Southern Diaries (2005), or the hilarious Hair Parties (2002). She had stories to tell and she was hell-bent on telling them. Her group of Urban Bush Women dancers speak, yell, cuss, dance and sing. (You can see more about their works in Brooklyn Academy of Music's newly posted Leon Levy Archives.)

Urban Bush Women in Zollar's Praise House at BAM, 1991. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

Over the years UBW has trained and unleashed scores of fierce female dance artists, including some of today's leading dancers of color like Nora Chipaumire, Christal Brown, Maria Bauman, Marlies Yearby, Marjani Forté and Makeda Thomas.

As a professor at Florida State University, Zollar has inspired countless students. As founding director of Urban Bush Women, she established a strong community engagement program, the Summer Leadership Institute, and—just last year—the UBW Choreographic Center. All of these efforts support the development of women choreographers of color and "other under-heard voices."

Eva Yaa Asantewaa in center, concluding skeletal architecture, PC Ian Douglas

Eva Yaa Asantewaa (pronounced yaSAHNtewah) has earned a reputation as an excellent writer, astute observer, and fair-minded activist. For decades, she has written for Dance Magazine and other outlets (including her own website). Long involved in the downtown New York community, she contributed a female-centered episode to Danspace's Lost & Found Platform last fall. Although she's a dance watcher, not a dance maker, she came up with a brilliant score for each of 20 women of color and one musician for a collaborative piece titled the skeleton architecture, or the future of our worlds. From all reports, it was celebratory, improvisational, explosive and healing—and it rocked the house. It inspired Hyperallergic writer Alexis Clements to compare it to Anna Halprin's masterwork Parades and Changes, and it stirred up a big discussion online.

You might ask, Is there a connection between these two outspoken, justice-loving women? The answer is: Yes. When Zollar received the Dance Magazine Award in 2015, Eva Yaa Asantewaa wrote the Awards profile in our December 2015 issue.

The dance world has reason to be proud of Zollar and Yaa Asantewaa. See you at the Bessies October 9 at the NYU Skirball Center. Click here for tickets.

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