Urban Bush Women

April 5, 2006

Urban Bush Women
Dance New Amsterdam, NYC

April 5–9, 2006

Reviewed by Wendy Perron


Jawole Willa Jo Zollar goes to extremes of emotion that most choreographers never get near. This concert (one of two programs) brought on a sharp, spicy joy as well as overwhelming feelings of grief and rage.

Investigating the life and work of Pearl Primus has been fertile territory for Zollar and Urban Bush Women. The first half of the program, Walking With Pearl . . . Africa Diaries (2004) represented Primus’ exploration of Africa. The dancers wore loose, earth-colored clothing and enacted various tasks. Zollar set the tone by slowly walking along a diagonal (Primus walking through history?) before she took a seat in the corner to read the revered choreographer/anthropologist’s diaries, which speak of her trust in dance and her feelings of connection to Africa.

But it was the second half, devoted to Primus’ investigations of the American South, Walking With Pearl . . . Southern Diaries (2005), that shook the rafters. In one section four women shuffled in a circle. (Zollar had explained before the show how the shuffle and the “shout” originated.) One at a time, each laughed from her center—from the center of the Earth, it seemed. Each had a different rhythm of laugh—one guttural, one giddy, one drumlike—until we all wanted to laugh. But afterward, to the words of “Strange Fruit,” sung by Nina Simone (to which Primus had made a dance), the dancers stood around simply reacting, in their faces and bodies, to the subject of that song—lynching. The words (“Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze, . . . The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth”) needed no choreography, and Zollar offered none. Some might say that the performers were overacting, but simply dwelling on this song and what it meant was so powerful that I got choked up. When the song ended, the dancers helped one among them who seemed especially affected. With African dance steps and a communal resolve, they worked their way toward affirming life in glorious gratitude—the shout. Masterfully, Zollar brought us from cackling joy to despair to celebration. Response was raw: The audience rose it its feet, and Zollar and some of the dancers were in tears. See www.urbanbushwomen.org.