A REVIEW: Urban Bush Women

Music, movement communicate the blues, and triumph
Feb. 08, 2014 @ 04:10 PM

Urban Bush Women offered a cure for those winter blues in their program Friday night at Reynolds Industries Theater. They shimmied, shimmered, sparkled, strutted and stamped as though trying to put out a fire. Only, they ignited one.  It felt like warming up in front of a roaring fire and leaving the cold, cold world behind.

Even warming up the audience took on new meaning in the “30th Anniversary Welcome (Being Bushified)” choreographed by founder/artistic director Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and associate artistic director/company member Maria Bauman, who not only narrated the company’s story but illustrated it through movement.

Speaking of changes, she dropped to the floor, held her body straight and rolled rapidly from side-to-side as she pronounced the nature of change as “turnover.” The company has evolved from community engagement to community organizing, she said. In addition to telling stories of disenfranchised people through their performances, the company helps other people tell their own stories.

At the end, Baucom throws down a challenge for some activism from the audience.  “People ask, ‘What’s Urban Bush Women doing? We say, “Well, what about you?’”

In “Hep Hep Sweet Sweet,” choreographed by Zollar, she tells her own family’s story to illustrate the tales of many during The Great Migration from the rural South seeking a better life in cities of the North and Midwest, including her hometown of Kansas City, Mo. Many, however, including her parents, faced discrimination once they got there. Because her father had tried to sell homes to black people in white neighborhoods, the bank withdrew loans, they lost their home and her parents and six children, including Zollar, moved to a small apartment, she narrated live offstage. Eventually, her father opened a tavern where her mother -- a jazz singer/pianist -- served drinks. “My people were trying to make a way out of no way,” Zollar concludes.

Music and movements communicate the blues and triumph over it. Dancers sit slumped over to such achingly poignant tunes as Dinah Washington’s “Where Are You?” and literally make the joint jump with fast-paced, non-stop dancing to the Dirty Dozen Brass Band’s “My Feet Can’t Fail Me Now.” They’re going fast enough to make the sequins fly, like sparks, off their costumes as they affirm the perseverance to keep going.

The world premiere, “Walking With Trane,” by Zollar and company member Samantha Speis melds music, movement, lighting and costume design as well as spoken word to say something about perseverance and the regeneration of the human spirit. Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” inspired both the choreography and pianist/composer George Caldwell’s evocative, original score he performs live.

His music is haunting, lyrical as he plays before dancers begin. The pace picks up as his fingers travel over the keyboard and produces a train of sound that’s rumbling on a fast track.  Dancers run on and off stage in patterns that resemble ocean currents that briefly merge before separating again. A spiritual quality emerges in the music and movement. Dancers luxuriate in the sounds, form tableaus. Faint rainbow lights play across their white costumes.

Finally, music sounds like a benediction. Dancers seem at peace. Some look upward, raise their arms. Another shakes her body as though receiving the Holy Spirit. The dance ends as iridescent stars fall like snow. A dancer moves like an African praise song. Then, one dancer remains, silhouetted. She raises her arms, palms up, fingers splayed as Caldwell’s final notes still reverberate on the piano’s strings.

The program also features Nora Chipaumire’s “Dark Swan,” her nod to such Russian masterworks as Michel Folkine’s “dying swam,” and the ballerinas, who performed these works. She also writes, in program notes, hat she’s also paying tribute to “my mother/African/ black women who refuse to wither away and die or die beautifully.”

The opening section proves most riveting as dancers, backs to the audience, tremble uncontrollably -- and not gently, but rather like a tsunami -- trembling like a fatally wounded animal or swan. This has a visceral effect on me which increases as the trembling never stops -- even when they start stamping their feet like jackhammers. One dancer even rises onto the balls of her feet for a moment.

Even in sections that seem more classical, dancers clasp their breasts, roll their hips, undulate their stomachs, moves that classical ballerinas would never do. These modern women claim themselves. “Uh, huh,” a dancer says as another turns her head and smiles.