Urban Bush Women: hep and sweet

The dance legends triumph at White Bird. Next up: Dance Theatre of Harlem and tapper Michelle Dorrance


“Hep Hep Sweet Sweet.” Those four twinned words—joyful, dancing words—made up the title of the first piece on Urban Bush Women‘s recent program in White Bird’s Uncaged series at the Newmark, and they capture something of the spirit and energy that are the hallmarks of the company.

Choreographer and all-around wonder-woman Jawole Willa Jo Zollar founded Urban Bush Women in 1987—making this UBW’s 30th anniversary season—and from the start the group has been devoted to using African-American dance forms to make work that is both superb art and a force for social change. That devotion to political action is only one aspect of what makes the Bush Women not just a dance company but also a national treasure. UBW’s ability to create dances that can encompass story, memoir, autobiography, music, humor, tragedy, speech, and song (the dancers will regularly knock your socks off with their vocalizing) challenges our notions of what dance can be. The company’s vision of the art form is so expansive, so unconcerned with the usual boundaries, that you realize anew how rich and challenging dance can actually be.

Photo courtesy Urban Bush Women

Photo courtesy Urban Bush Women

All of the company’s virtues were on display in Hep Hep Sweet Sweet. The work is an evocation of Zollar’s memories of her own family—in particular her parents—during the period of the Great Migration, when massive numbers of African Americans moved from the rural South to the cities of the North looking for a better future. Zollar’s parents, like so many others fleeing poverty and violent racism, made their way from Alabama and Texas to Kansas City, where her mother eventually found work singing in the city’s many nightclubs.

Hep Hep Sweet Sweet is set in a fictional version of one of those nightclubs and weaves Zollar’s often poetic memories, which are heard in her own recorded narration, with lush jazz and pop ranging from Charlie Parker to Dinah Washington. The piece comes on all sequins and spangles and explosive, joyous energy. The dancers move through an encyclopedia of African American dance idioms of the 1930s to the early 1950s, all of which are somehow seamlessly melded together. We see UBW’s famous ensemble work here (the six company members in this piece move as if they’d started dancing together right out of the cradle), each woman an individual but seeming to love joining together with the rest. Whether they are banging out a series of rhythmically sharp tap-derived steps or whirling through a sort of deconstructed Lindy Hop, they form a tight unit.

At first Hep Hep Sweet Sweet seems simply an ode to the pleasures of music and nightclubbing, the sweet escape into another world offered by popular culture. But darker notes soon appear that reflect the tough times that Zollar’s family, like so many others, faced after the move north. A slightly curdled, ironic mood creeps into the dancing. A chain of steps will suddenly break apart; rhythms cohere and then shatter. If the ensemble dominates the happier moments of the dance, it is a single powerhouse performer who brings the darker current to the fore. Her name is Tendayi Kuumba, and she can act and sing as well as she can dance—which means she’s some kind of miracle onstage. She becomes the heart and soul of Hep Hep Sweet Sweet. At one point she launches into a dazzling, dense string of scat singing, sounding for all the world like Ella Fitzgerald. She’s the embodiment of promise, hope, and romance; but gradually the notes begin to slide and edge away from joy toward melancholy and dissonance. She’s now trapped between song and a choked speech. The words that finally flare out of her mouth are expressions of disaster: “Can’t go back.” The plight of African Americans caught up in the Great Migration is made terrifying clear here—the South with its lynchings, grinding poverty, and Jim Crow laws is no longer home, but the North has been in large measure a false promise. When Kuumba utters those words the dance for a moment stops. Seconds later the mood shifts and the dancing returns; the ensemble taking wing, we are dancing again, forgetting our troubles. Hep Hep Sweet Sweet not only tells us something about African-American history and the story of Zollar’s family. It also shows us, in a way quite unlike anything else I have seen onstage, a weird dissonance in popular culture: the way it can lift us up out of our troubles while also tormenting us with the gap between its lush, heady promise and its harsh reality.

Zollar has always had a gift for structuring her programs so that the mood and style of each piece contrasts and brings something new to the fore. It’s a rare talent to find these days. She followed up Hep Hep Sweet Sweet with a short solo called Give Your Hands to the Struggle, danced with unearthly focus and grace by Chanon Judson (who has legs and arms for days) in a performance that for me stands as the highlight of the White Bird season so far. The piece is a knockout. Zollar’s idiom here is almost pure postmodern dance, somewhat in the style of Trisha Brown, with lots of quick but highly concentrated turns and changes of direction. But it’s the legs (big bold kicks with the leg swinging up almost to the head), arms, and hands (frequently grasped or cupped in front of the body) that are the focus. Judson fills every movement to its fullest. Nothing is done halfway, nothing is overemphasized; it’s all pure dance, uninflected but filled with life: energized. It looks simple, but it’s not. You could have heard a pin drop in the Newmark while Judson was dancing.

The piece is formally quite complex. It’s performed to a mix of silence and spoken text—the names of civil rights heroes and martyrs (Medgar Evers, Rosa Parks) are read out loud, as are the names of African American dancers and choreographers (Pearl Primus, Katherine Dunham)—and the piece concludes with a reading of the names of recent victims of police violence (beginning with Trayvon Martin). There is also music: Bernice Johnson Reagon’s uplifting Give Your Hands to Struggle. But the solo really derives its rhythms from Adam Clayton Powell’s roof-raising speech “What’s in Your Hand.” Zollar has created many strong dances over the past 30 years, but this surely is one of her greatest.

What followed was Walking With ‘Trane, Chapter 2, an ambitious and fascinating exploration of John Coltrane’s 1964 masterpiece, A Love Supremeplayed brilliantly on the piano by George Caldwell. The dance once more brings the ensemble to center stage, and the work is essentially non-narrative. The music is what’s driving things. Zollar and her collaborator, Samantha Speis, dig deep into Coltrane’s complex rhythmic structures. They are inside the music to an astonishing degree. The opening section of the dance is deeply pleasurable to watch. The dancers are constantly on the move, morphing, turning, and coming together in the most complex patterns. We see the music and hear the dance. It doesn’t get much better than that. If the middle sections don’t quite cohere, it’s in part because we need more variety in terms of the movement vocabulary, but also because we want a break from the ensemble. The dance desperately needs more solos, duets, and trios. The finale brings things back together and closes the show with a moment of great beauty. The cast (seven dancers, including a single male “Bush Woman,” Du’Bois A’Keen, the company being undogmatic about these things) is bathed in Russell Sandifer’s golden “magic hour” lighting—another highlight of this year’s dance season—while they chant and sing the words of the hymn (a kind of psalm in praise of God) that Coltrane wrote and appended to A Love Supreme’s liner notes. It’s a transcendent moment, one that brings to life in dance and song the guiding spirit of Coltrane’s masterpiece, the words with which he ends his text: “ELATION – ELEGANCE – EXALTATION.” Walking with ‘Trane needs some fine-tuning. It’s still a work in progress, but even in its current form it’s an important piece.

This year’s White Bird season has been a knockout, with one strong performance following another. There’s still more to come as the season winds down. Tickets can still be snatched up by the wise and quick for Dance Theater of Harlem’s first performances in more than 25 years in Portland on April 21-22 at the Schnitzer, and for Michelle Dorrance and a whole gang of tap dancers plus a blues band on April 29, also at the Schnitzer. They all promise to knock your socks off.

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