When artistic director and choreographer Jawole Willa Jo Zollar of Urban Bush Women launched the troupe in 1984, her vision was for an all-woman dance company that not only performed for but also educated its audience. The members would work together to affect social change while reflecting the culture of the African diaspora through the use of music, rhythm and movement.
One might think that a troupe bound together by a philosophy of community involvement would be about the group rather than the individuals that make it up. On the contrary, the members of Urban Bush Women can't contain their joyous singularities. That's partly because Zollar wouldn't have it any other way: These are women who aren't afraid to get in your face, and they will. When they descend on Boulder this week to kick off the month-long Colorado Dance Festival with a flurry of workshops and performances, they'll be working hard to encourage others to express themselves in a similar way.
"Jawole likes individuality. She doesn't try to rub that out," says Kristin McDonald, a Chicago-born and Stanford-educated dancer and singer who's been with the company for about two years. She says her fellow Urban Bush Women bring their own qualities to the group's creative tableau. "She enjoys that," McDonald says of Zollar. "We also bring that to the work in the way we perform--something one of us does in the improvisational process might come out in the final piece."
Zollar's aptitude for putting together a troupe like a puzzle pays off in the end, in spite of strong personalities and possible ego conflicts. McDonald, who first fell under Zollar's spell in a master class at Stanford, took a chance and went to New York to audition a year later. "It's no wham, bam, I got to see you dance for fifteen minutes kind of audition--it's more like an Urban Bush Women workshop," she says of the two-week process. "Though it's primarily a dance troupe, it also utilizes theater and voice, so Jawole needs time to see those aspects as well." Needless to say, McDonald was thrilled to be accepted into the company, though it meant she had to pack her bags and move from one coast to the other.
She has no regrets. "We get along well," McDonald says. "Everyone is in every piece. And no one person does just one thing; everyone sings or dances at some point. We really have to be able to do it all." Each member must also contribute something beyond her physical presence to every performance. One of Zollar's ensemble works, "Self Portrait," is actually intended to capture the Bush Women's rehearsal process and delve into real-life character sketches. Another work, "Transitions," is about the way each dancer deals with the concept of divinity. And a new work, "Hand Singing Song," includes a literal study in social movement focusing on the street concept of "dap," a vernacular evolved from the cultural act of slapping hands or giving five.
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Perhaps the most body-conscious cornerstone of the Urban Bush Women's repertoire, though, is Zollar's "Batty Moves," which gets its name from the Jamaican slang word for hips and buttocks. At the beginning of the piece, Zollar often makes a prologue statement to the audience, juxtaposing her own youthful experiences at an African dance class and at a ballet class. She describes how in African dance, everyone has fun and shakes all over, but in ballet you're told to tuck that in, or not to use this. "When people of African descent were brought to this country, they were told that their movements were lewd and lascivious, which is not true," McDonald explains. "In African culture, the whole body moves. You're going to move your hips; you're going to move everywhere."
Expect that to happen at an Urban Bush Women performance, where an explosive medley of arms, legs, raps, drums, songs and shouts erupts when the troupe hits the stage. "We all stand out," McDonald says. "Depending on the feeling of a piece, the interaction of personalities might come out in different ways. We might just have fun, or we might dance with each other or talk to each other. You might see a fiery moment or feminine moment or a sexy one or a strong one. Anything you can think of that a woman can bring to the dance will be there."
Urban Bush Women at the Colorado Dance Festival: Motown to Funk Dance Party, 8-11 p.m. July 5, Space for Dance, 2696 30th Street, Boulder, $5-$10 at the door, 442-7666. Performances, 8 p.m. July 10-11, Boulder Theater, 2030 14th Street, Boulder, $21-$30, 786-7030.