Chanon Judson

Urban Bush Women: hep and sweet

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

By DAMIEN JACK 

“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.

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