PDX Dance Collective

Happy Lunar New Year and welcome to DanceWatch Monthly! We’ve decided to switch from a weekly to a monthly format for awhile to see if we like it better. (If you have an opinion on weekly vs. monthly, let us know; we’re here to serve you.) We’re still writing about Oregon dance performances and related events, but we’re organizing them by genre now, to help you more quickly find what interests you. February’s plentiful dance performances, 17 in total, offer celebration, cultural exploration, romance, joy, comedy, and deep dives into a variety of concepts. We hope you enjoy our new monthly edition: remember to check back with us on February 27 for the March DanceWatch.

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DanceWatch Weekly: Welcome to Urban Bush Women

White Bird brings back Urban Bush Women for a movement-based discussion of race, gender, identity, body image, and economics

This week I am excited to introduce you to Hair and Other Stories, a new collaborative work by Brooklyn-based Urban Bush Women (UBW). The piece blends dance, theatre, voice, and visual elements, focusing on hair and specifically African American women’s hair, and Urban Bush Women use it as a platform to discuss race, gender, identity, body image, and economics. The work, presented by White Bird, opens at the Newmark on Thursday, March 1, and runs through March 3.

I am also personally thrilled to introduce Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and UBW to you because Zollar was one of my dance teachers at Florida State University way back in the day. I was also very fortunate to perform in her work Shelter, a dance about the physical and emotional deprivation of homeless people, and to receive a full scholarship to the very first Summer Leadership Institute on undoing racism and creating a new dancer for a new society. Working with Zollar and UBW opened up my point of view to a much broader concept of what dance could be, what a dancer could look like, and to new ideas of how to move and live in the world.

Hair and Other Stories, described by the company as the “urgent dialogue of the 21st century,” actually began its development in 2001 as Hairstories, a work by Zollar and the company at the time, that discussed the cultural significance of black women’s hair through a collection of individual women’s hair stories and humor.

Zollar founded the company in 1984 and has received many awards for her work, including three Bessie Awards and two Doris Duke Awards. These days, she has taken on a different role in the company’s creative process and is the project’s dramaturg. This updated version of Hair and Other Stories has been choreographed by associate artistic directors and company dancers Chanon Judson and Samantha Speis in collaboration with the company dancers, and it’s directed by Raelle Myrick-Hodges with costumes by DeeDee Gomes, projection design by Nick Hussong, and lighting by Xavier Pierce.

Celebrating it’s 34th year, UBW “seeks to bring the untold and under-told histories and stories of disenfranchised people to light through dance.” They do this “from a woman-centered perspective and as members of the African Diaspora community in order to create a more equitable balance of power in the dance world and beyond.”

The company’s core values include: validating the individual; catalyzing for social change; building trust through process; entering community and co-creating stories; celebrating the movement and culture of the African Diaspora; and recognizing that place matters.

In addition to developing a large body of work, creating new works (for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Philadanco, University of Maryland, Virginia Commonwealth University and others), touring internationally, and teaching dance at Florida State University, UBW has developed community engagement programs like BOLD (Builders, Organizers, & Leaders through Dance), the Summer Leadership Institute (SLI), and the Urban Bush Women Choreographic Center.

In a behind-the-scenes video of Hair and Other Stories, associate artistic director Samantha Speis explains that what we will see in the performance “is our practice. This is what we are doing and you have an hour and 15-20 minutes to be inside of that and experience it and examine some things about yourself. It’s also really about lifting everyone’s humanity because we’ve all been dehumanized by the construct and its about understanding how we all sit inside of it.”

You can also catch a preview of the work in the companies teaser here.

In a video interview for The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage in 2016, Zollar, discusses her evolution as a choreographer and the importance of embracing risk throughout her practice. “Risk,” she says, “exists on the edge of failure…so if you’re not right on that edge of failure…you’re not in a place of risk. Living on that edge and learning from that edge to me is a really exciting place.”

For Dance Magazine earlier this month Zollar opened up about her creative process, and the hardest parts of sustaining a dance company.

“I have a three-idea rule: Whenever I see other performances, I have to come out with three ideas—maybe it’s costumes, lighting, staging. Don’t dismiss anything. If it was a waste of your time, you didn’t enter with the right mind-set.”

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