Urban Bush Women

What a kick! Dance that moved us

2018 in Review, Part 4: Dance that turned our thinking inside out and took us places where we'd never been before

Sure, we love big jumps and fast turns, but that’s not what makes the best dancing. The best dancing is the kind that takes us places we’ve never been before, or turns our thinking inside out.

Some of Oregon ArtsWatch’s best dance writing this year did that, too. Collectively, the OAW dance team—the writers covering dance, that is; don’t book us for your holiday party just yet—has decades’ worth of writing, research, and performing experience, as well as the burning desire to produce insightful and inspired coverage of dance in all its forms.



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Lucky us: we had so much to do in 2018 that we can’t revisit it all here. Instead, we’re sampling some of the moments, big and small, that especially moved us this year:

 


Odissi Dance Conpany’s Artistic Director Aparupa Chatterjee with the ODC repertoire: Tanvi Prasad, Divya Srinivasa, Divya chowdhary, Swati yarlagadda, and Ramyani Roy. Photo: Sarathy Jayakumar

Embracing Odissi in the age of Trump

The 2016 U.S. presidential election continued to galvanize artistic action two years after the fact. “Since Donald Trump took office, I have been watching and admiring artists all around the world react to his words and policies and have been wondering how I should respond myself,” Jamuna Chiarini mused. “I think that my choice to step away from my Western dance practices and focus solely on Odissi is my response. The more degraded American culture gets, the less interested I am in being a part of it.”

Chiarini’s piece explored Odissi’s technical and cultural assets and illustrated why it particularly appeals to her in this degraded day and age: “Some dances in the Odissi repertoire aren’t even taught until a dancer reaches 40, because it’s believed that younger dancers don’t yet have the emotional depth and life experience to properly express what the dance is about. Odissi also doesn’t have strict rules on body shape and size as Western dance culture does. What is considered beautiful is much broader in Indian dance culture.”

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Urban Bush Women: ‘We’re going on a journey’

Urban Bush Women brought 'Hair and Other Stories' to town and a lot more than just talk

Urban Bush Women returned to the White Bird Uncaged series with a new work this weekend, Hair and Other Stories. The company’s first work with stage director Raelle Myrick-Hodges, this ambitious, multidisciplinary performance is definitely about hair and definitely about those “other stories.”

The piece runs a little more than two hours with one intermission, and is dense by nearly every measure. The themes, the movement, the performative strategies, and the direct discussion with the audience covers an enormous amount of ground as it “debates the center of perceived American ‘values’ and celebrates the persevering narrative of the African Diaspora,” in the words of the press release. Right away Urban Bush Women acknowledge that some of the territory will be difficult or uncomfortable, but the almost-superhuman generosity of the performers carries us all through it together.

Urban Bush Women brought “Hair and Other Stories” to Portland/Courtesy of White Bird

The show opens with a quiet moment between dancer Samantha Speis, who is also the company’s associate art director, and Aminata Balde, who is two years old and impossibly cute. While audio samples from interviews with black women talking about the role of hair and the rituals around its care (or destruction) in their lives, Speis picks a few plain but significant hair care products off a table and hands a comb to Aminata that looks enormous in her tiny hands. With a few deft movements, Speis bundles Aminata onto her back under a printed cloth, and walks off stage with a sense of purpose. We have begun our journey.

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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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