In order for a dance company to keep moving forward after 30 years, it has to balance tromping on the accelerator with checking its mirrors. Urban Bush Women, opening its 30th season with Duke Performances at Reynolds Industries Theater Friday night, might not be hurtling into new territory anymore, but it keeps its mission of racial and gender activism, as well as its straightforward storytelling method, firmly in view in its rear-view mirror. And, after a two-week residency at Duke, this might be more important.
Hep Hep Sweet Sweet beautifully evoked Zollar’s childhood in Kansas City, as well as the role the city played in the Great Migration, despite its descent into heavy-handed documentary storytelling. In the piece’s strong, lively opening, seven dancers summon a blues club by taking turns bringing classic tap and dance hall movement to the fore while cheering each other on from chairs around the perimeter of the stage. Then Zollar, in voiceover that could be reused for her PBS American Masters episode someday, begins narrating her family's history.
Zollar’s family story is fascinating and devastating as their idealism leads them from a rich community into poverty and despair, and it exemplifies the difficult journey of African Americans from the rural south to the urban north. But the documentary storytelling reduces the dancing to visual captions for Zollar’s text. If Hep Hep Sweet Sweet were a movie, you’d want to wait for the director’s cut in which they remove the voiceover and let the dancers dance the story. You might not come away with details such as the nationalities of Zollar’s mother’s ex-husbands in order of divorce, but you’d feel the emotional changes more deeply without the text telling you what to feel and when to feel it.
Ultimately, the dance is about perseverance and memory. Its best moment is in a desperate, defiant solo after Zollar’s family fell on hard times. After her father, a realtor at the time, sold houses in white neighborhoods to black families, they started finding dead rats on their porch and eventually lost their business and home. The dancer twists, gnawed at by something unseen.
In a documentary, you often know the narrative moves before they’re made. Although this mutes the power of this dance, it doesn’t do so to Zollar’s story. Urban Bush Women shows their priorities in their choices here. In this new work, the company’s committed to blending art with expanding collective memory. They’re willing to plod a little in order to communicate.
Dark Swan, the next work on the program, could be that director’s cut of Hep Hep Sweet Sweet. Choreographed by Nora Chipaumire in 2005, it celebrates the strength and sensuality of black women while showing the cost of that expression. Chipaumire shows the harsh disconnect between a woman’s physical exterior and her psychological interior. No voiceover, though, just decisive movement.
To a Maria Callas aria, the company twitches mechanically in tight formation on a dimmed stage. It could be ecstasy or suffering. When they look up, they could be pleading with or accusing a tormentor. Gradually their twitching increases to a frightening vibration and they scud across the floor—think Daryl Hannah’s android in Blade Runner.
Once they slow, they turn to face the audience and become humans, individuals. Languid, they pull out their waistbands, look long at themselves, and give us a sly smile. Hands burrow into crotches and feel up chests, and they writhe. The dancer at the center of the formation converts the earlier twitches into vocalizations that flash through torture and pleasure, keeping the piece from being a long, slow orgasm.
Once the aria slides into Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home To Me,” the women crouch and do a seductive pelvic roll around the vocalizer. Eventually, she manages to say “black,” then “black girls,” and finally “Black girls do not possess a collective heart that can be broken.” This articulation is incredibly difficult for her, which she vents through fully extended middle fingers at the wings. The other dancers take this agitation to a crescendo before a final languid note.
Walking With ‘Trane closed the evening, featuring a terrific, impressionistic medley of John Coltrane’s music by pianist George Caldwell. Absent of storytelling, the piece shows off the strength and intelligence of the company, a hallmark of Urban Bush Women and a huge reason why they’re celebrating 30 years of existence. Simultaneously a love letter to and elegy for Coltrane, the piece features wonderful wing-like dancing as well as some smart partnering. A persistent, tidal back-and-forth brought it all together.
Sometimes accomplished companies present a program of new work; other times they offer a retrospective through their repertoire. Urban Bush Women chose to do both. Tasked with both art making and community building, the company stays relevant by offering more than you need. You take what you want from their shows and, hopefully, hang around to give them something too.