Urban Bush Women open Annenberg dance series (The Philadelphia Inquirer)

October 25, 2015

By Merilyn Jackson


In its 30-year history, the Brooklyn dance company Urban Bush Women have performed their black, female, Africanist, and Americanist take-no-guff style on all the continents.

Founded by Jawole Will Jo Zollar and nurtured by multiple other mothers and sisters over the years, its repertoire mourns for and celebrates the dancing bodies of African American women in their struggles and triumphs. The company opened Annenberg Center Live's dance series Thursday night.

They began with Mash Up, a pastiche of some of the iconic Zollar moves UBW audiences have come to expect and love. In stark contrast to Scarlett O'Hara's velvet-drapes outfit, the six women wore frayed black-and-white-checkered curtain-like cloth by Naoke Nagata, variously fashioned around their bodies, carrying themselves as though wearing haute couture.

Chanon Judson led off with a twisting vertical solo while the names of notable African Americans throughout history were narrated, a list that included recently shot and killed unarmed young black men. The other five women of the troupe formed a military drill of sorts in 4/4 cadence, calling out drill commands, not taking it too seriously. They turned to us, asking, "Y'all ready?" and announced, "Urban Bush Women are in the house!" A delightful and varied demonstration of botty, the Jamaican term for "shake your booty," closed the piece.

Choreographer Nora Chipaumire reworked her 2005 Dark Swan for several companies to the familiar Camille St. Sans score for "The Dying Swan." The UBW version had me near tears as the dancers began trembling for minutes before beginning a difficult reverse bourre on their heels. The raw symbolism of this negative of the white swan romantically roaming the stage en pointe as she dies created one of the most poignant dance moments I've seen.

Not only didn't these women die - they also lived again in the next section, to dance to Maria Callas' "Casta Diva" from Norma, again cheating another white, romantic death. Slipping hands down the front or backs of their costumes, cupping breasts and genitals, sexy without really being lewd, they were paragons of feminine strength and sensuality.

In 2014's Hep Hep Sweet Sweet, set in a Kansas City nightclub, Tendayi Mas sang as powerfully as she danced. Singing and dancing the stories of the Great Migration north from the Jim Crow South, she was joined by Courtney J. Cook, Du'Bois A'Keen, and indie jazz vocalist Pyeng Threadgill. The night was a roller coaster of pain wrung out with joy, middle fingers upraised.