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Joyful and Inspiring, Urban Dance Women Celebrate Dance and Story’s Ability to Inform and Transform

Duke Performances presented Urban Bush Women on Feb. 7th and 8th (photo by Michael Zirkle)

Duke Performances presented Urban Bush Women on Feb. 7th and 8th (photo by Michael Zirkle)

In 1984, dancer-choreographer Jawole Willa Jo Zollar formed Urban Bush Women, a dance company that “weaves contemporary dance, music, and text with the history, culture, and spiritual traditions of the African Diaspora.” While this statement says a mouthful, it doesn’t even come close to describing the power and beauty of this company of dancing women. Their performance in Duke University’s R.J. Reynolds Industries Theater on Feb. 8th, as part of the Duke Performances series, was the culmination of a two-week residency in the Duke and Durham community, was joyful and inspiring, a celebration of dance and story and the ability of the two to both inform and transform.

Zollar came out at the beginning of the evening to welcome the audience and thank them for coming. She was joined by associate artistic director and dancer Maria Bauman, who, using a combination of dance and words, told the story of the company’s 30-year history of creating dances and building community. Bauman’s fluid strength and impeccable phrasing were a delight to behold and gave us a taste of what was to come in the rest of the evening. Zollar and Bauman’s appearance was billed as “30th Anniversary Welcome (Being Bushified)” and will, I understand, open all of the company’s performances during this anniversary tour.

The next work on the program was “Hep Hep Sweet Sweet,” conceived and choreographed by Zollar and co-created with her by the company. A reminiscence of her family and the music that played a central role in her family’s history, the piece was set to the music of Charlie Parker, Count Basie, Dinah Washington, the Dirty Dozen Band, and more. Some of the music was recorded; the rest was played live by jazz musician George Caldwell.

The lights came up on a moody-dark stage, the upstage boundary lined with a row of Bentwood chairs. The seven dancers, clad in short sequined and lamé dresses in nighttime shades (designed by Naoko Nagata), moved easily through a rich and seamless blend of dance styles — swing, tap, contemporary, African — to express joy, exuberance, sadness, loss. The dancers also sang — sometimes along with the vocalist on the recorded music, sometimes alone — and their vocals were equally as strong as their dancing.

Zollar’s voice was woven throughout the piece, recounting memories and bits and pieces of her family’s history, including their migration to Kansas City, where her mother went out to jazz clubs like the Orchid Room and the Blue Room. Zollar spoke of “shake dancers” (Negro burlesque dancers) and the “paper-bag test” (a means of discrimination within the African-American community based on the darkness of one’s skin) and of her mother having big dreams, dreams that were hampered by her being a “dark-skinned singer.”

The piece never descended into anger or bitterness at the often-hard times that Zollar and her family endured. It was instead a tribute, an honoring of those experiences, of the resiliency required to survive them, a proclamation of “This is who I am and where I came from.”

Next on the program was Nora Chipaumire’sdark swan.” Originally created as a solo in 2005, the piece has undergone several incarnations, including the current one using the full Urban Bush Women company. Set to Maria Callas singing “Casta Diva” by Vincenzo Bellini, Sam Cooke singing “Bring It on Home to Me,” and Camille Saint-Saen’s “The Swan” from The Carnival of the Animals, the work is a tribute both to the Russian masters of dance (Michel Fokine’s “Dying Swan” solo inspired the work) and to African/black women (especially Chipaumire’s mother) “who refuse to wither away and die or die beautifully.”

The beginning of the piece found the loosely grouped dancers facing upstage left, bouncing, quivering, focusing on something not seen. The quivering gradually became more insistent, and the dancers’ feet began to slap a flat-footed tattoo on the stage floor. Shifting their weight to their heels, they moved back and forth in noisy bourrées, almost in a trance. Slowly, they turned to face front, their bodies becoming calm, their gazes fixed. Looking straight ahead, their hands slid to the pants of their costumes. Pulling the waistbands out, they looked down, then back up, and smiled. Both hands then slid into their pants and stayed there. Later the hands moved to their breasts, the dancers reveling in their womanliness, in the glory of their bodies, hips undulating, faces open and bold.

From her spot deep in the center of the group, dancer Tendayi Kuumba then began to speak, repeating the word “black” several times and creating sounds that ranged from squeals to gutteral clicks and grunts to a kind of scat singing. The sounds were forceful and mesmerizing, with no discernible pattern, and I wondered how Ms. Kuumba repeated them night after night. Were the sounds memorized or improvised? Later on, other words and phrases were interspersed with the sounds: “Get outta my face, sir.” “Watch me.” “Just look.” “Black girls do not possess a collective heart that can be broken.” (This last phrase was uttered many times, but at such speed that I had to ask for the exact words to be clarified following the concert.) Fierce, passionate, amazing — this piece was all of the above, and more.

Omotayo Wunmi Olaiya’s velvet and fringe costumes, some in deep blue and black, others in burgundy and gold, were the perfect compliment to Chipaumire’s intense and sumptuous work, as was Susan Hamburger’s lighting design.

The final work on the program was “Walking with ‘Trane,” choreographed by Zollar and company member Samantha Speis, in collaboration with the dancers, and set to music composed and performed by George Caldwell. There was no obvious story or message here, just movement, pure and simple, and yet not simple at all. Caldwell’s composition was fluid and sweeping and lyrical, and I would have been happy just to sit and listen — what a joy to see his music made visible by the Urban Bush Women.

Throughout the evening, I kept thinking how beautiful the dancers who comprise Urban Bush Women are, each in her own unique way. This is not a company of cookie-cutter dancers. Tall, short, slender, voluptuous — these dancers are individuals. Each distinct personality shines through in the choreography, and the choreography is all the more magnificent for it. These women are also incredibly powerful dancers, with strong centers (they are the embodiment of “core strength”) and a breathtaking combination of control and freedom in their dancing.

In fact, powerful is the word that best describes the entire evening. I’ve attended (and reviewed) a lot of dance performances in the past 25 or so years, and it’s rare that a company or a performance impresses me so strongly that I would happily sit through the entire evening again — immediately. The Urban Bush Women have now joined that exclusive club. See them if you have the chance; you won’t be disappointed.

SECOND OPINION: Feb. 8th Raleigh, NC CVNC review by Karen E. Moorman:; Feb. 8th Durham, NC Herald-Sun review by Susan Broili: and Feb. 4th preview by Susan Broili: (Note: You must register to read these articles); Feb. 8th Durham, NC Indy Week review by Chris Vitiello: and Feb. 5th preview by Lightsey Darst:; and Feb. 5th Durham, NC Duke Chronicle (student newspaper) preview by Kathy Zhou:; Feb. 5th Chapel Hill, NC WUNC 91.5 FM interview with Duke University African & African American Studies professor Thomas F. DeFrantz and Urban Bush Women choreographer Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, conducted by Frank Stasio for “The State of Things”:

URBAN BUSH WOMEN: “Hep Sweet Sweet,” “Dark Swan,” & “Walking with ‘Trane” (Duke Performances, Feb. 7 and 8 in the R.J. Reynolds Industries Theater in the Bryan Center on Duke University’s West Campus).

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Urban Bush Women: (official website), (Facebook page), (Twitter page), and (Wikipedia).



Viki Atkinson danced professionally in musical theater for a number of years and later shifted her focus to choreographing for theater. Locally, she danced in the North Carolina Theatre productions of Cabaret, My Fair Lady, Man of La Mancha, Oklahoma!, and West Side Story. Additional performance credits include Kathy in Company, Peggy in Godspell, and the title role in Gypsy. Later, Atkinson lent her dance expertise to Spectator Magazine, serving as chief dance critic from 1987 to 1999. She also holds a degree in Dance Education from UNC-Greensboro; and she has taught extensively in a variety of settings, including Meredith College, Virginia Commonwealth University, Appomattox Regional Governor’s School (Petersburg, VA), and the School of Richmond Ballet. She was also on the faculty of the Raleigh School of Ballet for 10 years and directed the dance program at Martin Middle School for four years. Viki Atkinson recently returned to Raleigh after living in Richmond for six years, and is thrilled to be back in North Carolina! To read more of Viki Atkinson’s reviews, click

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