Thursday, February 19, 2015

Urban Bush Women

February 18, 2015

As part of their 30th anniversary tour, the seven dancers of Urban Bush Women along with pianist, George Caldwell, visited Overture Hall for an evening of three dances in their trademark style, a fusion of African and contemporary dance. Founder, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar contributed two of the works, while former “Bush Woman”, nora chipaumire (who does not capitalize her name) choreographed the other.

Zollar's Hep Hep Sweet Sweet opened the show. The piece blended voiceover text about Zollar's memories of her mother moving from Texas to Kansas City, with live piano accompaniment, prerecorded songs from the jazz era, and live singing from the cast. It became immediately evident that the scale of the empty-feeling Overture Hall detracted from the intimacy and intricacy of this dance. While the six dancers charged into the space with bold sharp movements, jumping, turning, undulating spines, flailing strong arms, even their bright flashy sequined costumes and scat singing vocals could not help them maintain enough energy to reach those scattered among the house. Moments of connection did happen; one dancer dripping silkily over a chair singing a sultry tune about Kansas City; each dancer taking a turn showing her virtuosity through a playful possibly hip-hop-inspired 'dance-off'; the barefoot group creating the impeccable detailed rhythms of a complex tap routine. Loaded with elaborate ideas, but perhaps with an overall concept that was too personal, the dance felt mushy and lost on the big stage.

Walking With Trane, Chapter 2, Zollar's other contribution, featured the full company of seven in homage to the jazz legend, John Coltrane. Caldwell accompanied this piece on a grand piano at the side of the stage, playing his own composition of soulful and passionate jazz. Dancers ran smoothly through the space without much interaction, occasionally breaking into small groups or solos. Reciting bible passages and singing together gave the piece an element of modern spiritual. Loose dark grey and black layered costumes left little room for revealing the articulation of movement. Only flowing fabric was left in the wake of quick torso and arm gestures. Dwarfed again by the scale of the stage, the dancers were further reduced by the oversized costumes. Only Caldwell's impassioned playing held enough interest to fill the room for the duration.

The evening's highlight came in the middle of the program with dark swan choreographed by chipaumire. Striking imagery and well-developed phrasing elevated this dance to unique ground. Despite its minimalist use of space, the dance resonated on a large enough scale to sustain its placement on this vast stage. In an opening image, six dancers clad in mini grass-skirt-looking tutus appear, facing away, shivering with tiny hypnotic movement reminiscent of a water bird shaking its feathers dry. Working in unison as a tight group, the shuddering develops slowly to full body vibrating, as Saint-Saens The Swan plays on repeat. The music shifts to Maria Callas, and later Sam Cooke, as the shuddering subsides and takes on a softer melting quality. Turning as a unit, the group leans gently into one hip, drawing their hands down the front of their underwear-sized shorts, sensually rolling shoulders to the side, and literally flipping the bird. Commenting on and perhaps questioning femininity, and celebrating sexuality and the female body, chipaumire's fearlessness brings acceptance and comfort to those watching, despite that it seems we are witnessing young women burst into puberty before our eyes. The dance is clever and oddly inviting, and helps showcase the virtuosity of the company.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company

February 14, 2015

Over the last 20 years, the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company has made several stops in Madison. The company returned last night to Shannon Hall at the Wisconsin Union Theatre to perform three older works to a nearly sold-out enthusiastic house. Accompanied by a live string ensemble comprised of UW-Madison music students, each dance featured the full company of nine athletic and diverse performers.

Spent Days Out Yonder, choreographed by Jones in 2000 (based on a solo made in 1996), created an ethereal atmosphere to a lively Mozart string quartet. Intriguing, meditative, and curious, the dance seems a comment on the power of community and partnership. In soft light, a trio clad in flowing blue pastels and with backs to the audience, circle their arms from the elbows like strange angelic scarecrows. Clearly isolated from each other, the dancers keep to their own personal space. Punctuated by angular arm gesture and wobbly knees, the group shifts and expands. A curious single figure crosses in front of the others moving in silhouette, simple and pedestrian. (This cross along the edge of the stage is a repeated theme in Jones' work.) Two distinct groups become apparent. Supple as water, the dancers evolve to form one group, seamlessly oozing across the space. In pairs, they at last make contact, moving in a new direction touching and supporting one another through gentle fluid lifts.

If Jones' intention is to explore community, Continuous Replay (1977, revised 1991) also reflects that, albeit in a more challenging form. Choreographed by both Jones and his late partner, Arnie Zane, this harsh piece is loaded with repetition yet falls short of much meaning. A lone dancer appears naked (yes, no clothing) in the corner, sharply repeating an accumulation of arm movements. Musicians coupled with a recorded soundtrack randomly accentuate the atmosphere with bits of a few Beethoven string quartets and a sprinkling of contemporary text. As the repetitive naked figure advances across the stage, others (also naked and repetitive) join her in a box of light. The group expands, supplemented by eight students from the UW-Madison Dance Department, and traverses the space in angular unison. Little by little dancers exit and reenter in assembly-line fashion, adding bits of clothing each time—a hat, a bra, pants, etc. until fully clothed. The haphazard sound is echoed by haphazard dancers appearing in counterpoint to the advancing group. First a lone ballet-like figure in the opposite corner, then a male pas de deux draw momentary focus from the group. In a final cross, all 17 dancers fully clad, except for the original soloist who remains in the buff, repeat the angular sequence in unison, shouting indecipherably at the end. Continuous Replay feels arbitrary, disconnected and evokes little more than the spectacle of people gradually putting on clothing.

Somewhat of a signature piece, at 25 years old, Jones' D-Man in the Waters (1989) is still a breath of fresh air. Once it starts, there's no stopping this roller-coaster thriller that demands full commitment and impeccable timing from the dancers. Smiling to the Mendelssohn accompaniment, which nearly proved too much for its young musicians to handle at one point, the nine company dancers evoke images of swimming by playfully diving across the floor on their bellies, one arm outstretched in a freestyle reach, hunching their bodies while a breast-stroking arm propels them sideways, and lifting each other in dolphin positions. Wearing a variety of heavy dark clothing reminiscent of army fatigues, the group shifts and reassembles itself through the space flashing hands stiffly in front of their bodies. Dancers parade on tip-toe, lifting their chests to the sky. Taking flying leaps into each other arms, they catch each other just inches from the floor, and carry each other gently, working as a complex unit. The sense of play is prevalent, as is the power of the group to support the individual. In a final striking image, a group assembles at center to catch a diving dancer in their arms and toss him precariously high into the air. If he started the program with the illusion of angels, Jones ends it with stunning imagery of flight.