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.

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