Their name suggests a faction of high-powered feminist guerrillas fighting in some languishing Third World capital, but the Urban Bush Women aren't quite as radical as all that. If anything, it is the perfect moniker for this five member, New York-based dance company whose work co-mingles the vagaries of experimental dance with the raw soulfulness of black American culture.
The Los Angeles premiere of the company's "Anarchy, Wild Women and Dinah" can be seen at the L.A. Theatre Center's Tom Bradley Theatre on Friday and Saturday as part of the Los Angeles Festival.
Founded in 1985 by choreographer, dancer and singer Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, Urban Bush Women represents the culmination of practically a lifetime of attempting to integrate the radically different purposes of contemporary dance experimentation with the ritualistic abandon of the Afro-American dance tradition.
The result is a tightly framed theatrical collage of colliding images that cuts a wide swath through black American history--from the incantatory Haitian voodoo ritual and African tribal dances that arrived on these shores with the importation of slaves, to the sad, slow singing of Billie Holiday and the frenzied dancing of the soul era.
At the center of this spectacle is Zollar herself, a lithe, muscular woman who was the third child in a family of eight that quite literally had music and dance coursing through its bones--Zollar's mother was a shake dancer, her sister, Donna McCraney, runs a children's dance company in San Diego, and two of her brothers are musicians.
"I started dancing when I was about 5 years old," says the 36-year-old choreographer, "and my sister and I became part of a nightclub revue in Kansas City. We were the children's act and there would be a stripper, a comedian, and what they called a flash act, like the Nicholas Brothers."
At the time, Kansas City was very segregated so I grew up in a population that was about 15% black thinking that the whole city was black. Really, that was all I knew until I went to college."
It was in college, first at the University of Missouri at Kansas City and then at Florida State University where she earned her MFA in dance, that Willa Jo Zollar (Jawole was added later on) first discovered white American modern dance.
"I thought these were like two separate things," she says with a laugh. "One tradition over here, and then the black dance tradition that I grew up with someplace totally separate. I did attempt to merge them, but I did it in more traditional ways--in the way (Alvin) Ailey had tried to merge them."
It was only once she began reading about the innovations of the early postmodern dance pioneers--choreographers such as Trisha Brown, Lucinda Childs and Yvonne Rainer--that Zollar began to realize there were basic similarities between the indigenous dancing of her youth and the formal methods of postmodern dance.
"I was reading a lot about it and I was especially interested in the use of what people were calling pedestrian movement, because I saw a connection between the naturalness of African dance and whatever quality it was that they were going after. The use of the non-pointed foot, for example: For me, with what I grew up learning in African dance, these two ideas were completely connected."
In 1980, Zollar moved to New York and finally arrived at the performance style that defined Urban Bush Women. Jazz, "that freedom, that improvisational dynamic has always been about how a person can be free within a structure," and black folk art were important influences. "Anarchy, Wild Women and Dinah," choreographed last year, is one example of their importance to her.
"I came into rehearsal one day wondering whether anyone knew this game, and someone said, oh, that's 'Aunt Dinah's Dead,' " she recalls. "And somebody else said, 'I used to play a different Dinah song.' And somebody else said, 'I know a totally different Dinah game.'
"Through all of this, we realized there was this whole body of work about this character named Dinah."
For Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, a self-proclaimed "wild woman," those things are crucial to her work. "I consider myself to have come from a tradition of wild women," she said. My grandmother left her husband and ran off with another man at a time when women didn't just do that."
She might also have added that she takes similar risks with her own dances, risks that have sometimes led to harsh criticism both by whites (some of whom are threatened by Urban Bush Women's affirmation of black history) and by blacks (some of whom claim that any dance form based on postmodern experimentalism is near 'Uncle Tom-ing').
"I've never called it a 'dance company'," she says in response to some of the latter criticisms. "I've always called it a performing ensemble or dance theater. I'm not claiming to be doing one thing or another.
"I came up in a tradition, a very black tradition of post-vaudeville, that is very African in the sense that the arts aren't separated. You didn't have music over here and dance over there and so that's how I deal with where I am now. And today I can pull on so many of these things.
"Sometimes it's slanted more towards dance and sometimes more towards theater, and now there's a part of me that's moving more towards singing, but all of these things come from a very deep place in me."