at the Dance Center of Columbia College

October 26-28

“Urban bush women”–the name alone is a contradiction in terms, implying a vision both hip and primitive. And contradictions and surprises were what we got last weekend at the Dance Center from this very hot seven-woman troupe from New York.

Hearsay–and their name–had led me to expect certain things. I’d thought they’d be wild, maybe on the verge of out of control. They were, but they were also thoughtful. I’d expected them to be sexy–no T & A, of course, no come-on looks–but wasn’t prepared for the way sex percolated through every dance. I’d expected a feminist slant, but there were no polemics. I saw women onstage being women, and that was enough.

Lipstick is full of humor, especially subtle digs at women’s attempts to manipulate and control men by trivial means, but it ends on a note of desperation. As in many of the pieces on the program, the dancers also sing: here, one woman enters alone crooning “Dedicated to the One I Love.” When the other women appear, each wears a costume in a different “lipstick” shade–tangerine, tempest coral, tantalizing peach–and they sing “My weapon is lipstick” over and over while performing Motown girl-singer routines. Then each chooses a lipstick, holds it up like a talisman, and applies it with an exaggerated meaning and energy–one woman puts hers on so forcefully that the circular motion of her hand pulls her whole head around and around.

Most of Lipstick is performed to spoken texts, and those texts become progressively more grim. To “Desire,” the dancers curl up passively on the floor, heads bowed, like Victorian maidens gazing into a brook while waiting to be discovered. “Rubio/Roman” tells a long, obscure story about a young teenager whose mother starts sleeping with a new man (“Rubio” is the generic name for any desired man in this dance). In “Vulva Operetta,” there’s some weird comic relief: the text describes a dream in which the word for sweater is “vulva.” So the dancers start saying things like “It’s hot in here, I think I’ll take my vulva off,” or “I think I left my vulva in the closet.” It’s just shocking enough to make you laugh, but it also makes you think about putting your sexuality on and taking it off, as you might lipstick or sexy clothes. By the end, the text–“Crayon Bondage”–is being recited in a voice that spirals higher and higher, squeaky with desperation like a little girl begging for what she knows she can’t have.

Jawole Willa Jo Zollar is Urban Bush Women’s artistic director, choreographer (in collaboration with the other dancers), and obvious moving force. Zollar’s solo, Life Dance II . . . The Papess (mirror in the waters), is full of a different kind of woman’s life. Here the woman is dangerous, not pathetic, and Zollar shows us the heart of that danger.

Life Dance II opens with a woman spotlighted upstage left, dressed in high heels and a shiny blue coatdress, with her long hair bound up in a spangled scarf. She has her back to us, and her back remains to us throughout the first section. The dance she does is a dance for the torso–really it’s a dance for the back–but because of the rather stiff material of the dress what you see is her butt gesturing mysteriously at you through the fabric. The movement is asymmetrical, its quality sustained, and the music bluesy.

Suddenly the music and her gestures become percussive, and at the close of this section Zollar achieves an eerie visual effect. Still with her back to us she assumes a stiff pose, arms and legs wide and flexed, and suddenly she’s no longer a woman but a shaman; the back of her head seems a face, part shaggy animal, part mask, and part ferocious human being. Then Zollar slowly tilts her head back, gradually revealing her real face but upside down; she’s wearing dark glasses and blue lipstick.

At this point she turns to us, and our impression of a powerful, perhaps dangerous force is enhanced by a dance made up largely of slashing movements; the prop is a very nasty looking dagger. Apparently wounded herself, the dancer moves downstage to a second spotlight, where she pulls out of her pocket an apple every bit as shiny and threatening as the knife. When she bites into it, the light glinting off the apple and her dark glasses makes this an image much more hard and fearful than it is poignant.

She drops the apple, and suddenly she’s cradling an egg in her palm. She moves to a third spotlight center stage, places the egg on the floor, and dances to it. She has already kicked her heels off; the scarf that binds her hair comes off now. With her back to us again, she unbuttons and drops the dress, revealing in the dancing that follows the source of the danger: an unrestrainable, hard-edged sexuality. She turns to face us and we see, from the front this time and nearly unclothed, the movements that were so mysterious seen from behind and hidden under a coat. But what makes this woman dangerous also makes her vulnerable. At the close the dancer, in a ritualistic pose of sexual readiness, rises up, like a woman half roused from sleep, and calls someone’s name.

Other dances on the program celebrate other aspects of women’s lives: Girlfriends, female camaraderie; I Don’t Know, But I’ve Been Told If You Keep on Dancin’ You’ll Never Grow Old, which features drum majorettes and double-Dutch jump ropers, the way that black American women have transformed African forms. In Shelter, probably the most openly political work on the program, Zollar casts her net wider and wider: homeless women, independent women who might become homeless, and finally humankind are all in danger of extinction.

Working for Free is a structured improvisation by Zollar. She shows first how dance can be musical even when there’s no music, how dance can express a mood, and how dance can pick up on human rhythms, like the body talk you see on the street. It’s all very casual–Zollar speaks to the audience throughout and finally asks us for suggestions. Working for Free offers a peek at Zollar’s methods. She clearly draws on modern technique, on African forms–jazz music, African dance–and on her own (and others’) acting abilities.

Zollar seems to have a highly fluid sensibility. This can be an advantage, of course–she yokes disparate things unexpectedly and all sorts of fireworks break out–but it can also produce a feeling of chaos. The program may have been partly at fault–of six pieces, three were excerpts–but I left the performance with an impression of incoherence. My sense that Zollar had not structured her work sufficiently was reinforced by the fact that her dances seem to fade away rather than end: they suddenly become very small, in a way that seems antithetical to her vision, and then they disappear. Just once I would have liked to see an ending as hard and driving and big as the dance that preceded it.

In a similar vein, though much has been made of Zollar’s linking of African and modern-dance techniques, I’m not sure it’s always a successful marriage. When the tremendous downward force and consequent upward spring of African dance are merely juxtaposed with the more controlled movements of Western dance, the modern vocabulary looks plain silly–impossibly light, airy, and contrived. This is not to say that the combination can’t work, or that it never works for Zollar. Shelter has some brilliant moments that are neither African nor Western but both, as when the women lean forward from the waist with their legs spread wide, whip their torsos in a wavelike motion, and then stand erect and whip their arms through the air. It has a modern look, but the feeling is weighted and purposeful–you seem to see women pounding wet clothes on rocks, then whirling their heavy, wet burdens over their heads.


at the Auditorium Theatre

October 27-29

One of the greatest things about Urban Bush Women is the life in the dancers’ faces. Ballet Folklorico de Mexico, which I saw on the following evening at the Auditorium Theatre, has a much more limited repertoire of facial expressions: grim seriousness or unwavering joy, worn like so many uniforms. Of course the dancers are beautiful, the spectacle lavish, and the colors, naturally, a feast for the eyes. There are colored streamers, loud music, and dancers parading in giant masks. What a gorgeous fake.

The layers and layers of theatrical varnish thought necessary for the audience to “see” dance on a big stage are part of the problem. But underneath the varnish, unfortunately, the choreography is uninteresting–repetitive, musically unsubtle, and too often boringly in unison. One might argue that, since this is based on folk dance, the choreography must be true to the rather simple lines of the original. But when the dance has been so theatricalized, all sense of simplicity–and worse, all spontaneity–are lost. The dancers hardly ever threatened to break out of their preordained mold. Their expressions said, “I’m just doing my job,” and their bodies said the same thing.

It wasn’t all bad news: I enjoyed Danza del Venado (“Dance of the Deer”), which not only seems closer than the other dances to its roots but also suggests Nijinsky’s Afternoon of a Faun. But too many others are simpleminded exercises decked out in fancy dress. No dance showed this more clearly than the premiere, Feria de Carnival en Tlaxcala. This ill-begotten dance juxtaposes rock music, polkas, and tangos; actually sets out to delineate and damn the seven deadly sins; and features a romantic triangle straight out of The Perils of Pauline. (The two lovers get back together–this may be in the afterlife, I’m not sure–when they accidentally bump butts.) Worst of all, this allegory about the evil seductiveness of riches is an object lesson in conspicuous consumption. I’ve never seen so many spangles and feathers onstage at the same time.

Amalia Hernandez, Ballet Folklorico’s general director and choreographer, made her start in dance 35 years ago by producing Mexican folk dance for television. It shows. This is Ed Sullivan all the way.