Urban Bush Women: Cultural Experiences Dictating (HER) stories


by Gregory King, Visiting Assistant Professor of Dance at Swarthmore College for The Dance Journal

Using cultural expression as a catalyst for social change, Urban Bush Women kicked off the dance series of Annenberg Center Live’s 2015 – 2016 season, paying homage to all things celebratory, all things empowering, all things Africanist.

Choreographed by the group’s founder Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, 30th Anniversary Mash Up, was a celebration of iconic moments from the company’s 30-year history, featuring excerpts from You’re Your Hands to Struggle (1998), Shelter (1988), Bitter Tongue (1987), Women’s Resistance (2008) and Batty Moves (1995). Mash Up re-visited history and allowed the performers to re- claim their power as they used their dancing bodies to generate Zollar’s movement while telling their own stories.

Displaying impenitent physicality and blissful self-love, Batty Moves (a section from Mash Up), celebrated women of all shapes and sizes, paying special attention to the “batty”, or buttocks if you will. The dancers charged the space with the pelvic rotations, polyrhythms, and the syncopations of twerking and wining, which are neither new nor white.

Re-imagining Michel Fokine’s Dying Swan of 1910, Zimbabwean choreographer Nora Chipaumire, de-centered whiteness and neutralized the classical ballet aesthetic by using a multi-cultural cast of eight female dancers, abandoning the use of the pointe shoes, abstracting the bourée, and adding melanin to the title in dark swan. Set to the music of Maria Callas, Sam Cooke and Yo Yo Ma’s “The Swan” by Camille Saint –Saëns, the eight preening swans vibrated with their hips, their backs, their heads, and their torsos, as they struggled to defy death. Their pulsating bodies, quieted before they casually sent theirs hands down their skirts, suggestively touching themselves. While this action, could be seen as lascivious, Chipaumire framed the movement around women staring directly into the audience with defiant stances, and at times, ostentatiously exhibiting their middle fingers in a “fuck you” gesture. Contextualizing the self-touching around these images conveyed Chipaumire’s intention to re-claiming the female body as the site for self-exploration with tactile defiance.

The final piece on the program, HEP HEP SWEET SWEET, was conceived, staged, directed, and choreographed by Zollar. Although the work bordered on lengthy and at times seemed repetitive, this funky and spirited piece was an accessible resource of historical references and nostalgic sensibilities that was inspired by the Great Migration, as well as Zollars’s family memories.

White, black, Latina, tall, short, stocky, lean, and pregnant, the warriors of UBW embodied the socio-political realities of our times by telling (her) stories of freedom, retaliation, acceptance, beauty and joy…. and they told these stories without apologies.

About Gregory King

Gregory King received his MFA in Choreographic Practice and Theory from Southern Methodist University. In addition, he is certified in Elementary Labanotation. His dance training began in Washington DC at the Washington Ballet and later at American University. He went on to participate in the Horton Project in conjunction with the Library of Congress. His training continued at the prestigious institutions such as The Dance Theatre of Harlem and The Alvin Ailey School. Gregory has performed with The Washington Ballet, Rebecca Kelly Ballet, Erick Hawkins Dance Company, New York Theatre Ballet, Donald Byrd /The Group, The Metropolitan Opera Ballet, New York City Opera, and Disney’s The Lion King on Broadway.

His desire to integrate social activism into his choreography began with his graduate thesis, where he used the platform to push the conversation about homophobia and heterosexism. He is a lover of movement exploration and describes his aesthetic as a classical base with a theatrical flair.

He has taught at Boston Ballet, Boston Conservatory, Boston University, Bowdoin College, Dallas Black Dance Theatre and Texas Ballet Theatre. Additionally, he has served as a teaching artist in public schools in and around Dallas, as Resident Guest artist at Temple University and Assistant Professor of Dance at Dean College. Recently, Gregory received the Excellence in Teaching Award from the National Society of Leadership and Success. He is currently a Visiting Professor of Dance and Consortium on Faculty Diversity Fellow at Swarthmore College where he teaches Modern and continues to use his choreography as a means for social change.

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