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Urban Bush Women

Twenty Years of African American Dance Theater, Community Engagement, and Working It Out

Nadine George-Graves

Publication Year: 2010

Provocative, moving, powerful, explicit, strong, unapologetic. These are a few words that have been used to describe the groundbreaking Brooklyn-based dance troupe Urban Bush Women. Their unique aesthetic borrows from classical and contemporary dance techniques and theater characterization exercises, incorporates breath and vocalization, and employs space and movement to instill their performances with emotion and purpose. Urban Bush Women concerts are also deeply rooted in community activism, using socially conscious performances in places around the country—from the Kennedy Center, the Lincoln Center, and the Joyce, to community centers and school auditoriums—to inspire audience members to engage in neighborhood change and challenge stereotypes of gender, race, and class.
    Nadine George-Graves presents a comprehensive history of Urban Bush Women since their founding in 1984. She analyzes their complex work, drawing on interviews with current and former dancers and her own observation of and participation in Urban Bush Women rehearsals. This illustrated book captures the grace and power of the dancers in motion and provides an absorbing look at an innovative company that continues to raise the bar for socially conscious dance.

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press


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pp. vii-viii

List of Illustrations

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xiv

As Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, founder and artistic director of Urban Bush Women, navigates many aesthetic lines, my analysis tracks similar academic lines. I considered carefully my methodological approach and my analytic style. In the humanities there is deep suspicion of involved “embodied” research. ...


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pp. xv-xvi

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Introduction: Working Dance

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pp. 3-7

I chose the title Urban Bush Women: Twenty Years of African American Dance Theater, Community Engagement, and Working It Out because Urban Bush Women, one of the most important contemporary dance/theater companies, “works” on many levels, and my project here is to analyze and contextualize these different levels. ...

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1. Development: Core Values, Process, and Style

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pp. 8-35

A brief word about Zollar’s impetus for starting the company, a description of its early years, and an introduction to the company’s core values are necessary for later analyses. Zollar began dancing when she was about six year sold in Kansas City, Missouri. In the 1950s and 1960s, her neighborhood in Kansas City was completely segregated. ...

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2. The Body: Divided and Conquered

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pp. 36-69

The concert dance world has historically ghettoized ways of moving that are labeled “black.” Although attitudes are shifting, many mature dancers and choreographers grew up knowing the stigma of black dance and make conscious choreography decisions with that in mind. Different ways of moving certain body parts are still loaded with prejudices about race, class, and gender. ...

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3. The Word: Black Magic Realism

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pp. 70-104

Though some contemporary dance-theater choreographers are using dramatic tension in their work, few fully explore storytelling and narrative. In the late twentieth century, the vogue was for abstract conceptual art in which dance pieces are more about lines, patterns, form, shape, theme, and variation than narrative. Even very “dramatic” choreographers like Pina Bausch preferred to...

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4. The World: Shelter from the Heat

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pp. 105-134

Much of Zollar’s work with Urban Bush Women examines the lives of women in a violent and misogynistic world, the relationships they foster, their survival strategies, and their strategies for negotiating through systems that devalue them. Many of the pieces tackle difficult social issues for women, particularly women of color, and Zollar takes on the demons of domestic violence...

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5. The Soul: The Spirit Moves

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pp. 135-166

On November 21, 1998, the Brooklyn Arts Center 651 presented “Dance & Spiritual Life,” featuring Urban Bush Women, the Bebe Miller Company,and Dianne McIntyre and Hannibal Lokumbe. In the program, Gerald E. Myers maps out the difficulty dance scholars have had approaching the topic of spirituality and the aesthetic: “So many modern dancers . . . insist that their art...

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6. The Community: In Theory and Practice

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pp. 167-194

Who makes up a community? How can artists work within different communities to make both aesthetic contributions and effect social change? How can communities empower individuals? These questions and others inform some of the most powerful work of Urban Bush Women. Even though “community” has become a buzzword, meaning different things to different people...

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Coda: By Blood, through Dance

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pp. 195-206

As a coda to this work I want to talk about Urban Bush Women’s twentieth-anniversary season and the piece created for it, Walking with Pearl. Pearl Primus was a mid-twentieth-century dancer, choreographer, and anthropologist. She traveled to Africa and the U.S. South to research African Diasporan culture. She was a champion of dance not only for entertainment’s...


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pp. 207-218


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pp. 219-230

E-ISBN-13: 9780299235536
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299235543

Page Count: 230
Publication Year: 2010