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Urban Bush Women: Finding Shelter in the Utopian Ensemble ANITA GONZALEZ Urban Bush Women are an African-American women's dance ensemble that have repeatedly sought the utopian ensemble - a collective that forms alliances through community rather than through the notion of the hero - in their performance of African diaspora experiences. The Urban Bush Women collectively create an idealized space, realized in their dances by physical contact between the performers' bodies. The company, founded by lawole Willa 10 Zollar, began presenting work in 1984 and has continued to develop an extensive and evocative dance repertory. At times overtly political, the dances embody the black female experience in a way that "invites critical interpretive readings largely because of the way in which aesthetic and political agendas are intertwined" (Chatteriea, "Subversive" 451). While recent articles about the Urban Bush Women discuss the political nuances of their work (see Chatteriea ), the repeated use of the collective ensemble is a unique feature of the company's dance style that merits further discussion. Many of the company's dances include choruses and other physical groupings as manifestations of communal unity. While the company's aesthetic of depicting unity through collective group movement may carry political overtones , the choral nature of the ensemble also provides a space in which dancers/perfonners can experience the utopia of communal support even as they perform their individual parts. The political implications of the Urban Bush Women's work emerge from the company's depiction of the humor, yearning, joy, grief, anger, or frustration of African-American womanhood. The dances humanize black women as a "way of reclaiming history, and of paying attention to erasures and misconceptions about the 'bush people' in colonial narratives" (Chatteriea, "Subversive" 452). The Urban Bush Women dance Shelter, in 'particular, reflects the artistic director's desire to create, through coliective ensemble movement, a shared history of fortitude in times of trauma. In the world.of Shelter the utopian ideal is not in the work depicted Modern Drama, 4T2 (Summer 2004) 250 Sheller in Urban Bush Women's Utopian Ensemble 251 on stage; Ihal world is one of devastation and terror. Ralher, the dance al ils inception united performers in reliving a common (visceral) experience of the collective African-American woman's past. When it was firsl staged in 1988, the piece provided sheller from outside forces, offering Ihe African-American members of Ihe dance company a utopian space to express their collective fears, joys, and strengths. Later, as the dance gained popularity, it was restaged by other performance collectives. As different sets of dancers embodied the work, the ideal of the ulopian space shifted from an internal sense of the community to a more intellectual and aesthetic evocation of Ihe disenfranchised world community. The experience of performing Sheller in Israel (1988) was particularly poignant because utopian ideals of political activism generated within the women's ensemble were revealed to be at odds with the political stances of those who were aclively engaged in the tensions of the Palestine-Israeli conflict. By the time the dance was performed by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1992, Shelter had become a virtuoso dance that carried a strong social justice statement to mainstream audiences. Iawole Willa 10 Zollar founded the Urban Bush Women collective in New York City. The choreographer, with a small inheritance from her uncle, assembled a group of women artists to perform her newly conceived dance ยท works. A small loft performance at the Ethnic Folk Arts Center in lower Manhattan received positive critical reviews that introduced the African-American women's group as an innovative new ensemble. Within two years. the company had an active touring schedule that included colleges, art centers, and international festivals. Since the inception of the Urban Bush Women, choreographer Zollar has searched for a way to represent an ideal of a woman's community - or what I am calling the utopian ensemble - expressed through dance theater. Most of these performance communities were reflections of women of the African diaspora .- black women of the Americas, Africa, Europe, and Asia. By this I mean not only that company members at times originated from these geographic localions, bul also that the subjects...


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