- Urban Bush Women: Twenty Years of African American Dance Theater, Community Engagement, and Working It Out by Nadine George-Graves
In 1984, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar founded the Urban Bush Women, which has since become an important part of the American dance landscape. For Zollar, dance is a powerful means of [End Page 145] working toward social justice. Thus, in addition to performing on concert dance stages across the globe, her company has become a model for arts activism through its Community Engagement Projects, Summer Dance Institute, and other efforts. The Urban Bush Women’s performances and workshops reach a broad and diverse audience, though they mostly focus on issues of importance to black women. In Urban Bush Women: Twenty Years of African American Dance Theater, Community Engagement, and Working It Out, Nadine George-Graves analyzes Zollar’s unusual approach to dance through the concepts of “work” and “working it out” (3). She argues that the repertoire offers a way to “work through” issues of “race, gender, spirituality, social relations, political power, aesthetics, and community life” and thus leads performers, audiences, and community members to a place of healing (3–4). The Urban Bush Women therefore offer not just a commentary on broader issues, but also an opportunity to engage in the process of creating social change. Through workshop and class participation, interviews, performance analysis, archival research, and the judicious application of critical theory, George-Graves succeeds in proving her argument, and in the process, has written a book that is an important contribution to dance studies.
In the preface, George-Graves explains her embodied methodology. She notes that her highly involved, participatory approach “risks reducing critical analysis to personal impressions that fail to speak to larger issues” (xi). She manages to avoid that pitfall, for her analytic text consistently connects Zollar’s choreography to important social and political questions. George-Graves also hopes her book will “negotiate the interstices of academic and public intellectualism in a way similar to Urban Bush Women’s negotiation of the spaces between concert dance and community-based work” (xi). Her success in this effort is more uncertain. By using the word “interstices,” she is already employing academic language, pointing to the difficulties that lie ahead for general readers when she invokes Foucauldian subjectivity and Judith Butler’s concept of performativity. This is not to say that George-Graves fails to bridge the scholar–general public divide, but rather to acknowledge the difficulty in doing so when one does not want to relinquish the important theoretical tools of analysis that lead to a deeper understanding of dance performance and practice.
Regardless, for dance scholars the book is a valuable contribution for several reasons. Existing scholarship on the Urban Bush Women often focuses on one dance or on a few major themes of the work.1 In contrast, George-Graves provides a comprehensive and much-needed analysis of Zollar’s process. The first chapter identifies the choreography’s “core values,” which include having female energy at the center, drawing upon African Diasporic ancestral memory, validating different individuals’ bodies and approaches, and offering an aesthetic that is “not about selling” while still retaining an expressive quality and honest engagement with sexuality (12–6). One tension obliquely mentioned in the discussion of the piece “Self-Portrait” would be interesting to investigate further: the fact that so much of this company’s identity is entwined with Zollar’s personality and vision. George-Graves describes the Urban Bush Women’s rehearsal process as collaborative and supportive, but to what extent can the company be a model for community-building and horizontal collaboration when so much is predicated upon one individual?
George-Graves’ analysis is quite rich in this section because she does not shy away from exploring tensions about race, gender, power, artistic freedom, and other issues that emerge in Zollar’s work. One of the choreographer’s predominant themes is strength, particularly...