BWW Review: Urban Bush Women's WALKING WITH 'TRANE a Brilliant Celebration of Dance as Jazz
There is be nothing on the stage more exhilarating, exasperating and joyful than the sight of an entire company completely committed, all on the edge-dancing literally on the edge of success, on the edge of failure. Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, the founder and "Visioning Partner" of the Dance Company Urban Bush Women, has developed an all-encompassing approach to the human body that leaves no gesture, no limb, no heart untouched. The risks are huge, but the rewards are inestimable.
Washington audiences were treated to Zollar's vision once again with "Walking With 'Trane (2015)" a dance suite co-choreographed with Samantha Spies, Dramaturg Talvin Wilks and the rest of the company. Dedicated to the memory of fellow-visionary John Coltrane the piece is divided into two parts - named appropriately "Side A" and "Side B," a nod to the vinyl medium through which so many of us fell in love with this Jazz immortal. With "Trane," Urban Bush Women offers a vision of improvisation in motion, seemingly spontaneous and yet carefully choreographed.
Watching this ensemble realize some of Jazz's greatest instrumental solos through movement is a reminder that some of our greatest artists work in a state of Synesthesia - in which color, word, sound and movement are all intimately related, implying and reflecting upon each other. The great French poet Baudelaire describes it in his poem "Correspondences," linking music, color, words and paintings.
Urban Bush Women have taken this concept and added the vital element of movement, operating in what they call a "Band State," in which the ensemble realizes jazz improvisations as dance; the dancer's stage is, in effect, a bandstand with each member of the ensemble an instrumentalist. Those thrilling cascades of notes on the piano or saxophone are realized, note for note, through intense rhythmic figures beaten into the floor and resonating through the dancer's body. The effect is jaw-dropping in its intensity and beauty.
Not all of the figures the company created resonated as deeply-to take risks means that inevitably some moments will fall flat, but in art one person's dud is another person's epiphany. The first half, "Just a Closer Walk with 'Trane," is perhaps the most challenging. An abstract meditation on the significance of Coltrane's contribution to African-American culture, composer Philip White's score mingles the solemn chords of an organ (played in minimalist style) with echoes of various genres, from field hollers to saxophone to blues, arising discreetly from the background. A downstage scrim creates the sense of a dream-like setting, while projections evoke the keys of a piano, the Great Migration North, ending in an urban scene.
Within this scene the ensemble's jazz-like moves evoke an entire history of humans in motion; they tap, pop, sway, pirouette, undulate - the dancer's equivalent of a jazz musician's evocation of a panoply of musical genres. Gesture and melody combine, and if it's hard to follow keep in mind that with Jazz we never expect a straightforward story line, we expect artistry. The piece demonstrates the ensemble's virtuosic ability to embody the entire human experience, and ring new changes by juxtaposing them in unexpected ways.
The evening's "Side B," entitled "Free(dom)," is inspired by Coltrane's immortal suite "A Love Supreme." Perhaps because it is rooted in a specific piece, the overall effect is much stronger here; the links between jazz and dance are much clearer, with composer George Caldwell's score and Wendall K. Harrington's magical projections working in sync. Caldwell, who accompanies the company live on piano, works the changes on Coltrane's original and manages to adapt "A Love Supreme" in such a way that it supports the dancers without overwhelming them.
Urban Bush Women have developed an all-encompassing rehearsal process, consulting everything from literature and art to music, video and on-site visits-a wide variety of media are researched and then used to inspire their work in the studio. "Trane" reminds us what a vital contribution Ms. Zollar's company has made to the American performing arts. They continue to challenge our concepts of dance, and the vast potential of the human body to create new forms of expression.
Production photo by Gennia Cui.
Performance Time: 90 minutes with one intermission.
Walking with 'Trane (2015) was performed as at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. For more information about events there visit: