Legacy, Lineage & Liberation of the Pelvis: An interview with Jawole Willa Jo Zollar on UBW's new Choreographic Center

BY TALVIN WILKS
As published in Movement Research Performance Journal #47

I recently had the opportunity to talk with Jawole Willa Jo Zollar during a break from our current project, Walking with ‘Trane, a meditation on the impact and spirit of the great jazz giant, John Coltrane. The timing is perfect, we are caught up in all of the challenges of creating a new work while musing on the process in developing the UBW Choreographic Center, a brainchild of Zollar's in her effort to impact the greater field and address the challenges for women of color choreographers, specifically, African and African American women choreographers.

The current UBW Company is filled with innovators and choreographers in their own right, one can see through the history of many UBW companies the birth of many new choreographers and thinkers. Zollar comments that one of the things that they've been talking about is why do so many choreographers come out of UBW, "look at the process, look at the collaboration, the exchange of ideas and the opportunities to create inside of the work." Much of what we are moving though in rehearsal on a daily basis is at the foundation of what she wants the choreographic center to become.

In our conversation it is clear that Zollar has been thinking about the questions of lineage, cultural progression and legacy for quite some time. In the early 2000s, she began a commissioning process to invite new choreographers to create work for Urban Bush Women as a way of broadening the vocabulary of the company and strengthening this idea of legacy and opportunity for young Choreographers. This is what initially led to Project Next Generation (PNG) an early commissioning effort that has now evolved into the idea of the UBW Choreographic Center. When asked for a distinction between the two, Zollar reflected on the evolution of her thinking and the quick pace in which the issues and demands have changed.

JZ: PNG was an old version of thinking about the UBW Choreographic Center, before we had the term "choreographic center," which was how to look at support, training and stability for choreographers and emerging choreographers. We did an early version of it in 2000 in which we commissioned folks to set a work on Urban Bush Woman, (Camille Brown and Bridget Moore), but what I realized was that I was replicating other dysfunctional models. Having a choreographer come into the company for three weeks and to set a work on the company wasn't really doing anything to advance the field, it was a great opportunity for the choreographer in terms of money, but just another dysfunctional model to come in and throw together a piece on a company, and so we abandoned that, but I continued to think about it.

The sense was that addressing the needs of a few choreographers was not enough, or providing a singular opportunity was not enough, the challenges were greater and the questions were greater. What is honestly expected of choreographers of color? Is there an expectation that they should be versed in a particular cultural vernacular (a culturally specific vernacular)? If so, how do we guarantee that they have the proper training and exposure to live up to such an expectation? And if not, are they ever fully welcomed or acknowledged in a tradition that has historically excluded them? Will their work, no matter how abstract or avant, always be viewed through a specific cultural lens? And if so, is that a good or bad thing? Is that lens reductive or elucidating? In the hoopla around Misty Copeland's debut at ABT, we can see how important such a Center will be to inform and influence a system that still objectifies and traditionally rejects women of color. But the Center is not about breaking in it's about breaking out.

Project Next Generation seemed to grow from these quandaries and focused on research and a convening held in 2013. The original idea of the research was to figure out why women of color and black women choreographers were not getting traction in the field. But the consultants, Dana Whitco and Lizzy Cooper Davis, quickly and smartly realized that it was too big of a task, that it would take "too much quantitative [analysis], and it was outside of the scope of what we could do." So, according to Zollar, that's when they decided to do a series of interviews to see where people were and what they needed. But even that did not fully satisfy the need for a greater understanding of lineage and tradition. 

Then they held a convening for mostly African American women choreographers, to talk about what their needs were, but the conversation kept shifting back to pain. "We didn't realize how disconnected people felt and how much they needed to have a place to speak about their pain, it was hard to move the conversation to a different place, to action." Cooper Davis was beneficial in helping Zollar understand the positive inside of the "pain," "she said that the nature of research is to realize that you're going in the wrong direction, you might be asking the wrong questions. It's not a failure, that's the nature of research. That's what research is. It was out of that we determined, maybe we were not asking the right questions?"

At this point in the interview, I began to understand the source of Zollar's desire for a choreographic center as she reflected on the memory of a scene when she first came to New York that provided her with a safe haven of creative exploration and cultural education.

JZ: The Clark Center had classes and people would just hang out in the lounge and you would just sit and talk, everybody was coming through there.

TW: And so it was a kind of de facto collective place?

JZ: Yes, and there was Sounds in Motion, Dianne's place in Harlem, they were gathering places where people came together by the nature of doing their art, now that those places are gone, if there are things that have replaced them we haven't connected to them, everyone is feeling quite isolated, feeling like they are climbing up the same mountain but we're all at different parts but we can't see or talk to each other about it.

TW: So, are you saying that there was a time when there was more collectivity and connectivity and that seems to be gone?

JZ: Yes, and that has to do with places and spaces. When I moved to New York in the 80s almost every company had their own space, Rod Rogers, Eleo Pomare, the Clark Center, even Ailey was very different at that time, if you went to study with someone, chances are you would run into other people, you could see other people. Sometimes I remember at Sounds in Motion you would sit and talk in the dressing room for hours, Dianne always had musicians coming through and sitting in, playing and investigating.

These inspiring memories, however, did not prevent the conversation at the convening from getting stuck in the pain. It was a frustration, but it was necessary. Zollar found herself trying to steer the conversation toward solutions.

Paloma McGregor, one of the facilitators, finally addressed Zollar's efforts to fight against where the group was trying to go, "we have to let this happen because this is where the energy is." And it was the right decision. There were things that came out and were important for people to hear.

People talked about the challenges and uncertainties of relying on the mainstream for relevance. There were elders present who were grounding in their honest reflections on the fickle nature of "acceptance" and the lack thereof, reckoning with mistreatment and rejection, and developing work off the grid, out of the purview of white critics. According to Zollar there was a benefit to that isolation, "we were in a community, we could make work underground almost, we could be in this formative place where we didn't have this outside white gaze almost shutting us down before we were even really getting going."

GENERATIONAL DISCONNECT

Other revelations were also unearthed in the three-day convening. At one point it became clear that some of the young people didn't know the lineage of the historic nomenclature -- Colored, Negro, Black, Afro to African American, so, Zollar asked one elder to provide a brief discourse.

"Some of the young black choreographers did not know the lineage of that history. You may have seen the terms but you may not have fully understood their meaning or significance. Some of them talked about being raised in white communities and being separate from black culture, their experience with the teaching of black culture can be so academic, it is removed from the family, in the way that immigrants lose their language, so there is a cultural removal, they are losing a cultural connection, the shared history is not being passed down."

For Zollar this was a significant realization and crystallized the need for the choreographic center, "I realized that there is a lot of historical context that is missing for a lot of the young makers who want to make work from a certain point of view. They didn't get the history in school, somehow, and they don't have a connection to the living history in some way. Something's been cut off." One of the participants expressed this generational disconnect as being "severed from their lineage."

JZ: It made me really rethink and pull back from where we were in terms of Project Next Generation. I had already changed my thinking, but we had already committed to this convening, so we had to go forward. I no longer wanted to call it Project Next Generation, I wanted to dispense from PNG, but we had already raised money for it, it might confuse people if we moved away from it, but the ideas had already progressed way beyond it.

TW: And so what were those new ideas?

JZ: A choreographic center not just for younger emerging artists, but one that is looking at support structures across generations, we even did away with the term emerging, support structures at different career places that would bring forth a relevant conversation as to why the work of a lot of black women choreographers that I am interested in, and felt like are really onto something, were not getting the proper traction in the field. Often the reasons can be due to subject matter such as sexuality. Institutions that are highly progressive, explorative, and experimental when it comes to white cultural issues can become conservative and traditional when it comes to addressing similar black subject matter. This was true for some presenters when UBW was touring dark swan in 2014, choreographed by Nora Chipaumire.

"They admitted that they had done a lot of work dealing with white gay sexuality, they could do almost anything, but with their black audiences they hadn't cultivated the same sense of trust, they didn't have a reference, they were too unfamiliar with the subject of black female sexuality. It was too charged for them to be able to present that piece."

Zollar sees the Choreographic Center as a place that would counter that seemingly double standard as a place that is expansive, broadening the landscape, a place to explore and fail, a safe place for risk to be allowed and encouraged.

THE LIBERATION OF THE PELVIS

JZ: We needed to change the conversation, like even this whole thing about the pelvis.

TW: The liberation of the pelvis?

JZ: The liberation of the pelvis! Coming into dance, into a trained modern dance or ballet, I came from a Street, Dunham, Diasporic place to ballet and modern where my pelvis was being held, held prisoner. For me, Graham came the closest to liberation, then Cunningham tried to erase that by not going toward emotion or story, that being considered a higher place. At the same time I was being buoyed by Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde, the whole womanist movement, the black women writers, the Africanist writers, it made me want to claim this space of the pelvis even before I even understood how or the ways that I would do that. Even in graduate school I knew that when I graduated I was going to make a piece about the butt, it was the rebellion of, the denial, how many black women are told that their butt is too big, resistance and the rebellion, what Brenda Dixon Gottschild talks about, "the black dancing body," I would say the radical black dancing body, became something that I really wanted to explore.

Now it is a seat of liberation.

But for way too much of America it is still a seat of sin, whether that is consciously acknowledged or unconsciously acknowledged. When I first was going into the downtown world, I was trying to take classes to be in that world, you were always held in the pelvis, it was never a place of
exploration except at Dianne's Sounds in Motion, so that's where I spent most of my time.

THE CHALLENGES OF THE CHOREOGRAPHIC CENTER

TW: What are the issues that you hope the Choreographic Center will address?

JZ: I want it to be loud in the conversations it raises around aesthetics and the way that certain aesthetics are privileged. I want to have a place where a choreographer can delve into subject matter at all levels of skill and investigation and exploration, from that choreographer who does that very didactic piece like a Trayvon Martin incident, that is their beginning place, that they can move through the skill and articulation but it is not being shut down as a place not to go, that's why I call it "running towards the fire while we're on fire."

I want it to be a place of interconnectivity between the generations, classes, and training. I want them to be able to explore character development, if you're talking about working from a subject matter, they set up a character but they don't know how to take it any further than the set-up, but it can be taught. I want them to be exposed to workshops that they are not getting in universities and training programs, can there be such a place?

I want to be able to address more complicated and complex issues, how women can find their agency and power and not be diminished in their dancing career and be empowered, the message that women get is that they are a dime a dozen, the message that men get is that they are unique and original.

TW: You can have a dozen white men and they are all seen individually, but if you have a dozen black women they are all seen as the same, they say, "what could possibly be unique about each one, I've seen it already." We can see a whole season of plays by white men and each play is viewed as universal and different, but no correlation could exist for any other group without seeming ethnically or gender specific. Ethnic specificity rarely refers to white men.

JZ: It makes me think of Jayne Cortez's poem, "Find your voice and use it/ use your own voice, and find it!"

TW: The individuality of black women is generalized not individualized.

JZ: And generalized black pain might be the first place that they start, but it gets shut down so quickly. Whereas I see generalized white abstraction all over the place and that doesn't get shut down. We're missing voices and when we're missing voices the field is not being regenerated.

TW: What do you mean, "we are missing voices?"

JZ: We're missing in a profound way the voices of women of color as a
strong presence.

EFFECTING SYSTEMIC CHANGE

JZ: I think that there is a movement, in the way that musicians did not name bebop, post modernist did not name themselves post modernist, the Harlem Renaissance did not name the Harlem Renaissance, but I think that there is a name to this movement that we don't have yet. I don't know what it is, some people say afro-futurism, the name has to be expansive
and not labeled.

TW: When you say there is a name, you're saying there is a name for the expression in the work of this moment?

JZ: I see identity, I see womaness, I see history, I see emotion, I see rage, I see structure, I see form, I see a lot of those things.

TW: And how is this unique or distinct from previous periods?

JZ: I don't know if it's distinct or unique from previous periods, I do think there is a particular momentum right now.

TW: I guess I get caught up when you say there's a name for it; so, I'm looking for what? Like afro-futurism is trying to investigate this idea of blackness in a post postmodernist period, in a way that there was an effort to use the term post black which quickly died out, but may come back again, but it was an effort that did try to identify if there is such a thing as a post period, it's post civil rights, post Black Arts Movement, so what is it?

JZ: I don't think it's post, I think it "is." We just haven't figured out what to call it. I think it's in the work that I saw in Urban Bush Women, in Marlies Yearby, I think that it's in the work that I saw in Laurie Carlos, I think it's been there, but I think it has been marginalized for a long time.

TW: I've talked about this a lot, that era of work, mid to late 80s, 90s into early "oughts," there is a generation, Urban Bush Women is at the core of it in many ways, poets, musicians, dancers, downtown, uptown, I feel that is a period that has not been named. I talked about this period very recently at OSU in which I said we need scholars to go in there and talk about that particular period, Craig Harris, Sekou Sundiata, Carl Hancock Rux, you, Laurie, Marlies, Grisha Coleman are a part of it, Pomo Afro Homos are a part of it, Idris Ackamoor and Rhodessa Jones are a part of it from the West Coast, Hittite Empire, I can go on and on, it's a moment of black artists working in a postmodernist time, still being revolutionary and being innovative and they fit and didn't fit, they took the ride, they found their way into that realm of experimental work, it fit them, they could put the coat on but did it fully understand, identify and serve them? I think not.

JZ: No. We got a lot of support for Praise House and a lot of support for Bones and Ash and then nothing. There was something in that time and I think this is the second wave of that period, it is another wave of that 80s/ 90s period, it's experimental, avant-garde and Black. There's a radical experimentation that in the white community is supported but in the black community it is not supported by white power structures in dance. Radical black experimentation is not being supported. The experimenters push an "ecology" from the other end, without the push, there is stagnation. The way that black women, radical experimenters are pushing, is not...doesn't
have a place, a home...

A HOME FOR RADICAL EXPERIMENTATION

TW: Name some of those Radical Black experimenters.

JZ: Nora Chipaumire, I would certainly say Nora. On the top end, the whole thing started, when I first started the Project Next Generation I would ask people to name five black female choreographers with national prominence, this was a few years back, nobody could get to five. They'd say, Bebe Miller, Urban Bush Women/Zollar, Nora had not gotten there yet, Camille had not gotten there, maybe Dianne McIntyre and then maybe Joanna Haigood might be mentioned and that was it. Since that time, I know that Camille does not consider herself a radical experimenter, she doesn't like that term experimental, but I think she is pushing form, maybe not as radically as Nora, but it is definitely pushing something, Sidra Bell, possibly, but in terms of national prominence... That's a problem. Then we get to a middle place that is still finding itself, more regional impact, in certain places but not of national recognition yet, Maria Bauman, Paloma McGregor, Amara Tabor-Smith on the west coast, Tracy Lang in Atlanta, they're finding something. Fresh new voices, just out of school or new to choreography, just at the beginning of their journey, like Marguerite Hemmings, she came out of Hip Hop, started a club in college; she's finding her way as a young choreographer having never studied in a formal degree program. So how do you support that person? Is there a place to have this conversation collectively, even if we are all working from different forms we are all wrestling with how we are viewed as female choreographers and choreographers of color, what is the cultural reflection, when is it necessary and when is it not?

The UBW Choreographic Center is striving to be holistic in its approach and specific to its cultural and historical vernacular.

It's looking at:

  • How do we interrupt the system?
  • How do we inform the white cultural systems and audiences and
  • communities?
  • How do we create more curiosity in the Black dance community around
  • things that are outside of a certain kind of mainstream aesthetic?
  • How do we strengthen the artists that want to do that work?

These are visionaries striving for a national reputation, which is the distinction, who are the women of color choreographers on the brink of that recognition and how can we support them in getting there? What does it take for the field and national communities to appreciate and reflect on the work? The UBW Choreographic Center seeks to be a first step in the understanding of all of these questions.

CODA

It is quite telling that during the writing of this piece an article appeared on the Huffington Post site celebrating 26 African American Women Choreographers and Dancers. The seemingly well meaning post is rife with all of the problems and complexities that the UBW Choreographic Center seeks to address, it reduces all dancers into one categorization, Black, from hip-hop, commercial, music video to ballet and modern, strangely historical and not, attempting to pay homage to trailblazers but also incredibly lacking in context, content, history and understanding, more striking for the choreographers not mentioned such as Camille A. Brown, Marlies Yearby, Bebe Miller, Jawole Zollar, Carmen de Lavallade, than the ones who are. Almost as if they couldn't come up with a full 26, making them all interchangeable, reducing the importance and significance of each artist and her triumph within her field/genre. It is the type of conflation that would not happen for any other group. Once again, with all of the knowledge and  incredible work being done by African American women choreographers, this is just not good enough. Maybe the UBW Choreographic Center can fulfill this objective at least, building a better understanding of Lineage, Legacy and Liberation.

Talvin Wilks is a director, playwright and collaborative dramaturg based in New York City.  His work blurs the lines of many disciplines forming a unique composite of performative expression.  This summer found him in process with Carmen de Lavallade, Bebe Miller Company, Camille A. Brown and Dancers and Urban Bush Women.

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Photos by Julieta Cervantes unless otherwise noted.