Walking with UBW: An Interview with Chanon Judson by Tara Aisha Willis

This conversation is part of a series of writings by artists involved with UBW during the Choreographic Center’s incubation and development period. These articles are intended to influence the structure and design of the Center as it moves forward by interrogating some of its driving desires and themes.

 

The UBW Core Values: “Validating the Individual,” “Catalyzing for Social Change,” “Building Trust through Process,” “Entering Community and Co-Creating Stories,” “Celebrating the Movement and Culture of the African Diaspora,” and “Recognizing Place Matters.”

In January of 2016, the first UBW Choreographic Center Prototype workshop brought together an intergenerational group of fourteen choreographers to work with Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, as well as faculty members Nora Chipaumire and Nia Love to explore the needs of women of color choreographers and potential curricular directions for the Center. In this conversation, Associate Artistic Director and company dancer Chanon Judson reflects on how UBW’s Core Values influence its practices and processes, as much in rehearsals and on stage as UBW’s education and engagement initiative, BOLD (Builders, Organizers, & Leaders through Dance). For Judson, the new Choreographic Center will more clearly extend those Core Values and solidify two additional value sets that have always been a part of UBW: the importance of openness to change and evolution, and a commitment to life-long learning.

Chanon Judson: Jawole delivered the keynote for the Black Women in Dance: Stepping Out of the Barriers conference, produced by Serendipity in Leicester, UK in May, 2016. During the address, it was funny to hear her note that she has a high degree of patience for sitting in discomfort. It’s one of those things that—being inside the creative process—feels like the elephant in the room. There could be any number of reasons for discomfort in the space: because the task is daunting and we’re trying to chip away at it, or we’re brewing, we’re on the right track but can’t find the thing to really make it pop. To hear her say, “Yes, that’s actually part of the process!” made me think about the nuggets of gold I’ve uncovered after going through that period of discomfort. You stay in that period long enough and something different has to happen—not magically, but different choices have to be made. I recalled all the creative processes I’ve been in with her. That murky discomfort comes up all the time. It’s the phase that ushers in the risk factor, of breaking boundaries and pushing while not knowing exactly what’s going to happen next. You have to go through that to get to the gem on the other side.

TAW: It makes me wonder about the tool kit that UBW and Jawole are using in choreography, but also in the Summer Leadership Institute (SLI) and the Choreographic Center. There are things under the surface besides the Core Values that have to happen for the work—both inside and outside the studio—to happen.

CJ: We’re trying to pull away from the word “tools.” People come to SLI and want UBW to show them their tools for entering, building, and then exiting community. People come to classes and want to learn a tool for creating in this way or that. But we want to encourage the idea of being seeped in practices or methodologies. Learning that you live inside of and continue to brew over a period of time—a lifetime. It’s not a fixed thing: “If we could do A then it yields B”; but instead it’s a slew of practices that are interchangeable, that can be combined, modulated. That can happen for a long or short period of time; they’re not necessarily linear, but you draw from them as it necessary inside of the learning or creative process.

UBW’s BOLD training is practice based, drawing from the model of the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond: the facilitators are made ready for the field by consistently applying the methodology to their own efforts of organizing, educating, or creating. Artists don’t follow a how-to guide, but rather incorporate the values into their personal journey, allowing it to shape and shift their lens.

TAW: Are there other ways you see the studio practice or choreographic practice dovetailing with, running parallel to, or intersecting with these other initiatives?

CJ: The SLI facilitates the critical study of community, beginning with examining oneself—the body as our first home, our first community. The process is revelatory, unearthing, and at times, destabilizing. It takes courage and vulnerability, the kind that makes your whole body warm, to be willing to learn things you thought you already knew: “No, I can push further.” To support this learning, UBW very intentionally constructs a safe space for learning (falling down, questioning) and encourages participants to honor a notion of truth that validates their own experience while allowing space for others. This system of support, respect, validation, and community is imperative to the learning environment. Building trust through process, so everyone can take two steps further, knowing you not walking it alone.

These values and the systems that shape them run deep inside all of UBW’s work.  

Coupled with our Core Values is a willingness to be malleable. Change is interwoven into our methodology. I mean “change” in the sense that we’re constantly embracing information that serves the work. I joined in 2001, toured for about 5 years, and then came off the road. I remember coming back to company class and being a little taken aback, thinking, “What is happening? I don’t recognize this?” There was a new group of creators and the work was growing—not just shifting because, “Oh, there’re new people, so we’ll do new things,” but they were all bringing different sets of expertise. The company embraced the deepening of that learning, and now we’re in the midst of another cycle of that. Now we’re thinking about new information on the science of the body, enhancing sustainability for the muscles and joints, the dancer in longevity—that becomes part of the company practice.

TAW: So change over time... Adaptability...

CJ: I know I used the word “change,” but I want to use the word “evolve.” There’s attention in it. It’s not haphazard. It’s not, “The wind has shifted so I want to do this new thing.” It’s that new information or expertise has come and there’s a new goal at hand, so now we evolve.

TAW: Can you talk about your experience over your decade and a half of dancing with UBW? How that trajectory has evolved and shifted around those processes and practices of the Core Values?

CJ: We just had the Cultural Traditions Residency at Jacob’s Pillow [in June 2016]. In the archives there they have old UBW repertoire, first company repertory I had never seen before. One thing that struck me was how strong the seed of the vision was. You could put your finger on the Core Values. The use of the sciences of the African diaspora, risk, courage, individuality, choice, all were in the early work. I saw the company mining their traditions of double dutch, hand jive games, and marching band experiences. Examining the root, “their mother tongues.” Feeling so much in relationship with that work myself made me realize how strong the bedrock of the company is.

What I’m noticing now is not so much the way the company has evolved but the way that I’ve grown over fifteen years. I came into the company as the baby in the group; learning in a shared ecosystem. I remember seeing the different choices the women that were my elders made. I remember being intrigued, being in question, consciously learning from that. Sifting through spirited “a-ha” moments and lots of murky doubt.

Now I’m the eldest person in the touring company… Still sifting through spirited “a-ha” moments and some murky doubt! I’m appreciating how much I’m pushed by those twenty-two and twenty-three year old members of the company, and the knowing that comes with being on another tier of life experience. Finding newness within the same practice, accepting its struggles, expecting the change. It wasn’t too long after I first came into the company Jawole had her 50th birthday, and I remember her being in rehearsal, saying, “This is the first time I’ve been able to do this stretch in my life!” I remember the impression that had on me of what it meant to be a life-long learner. It’s really remarkable to be inside a body of learning that has width enough for that kind of growth.

I taught at New York State Summer School of the Arts (NYSSSA) this summer and heard a remarkable lecture. The artist who talked about how the company he danced with for many years gave his body agency and expanded what he could do physically beyond what he thought possible. Sometimes this artist wanted to do his own thing, but he was in a specific methodology that didn’t allow for such exploration. When he decided to make dances and flex his own voice, the things he started going back to were the stories of his activist parents, remembering his feelings while listening to Nina Simone, how he would make faces in the mirror. He started digging up all these treasures, and that was the seed for how he was creating dance. What’s so beautiful is that this searching for treasures is the charge Jawole gives inside of the work. That’s the art maker’s practice. To pull from what you know was the very thing I explored with the students in our UBW technique and repertory workshops. When this artist spoke of the company he had been with, I thought of how opposite the drive of UBW is from that. You actually have to bring your full self to the work. This is how we create. It’s so brilliant and so human at the same time. Why would it make sense for you to only be a fraction of yourself and not the fleshiest, most textured version of yourself? I was reminded that this is not a given.

TAW: Do you feel like you’re actively transmitting those Core Values to the younger UBW members? Or that you’re retracing or reiterating those values in your practice as a performer, a mover in rehearsal, a teacher? Are you feeding those Core Values back into the UBW ecology?

CJ: Absolutely. In some regards, it’s the responsibility of the Associate Artistic Director: to share, probe, and push the dancer’s growth inside the methodology. The work has made me a more responsive artist and so the sharing comes by way of my doing. I recently watched Walking with Pearl...Africa Diaries of 2004. I remember how frightening and vulnerable it was to make decisions inside the work. I remember the songs I had to listen to over and over again to get my mind right so I could be bold and naked in the space, so I could actually live in my own choices. That’s much less of a challenge now. You give a task, an instruction and I’m already filtering it for what it means to me, in a way that puts me in my expertise, that challenges me: Where is the risk for me? How can I push myself inside of that? How can I find what puts me really inside of my groove? I’m thinking all that as I’m getting the instruction. How can I maximize me in that moment, in ways that allow me to bring truth but allow me to push myself so the growth factor still happens?

It took me sitting in this practice for a long time to reach the place where there’s a comfort in that discomfort. There’s comfort in knowing I can and have to make a choice. I watch the younger company members struggle in that space. The mom in me wants to give them information and tell them this is just the process. Sometimes I do that and still watch it run the course it has to take, because it’s a practice. It takes struggling through it, growing inside of it. And then you accumulate and grow all over again. There’s no shortcut, there’s no book you can read. It’s an embodied thing that takes time. Fortunately UBW is a playing field with which to bring that forward. We were just inside that very space in rehearsal.

TAW: And what happened?

CJ: We came back to what it means to make a decision. Samantha Speis (Associate Artistic Director) and I will give them a task to encourage the dancers to stay in the “frying pan” of that decision-making place. And everyone will do it because they’re phenomenal artists. Getting to the point where that becomes a go-to in how you navigate creativity or life? That’s experiential.

TAW: And you’ve reached a point where it’s in your cells. I don’t want to say “automatic,” because that makes it sound unthoughtful. But it’s already embodied from the start. So just by living that way in rehearsal you’re reiterating the Core Values to younger members. How do those values manifest in the choreographic practice?

CJ: “Validating the Individual”—that’s a big one. Walking With ‘Trane Side A & B is scored through states of being. The first state asks that you bring your mother tongue to the table: the movement, physical language, and experiences that live in your body as reservoirs of information that didn’t come from a classroom practice. In rehearsal Jawole will say, “Take a given movement phrase and put this in it...” I think my task was transcribing a drum solo as a petit allegro—in my brain that becomes this play of hip hop, house, combined with the percussive sensibility of tap. I made it my own by thinking about the things in my embodied movement practices that speak of the feet moving rapidly with dynamics and airspace; gliding, shooting, or soaring. I pull from what my body knows of that concept. I might play with it for five minutes, and then a count of eight gets put into the final work. But the rest of all that play is not for naught. It’s how my body deepens its understanding of what it can do with my roots of house dance, and hip hop from the 80s, 90s, early 2000s.

Creating art based on collective learning & research is part of UBW’s process. In our Chicago residency for Walking with ‘Trane we visited the Natural History Museum, the David Bowie Is exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art, “100 Saxophones for Sun Ra” on his 100th birthday, jazz lounges, story shares, and more. We were really interested in the history of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) so we sat with artists that are part of that lineage.

In our library study, Jawole gave us the task to go into the library and explore what called us. Dancer Courtney J. Cooke was drawn Coltrane’s upbringing in the church, noting it as a pillar in her own art making. She honed her focus in on the ring shout, the trance like state, duration, repetition, and the difference between the spirit being on you as opposed to in you. She created a physical and vocal exploration that encompassed her memories and research. It yielded a fresh palette for her explore with.

The research, critical study, and staying in the “frying pan” is part of the work of “Validating the Individual,” by way of pushing your understanding of who the individual is. Dr. Pearl Primus said, “dance has been my teacher.” Validating the individual doesn’t just mean I bring myself to the table and everything I bring is whole and great. You have to push and examine. Chanon in 2001 is not the same as Chanon in 2004, and couldn’t have imagined Chanon in 2016. The work has pushed me, has grown me.

TAW: In “Convenings and Gatherings” Marguerite discussed Jawole’s dedication to seeking out and nurturing black female choreographic voices. This Choreographic Center will formalize that mission—how has the trajectory you’ve experienced led to this moment in UBW?

CJ: UBW has always been a choreographic center. Now the focus, intention, and vision are to create a container to push what’s been happening all along. The company has always been a collective of artists with a point of view. It’s part of the audition. The audition is physical; it’s you doing this series of tasks; it’s what book are you reading. Ever since the first company, where those artists were all connected to their own choreographic voices and chose to come together as a collective.

I can remember a strong shift in thinking about our legacy around our 20th anniversary. More than likely that shift had been happening under the water, way before I caught wind of it, but anything like that must have started as a seed and a thought and a plan and a grant in order to make it happen. Jawole recognized the lack of black female choreographers represented in the concert dance landscape and the preservation of black female choreographers’ legacies. My first encounter with her efforts was by way of commissioning choreographer Millicent Johnnie to choreograph a segment of the HairStories (2001). In 2003, Kim Bears-Bailey was called upon to re-stage Dr. Pearl Primus’s original works on UBW, Hard Time Blues and Strange Fruit (1943). That was really impactful: having the opportunity to put these master works in my own body. To experience history and research woven into physical language. In 2004 Project Next Generation (PNG) was launched: commissioning female choreographers to set new work on UBW. Recipients were Bridget L. Moore and Camille A. Brown (2006). In 2008 UBW commissioned the restaging of Blondell Cummings’s Chicken Soup.

These modules preserved and furthered the legacy of black female choreographers. The Choreographic Center’s concern is to extend this reach. How can we serve not just the new artist but also those with developing and established practices? How do we prepare an ecosystem of presenters, funders, supporters to increase the demand and knowledge pool to support black radical, experimental voices?

I’m appreciating how we are folding the intentions of the Choreographic Center into our existing practices. Through BOLD, we’re sharing UBW methodology, history, and repertory study in ways that allow students to embody the learning process. At SLI this year we gathered organizers, funders, and policy makers to learn alongside artists. The process stretched their lenses and seeped into their understanding of black radical traditions. These efforts really affect the demand for risk-taking art by narrowing the proximity between the art maker and supporters. It’s one thing to read about art on a grant application or New York Times review; it’s another thing make an informed decision from embodied gut learning.

TAW: How will the core values—and other aspects of UBW’s ecology—shape the Center and develop new choreographic voices?

CJ: We draw from our thirty-plus year practice. We share the same methodology that has encouraged generations of company members to push, probe, discover, and evolve. The blueprint has always developed or refined choreographic voices. It’s a rigorous and unapologetic space for exploration.  Experimenting without trying to create work, but to facilitate learning. Also key is the shared space in which to do this. Much of UBW’s process is birthed of collaboration: the early works where Jawole collaborated with Laurie Carlos and Steve Kent; Walking with ‘Trane with Talvin Wilks. More brilliant minds in a room means more learning.  

I’m really excited about how the Choreographic Center is shaping the company. In regards to legacy, I’m noting a zeal to tell our herstory. It’s great to have someone write about our practices. It’s another kind of sharing for me to sit here with you, for you to record it, as many places as this conversation has gone! To be able to tell the story from inside embodied experience is aligned with our value of celebrating the African diaspora.

This journey of creating the Center is hammering in the awareness that we have to do this now. We have to tell our own story. As we find and shape containers to hold these practices, we also need to name our practices. In the same ways we’ve earmarked our shared legacy with others, it’s valuable for us to do the same with the work inside UBW. I’m really excited about how it’s feeding the organization—it’s asking us to hone in on what we do without codifying it and stopping it from evolving. This is a mind shift in how I’ve experienced information shared in the modern dance world. In my training, I studied the continuum of ideas codified in specific techniques and exercises. The value set swung between what’s strongly codified or what’s the trend, the new style. But UBW’s passing on of values and practices: the methodology is absolutely tangible and expected to grow.

 

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