D.C. DanceWatcher

The Wisdom of Hair

Posted in Contemporary dance, Dance, Dance theater, Uncategorized by lisatraiger on February 28, 2019

Hair & Other Stories
Urban Bush Women
Dance Place
Choreography: Chanon Judson and Samantha Speis
and the UBW company
Washington, D.C.

February 16-17, 2019

By Lisa Traiger

UBW_Hair & Other Stories_(c) Hayim Heron_Tendayi lower res

Don’t think you’re going to sit back and observe if you show up at Urban Bush Women’s latest, Hair & Other Stories, which made its Washington, D.C., premiere this past weekend at Dance Place. Oh no. Read the program notes and then hear the urgency in the company dancers’ voices, when they say: “Don’t get too comfortable …. We’re goin’ on a journey.”

Hair — African-American women’s hair in particular, with all its baggage as “good” or “bad” — serves as the core narrative construct, but Hair & Other Stories is about much, much more. And I’ll preface this review with my own hesitation as a possessor of so-called “good” hair, typically long (though I recently got a cut) and straight, should I be writing this review? Does my hair texture and skin color — my white privilege — preclude me from sharing my point of view, my understanding? (Let me know in the comments if you have thoughts.)

The two-and-a-half-hour evening plays as part church revival, part dance party, part therapeutic reckoning, part history lesson (including a letter to Madame C. J. Walker, the first African American female millionaire who plied her trade in hair relaxers). And it is wholly and fully engaging of mind, body and spirit for those willing to hop on the train to a future that co-choreographers Chanon Judson and Samantha Speis and the company envision, one where the racist roots of the United States are reckoned with so healing can begin.

Crafted from personal narratives culled from the performers and from participants in Hair Party workshops the company held around the country asking black and other women to talk about their hair and more at community centers, churches, kitchen tables, the work throws out a challenge to all those willing to take it:

Re-think what you thought you knew about race, beauty, class, and privilege. But it comes with a caveat: “You don’t have to leave the same way you came in.” Think of Hair & Other Stories as a permanent haircut or dye job for your intellect and soul.

The Brooklyn-based company, which now includes men — two in this performance — was founded in 1984 by visionary storyteller and social activist Jawole Willa Jo Zollar. UBW draws on the bedrocks of contemporary and African dance, song and spoken word weaving together personal and universal narratives that wrestle with the history and challenges of being black and living in America. Throughout the two-part evening, performers address the audience, drawing from the powerful Undoing Racism workshops that the New Orleans-based People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond conducts around the country. UBW and the institute have long been collaborative partners in educational settings, but never has the fundamental and life-changing material of the workshops been so specifically incorporated into a UBW performance.

The evening begins as an all-out revival meeting. The sing-song preacherly DuBois A’Keen is joined by Tendayi Kuumba and Courtney J. Cook who take an instructive approach, easing audience members into what it means to go through life in with nappy or “bad” hair. All black women are called on to stand in solidarity for the indignities they have faced on playgrounds and on the job for having unmanageable or “different” hair. White women, too, with so-called “silky” locks, are asked to stand with the exhortation: “Let the winds of change blow in your hair.” Indeed.

Early on, a table filled with pomades, oils, gels, and combs indicates some styling might take place. A careful eye will tease out the intricate wrist and finger actions it takes to braid hair. Recollections of suffering under the hot comb for silky straight styles elicit plenty of nods from parts of the audience. The women especially, in their eclectic 21st-century boho costumes by DeeDee Gomes, appliqued with sequins, patches, fringes, and other piecemeal findings, lend a timeless quality to the proceedings. Stories and histories are drawn through embodied movement culling from the lexicon of Africanist dance — rolling shoulders, undulating spines, bodies pulled earthward, fluttering arms and articulations of torsos, pumping knees, and more recent raised fists. Moments of stillness and everyday work — sweeping, brushing, stirring motions — also braid their way into the choreographic language that draws from deeply planted roots.

At one point when the performers address colorism — the valuing of lighter skin over darker skin in the African-American community and the white community — the dancers vigorously use their hands to brush their limbs and torsos as if trying to wash away their own skin. And then, as they line up and pause, breathless after those frantic seconds, the realization comes: they have arranged themselves by skin tone, from darkest to lightest.

Throughout the swift-moving program, all are called on to move — audience as well as performers. Raise an arm, wiggle in your seat, stand in solidarity or come down to the stage, the dance floor and feel in your body the weight of racism, colorism, white privilege and prejudice as it seeps into in your bones, muscles, roots, and scalp.

Lanky powerhouse Chanon Judson tackles a vignette with a trio of “Elevator Hell Stories.” In one she walks into an elevator filled with African Americans who all want her to take a comb to her unruly hair. When the scene is repeated with white riders, they all “love” her look and reach out to touch her hair. Later, she stands on a pedestal, wraps herself in black paper and dons an oversized white top hat — recalling images of Jim Crow or Master Juba. Rooted to the pedestal Judson writhes, ripping away the paper, shedding skin perhaps, filled with taunts and pain, to reveal a renewed body … and spirit.

Joining the cast, Judson’s very young daughter, maybe three years old, moves with child-like assurance, following along, taking an adult’s hand, stepping out of a baby swaddling like a pro. Early on someone brushes down her edges, the soft baby hair at her hairline, with a toothbrush, later during a wickedly sharp scene featuring black and white Barbies in a conversation about white privilege played for adult sensibilities, she settles into her grandmother’s lap in the audience clutching a Barbie. Her moments on stage are a reminder that more’s at stake than the here and now. Judson’s daughter reinforces the Hair & Other Stories hopeful message: That she will grow up free from prejudices about hair and skin and beauty. (Parenthetically this child’s presence also shows us it’s possible to make creative work and raise a family.) The other excellent performers include Stephanie Mas, Ross Daniel (who represents an enlightened white person on this journey), Love Muwwakkil and Cyrah Ward.

It’s a wish-filled message in an evening that requires work — the hard work of reflection. Co-creators Judson and Speis call it “the urgent dialogue of the 21st century.” At Dance Place, the listening, responses, and contributions to the discussion, the call-and-response, felt active and engaged. The work itself is a conversation, one that occurs on a continuum. And one that for many will continue beyond the final bows.

This review originally appeared on DC Metro Theater Arts and is reprinted with kind permission.

Photos: Courtesy Dance Place, top Tendayi Kuumba; bottom, UBW company, (c) Hayim Heron
(c) Lisa Traiger 2019


Posted in Contemporary dance, Dance, Modern dance by lisatraiger on November 8, 2010

“Fly: Five First Ladies of Dance”
Kennedy Center Terrace Theater
Washington, D.C.
November 2, 2010

“Fare Well: The End of the World As We Know It OR Dancing Your Way to Paradise!”
Maida Withers Dance Construction Company
Dance Place
Washington, D.C.
November 7, 2010

By Lisa Traiger
© 2010 by Lisa Traiger

“We need more women presidents, like in Brazil,” declares the forceful, smoky voiced Germaine Acogny as she marches down the aisle of the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater. “Yes we can! Yes we can!” she chants in her butter-melting French accent, a black feather boa glamorously tossed over her shoulders, her shaved head shining. The Senegalese dancer, making and teaching movement since 1968, is a stunner: tall, lanky, arms that reach on forever and beyond, legs as solid as tree trunks. She walks accessing the full power of her pelvis, not with a thrust, or a bump and grind, but a simple, direct foot stamping or caressing the ground, as necessary. Later on stage, an internal whir stirs her hips with fulsome relish. But Acogny’s dance is not one that takes mere pleasure in her physical instrument: it’s a call to action, a political demonstration, and, taking place on election eve, it’s a call for woman spirit and woman strength to topple what has become the power of the status quo. Joined by video of traffic and slashes of rain and finally a tree in the moonlight, “Songbook Yaakaar” or “Facing up to Hope,” as the piece is called, is a demand for a change of course.

But Acogny’s cry for more women presidents in a dance-centric crowd — and the “Fly” program, devoted only to women dancer/choreographers — can also be heard as a call for more fearless women choreographers. We know modern dance’s history, birthed a century ago by powerful, independent women. Yet today the form suffers not only from a lack of funding, but an absence of prominent female leaders. Of late, the field lacks powerhouse women who are creative forces –- where are our Martha Grahams, Doris Humphreys, Anna Sokolows, Katherine Dunhams? With our founding and even second generations gone, our next cohort of women dance matriarchs has not attained the same power, status, prestige and notoriety these earlier women garnered. So much so, that Dance magazine editor Wendy Perron was concerned enough by the lack of prominent women’s voices in the modern dance field to keep a running tally of women choreographers. The accolades, alas, these days seem to go to the Marks, Bills, Joes and Stephens of modern dance. That makes this program — five women, five dances, five distinctive voices — all the more necessary, even in 2010.

In “Fly” we have the prescription, if not a cure, for this issue of under-recognized female modern dance role models. The five African-American women of “Fly: Five First Ladies” are not merely notable female choreographers, but “women of a certain age” –- all 60 or older — who continue to assert a powerful stage presence. There’s Bebe Miller, 60 this year, reprising her 1989 solo “Rain,” a juicy evocation of earth and spirit, danced before and upon a grassy rectangle of sod. Clad in a deep red velvet dress on the green grass of an otherwise bare stage, Miller’s spare and intentional movements — a swinging arm, a hand reaching backward, a deep, chewy plie, nuzzling and burrowing into the ground — are accompanied initially by a sparely minimalist score by Hearn Gadbois, then the piece blossoms with Heitor Villa Lobos’ Bachianas Brasilieras No. 5. Part priestess, part contented nature lover, Miller attends and attunes to earth, air, sky and, the title, rain, through her subtle but not inconsequential gestures.

From 1972, “The Creation,” a solo richly spoken and danced by Carmen de Lavallade, too, draws on ideas of earthly grandeur and creative spiritual forces. In this case, using poet James Weldon Johnson’s retelling of the Biblical creation myth from “God’s Trombones.” The piece is a dramatic and forceful rendering of other worldly forces and grace, exquisitely performed by a ravishing de Lavallade. Draped in a red gown, her chin lifted and gaze direct, her fingers caress and conjure the still air around her as if ordering up the heavens and earth from whole cloth. In “If You Didn’t Know,” wiry but steel-girded Dianne McIntyre’s solo features jazz inflections, poetry and an audio montage of late filmmaker St. Clair Bourne speaking on the challenges of being a black artist. Tiny, but muscular, draped in a white full-length tunic and skirt, McIntyre offers up her own posturing, leveling the jazz notes with a flutter of her arm, puncturing a well-directed point with a fist, standing in defiance as Gwendolyn Nelson-Fleming sings on tape and pianist George Caldwell winds his way through a song called “If You Don’t Know Me.” It’s both a hot and cool performance, regal yet testy, even impatient in the flings, and leg swoops that bubble and swish around her skirt. McIntyre still has a hold over her audience, and still makes work that matters in pointed ways.

Finally, in tandem with Acogny’s political defiance, Urban Bush Women founder Jawole Willa Jo Zollar’s “Bring ‘em Home” offers a rejoinder, equally political and personal. Pumping music by Rebirth Brass Band romps and rolls as Zollar lays crumpled, raising a white handkerchief in surrender. But stoically she rises, rolls back her velvety shoulders and catches the beat. Second lining, Zollar calls her performance, and it reflects the down, but not nearly out, status of post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, injecting its rich music and dance culture into her solo. Main line paraders who walk among the first string of bands in a funeral or other procession are, in New Orleans fashion, typically followed by a second line. These amateurs and hangers on are not without skill, as they join the parade to twirl parasols, wave handkerchiefs and march to their own jovial beat. Zollar, too, honors these second liners who made up the most damaged wards of the washed out but not drowned city. With her simple and unaffected steps, she manages to make a statement about dispossession and racism, especially in her vocal call to “Bring ‘em home.” As she marches off, one arm rises, a signifier of praise and defiance.


Washington has its own grande dame of modern and post-modern dance: 74-year-old Maida Withers, who founded her Dance Construction Company in 1974. Continuing to make and tour new works, Withers, still a professor at George Washington University, brought her current piece, the excessively titled “Fare Well -– The End of the World As We Know It OR Dance Your Way To Paradise!” to Washington after touring to New York, Kenya, Utah and Brazil. A lengthy solo featuring Steven Hilmy’s electronic sound score performed live, as well as poems by David McAleavey and Alex Caldiero, the work is an unrestrained call to action. Never one to shy away from hot-button issues, here Withers, swathed in a white tunic over bright red undergarments, her shock of matching white hair, becomes Gaia, a literal mother earth, a crone warning all to heed the environmental chaos. The video backdrop by Ayodamola Okunseinde features a moving landscape of dried earth, cracked ice, mountains, deserts, smoke and fire, along with wildlife. First carrying an empty water jug, Withers, still lanky and fearless, engulfs the Dance Place black box stage. She’s all sharp elbows, wide lunges, expansive low leaps and crashes to the ground. At one point from a stooped position, she arises to a tremor, fists vibrating as drums beat a warning. At another, her jaw drops open, face contorted in a silent scream. Withers remains tireless and “Fare Well” proves to be her tour de force. The quietly introspective trio, “Naked Truth” followed, danced by broad-chested but gentle partner Anthony Gongora, quirky, quick-footed Tzveta Kassabova and petite, gazelle-like Giselle Ruzany. This first performance beats with a lifeforce, especially in the wake of Withers’ urgent admonition: “What do I know about … children … dwindling rivers … deserts … groundwater used up …?” There’s more zest and ease to “Naked Truth” with its restful, friendly partnerships intertwining and separating then re-alligning. It serves as an apt anecdote, following Withers’ razor-sharp screed.

Photo Maida Withers in “Fare Well” by Ayo Okunseinde
© 2010 by Lisa Traiger