Cigarette smoke swirls inside the crowded blues club at midnight in the 1950s. John Coltrane puts a saxophone to his lips, transforming music forever and touching the soul of a generation. Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, founder of the New York-based dance troupe Urban Bush Women, first listened to Coltrane’s music in college. Years later, she became spellbound as she stayed up all night with a biography of the artist.
“I was just vibrating as I read it,” she said during a special Q&A session after the Friday night performance.
The two-night performance (April 7 and 8) at the Kennedy Center started off quietly, as one dancer moved through sfumato-like lighting in silence. As the first half of the composition, or “Side A,” continued, six dancers joined her each lost in their own world. Ultimately, they achieved a frenzy of ancient and contemporary movement – a rapture found in the black churches of Coltrane’s childhood.
“Imagine a ping-pong ball hitting the bone, hitting the tendon,” explained company member Amanda Castro.
It took four years to develop the program inspired by ‘Trane, as he was called, a passionate research project for each dancer in the company, who would then channel that knowledge into an unforgettable experience. Each seeks “the emotional state, the physical state, the musical state of being,” said choreographer and dancer Samantha Speis.
“It allows me to go beyond what I think I’m capable of.”
The intensely chaotic scene is pure expressive form. During the research phase of the project, the dancers immersed themselves in words, visual art and of course music of the 1950s – Coltrane’s era. The climax of the first half of the performance is punctuated with sweet and guttural vocals from Courtney Cook, achieving bliss. Like the fiercely energetic brush strokes of Jackson Pollock or Grace Hartigan, their movements are not a series of studied steps, but instead an all-encompassing reaction to their surroundings, welling up from deep within body and soul.
The second half of the program, “Side B” was entirely different. Instead of recorded music, composer George B. Caldwell seated himself at a grand piano and his sounds alone accompanied the dancers for the rest of the performance. His original composition of riffs and runs, marked with improvisation, conjure Coltrane’s style in response to modern times. The dancers are no longer lost in isolated rapture, but respond to one another in an expression of joy and fun and good times. Stephanie Mas, with her slicked-back hair, recalls the boys from West Side Story – cocky and full of bright, shiny youth. But it is Speis who steals the show. Her vitality and raw power are uncontainable with each twitch of her shoulders and leap across the stage. Watching her, the spirit of the program is clear. She has become the drum, the horn, the very essence of music.
Urban Bush Women’s next event closest to the DC area is April 22 in Norfolk, Va., where they will debut Hair & Other Stories at the Attucks Theatre. Tickets available here.
Learn more about Urban Bush Women here.