After 40 Years of Dance, What Happens to a Dream Fulfilled?

After 40 Years of Dance, What Happens to a Dream Fulfilled?

Sometime in the early 1980s, the choreographer Jawole Willa Jo Zollar had a life-changing dream. Her dead parents, Dot and Al, appeared in it along with other ancestors. They all ate at a table in the middle of the ocean, and her father sang of his failure, cautioning against chasing after outside approval, repeating the phrase “Success is not the test.” A wave crashed over them, and Zollar knew what she had to do.

She created Urban Bush Women, a performance ensemble that tells stories based in the African diaspora from a female perspective. The group is now celebrating its 40th anniversary.

External markers of success may not be the test, but Zollar, 73, has gathered plenty, especially in the last few years. In 2021, she was named a MacArthur fellow, joining a club associated with genius.

“I’ve worked without concern about awards,” Zollar said recently at the company’s Brooklyn headquarters. “But when these things came, I found it affirming. It’s recognition that this work has been happening. And it has allowed me to think expansively about my own future.”

That future will include new artistic endeavors, perhaps along the lines of “Intelligence,” the Jake Heggie opera she directed and choreographed for Houston Grand Opera last year. But she is stepping away from the institution she founded.

In 2019, she handed over the role of artistic director of Urban Bush Women to two company members, Chanon Judson and Mame Diarra Speis. And at Bard SummerScape on Friday, she will debut what she has said is her final work for the troupe, “Scat! … The Complex Lives of Al & Dot, Dot & Al Zollar.”

Zollar is careful to stress that “Scat!” isn’t a straight biography of her parents. “I’ve had to tell my family that I’m making up things,” she said. While the show is based in research, she calls it a “ritual resemblance” or a “critical fabulation,” borrowing a term from the scholar Saidiya Hartman.

“It’s family stories,” Zollar said, “Al and Dot as mythic characters.”

At its core, “Scat!” is about the Great Migration, when many Black Southerners moved north or west. “They thought that life would be better in those places,” Zollar said, “but they discovered that they were still up against the same thing. It’s about dashed dreams.” The show alludes to the Langston Hughes poem that asks what happens to a dream deferred.

“My mother was a jazz singer and dancer,” Zollar said. “She would’ve liked to have been a professional, but the story she told was that she was considered too dark.” Zollar’s father was a striver, always hustling.

For the piece’s form, Zollar draws on her childhood in Kansas City, Mo. “I grew up doing what they called floor shows or revues,” she said. At social events in the Black community, like a dance for Black postal employees, there would be a live band and a package of entertainment: a comic emcee, a flash act, a tap dancer, a blues singer, an exotic dancer and maybe a kid act like Zollar’s, precociously performing jazz dance. This variety-show format gives “Scat!” its setting, structure and style.

For music, the show has an original score by the veteran trombonist Craig Harris, played by a jazz band that includes three vocalists who do sometimes scat. The music is inspired by the tradition of Kansas City jazz — Count Basie, Charlie Parker — but “it’s an evolution of that period,” Harris said in an interview. “It’s moving that tradition on.” Zollar’s choreography could be described similarly, drawing on vernacular dances of the time — the Shorty George, the Suzy Q — but pushing them in new directions.

Both Harris and Zollar emphasized that the work is not a period piece. “We go back and forth in time,” she said. Multiple dancers play Al and Dot. It ends with Zollar recounting her dream.

That’s fitting, since the show serves as a sort of origin tale for Urban Bush Women. “When I got to college to study modern dance and ballet, I saw that I had a voice outside of those forms,” Zollar said. It wasn’t only that she wanted to hold onto the Black vernacular dance of her youth. She was also interested in experimental ensemble theater and magical realism, in embodying narrative in complex and nonlinear ways.

“In many Africanist and other worldviews,” she said, “the past, present and future exist together and communicate with one another. That colors a lot of my work.”

From the start, jazz ensembles were a model. In Urban Bush Women, each dancer is part of the group but she must also have a strong solo voice. In auditions, Zollar said, “You have to know that they can hold a point of view that is unique, that they have a sound.”

“I feel that in contemporary dance now, there’s too much homogenization,” she continued. “It’s like everybody’s a soprano, like everybody’s in one range.”

In Urban Bush Women performances, she said, “the idea is not to make it exactly the same every time. When I see the company get rote, I tell them they’re not investigating. There’s a structure, but if I do something a little different, you have to respond to that. Sometimes I don’t use the term improvisation. I call it living in the moment.”

Harris, who has known Zollar for nearly 50 years and has collaborated with her many times, said that working with the dancers of Urban Bush Women was like working with musicians.

“Jawole composes like an improviser, always leaving room for the spirit,” he said. “She is very specific about what she wants, but she welcomes you to bring something else. It’s risk taking, but it’s informed risk. We’ve been doing this a long time.”

At the beginning of Urban Bush Women, Zollar recalled, “there was no money, no infrastructure, just me producing.” She found freedom in that, she said. Whatever she wanted to do, she did, even as she encountered resistance. (“People said, ‘You dance like men.’ We would get that a lot,” she said.) Over time, though, she developed an organization. “And I accomplished a lot with that to support me,” she said, but it also grew to feel stifling.

As long as 20 years ago, she was already talking about finding a way out. At one point, she considered disbanding the company. “But there was too much legacy and things to be built upon, so that didn’t feel right,” she said. Finally, after she saw how Judson and Speis choreographed the work “Hair & Other Stories,” she thought: “Oh, they’re ready. This is the moment.”

“There was a bold, audacious vision, different than mine, and a fearlessness,” Zollar said. “That’s what can carry something forward.”

Speis said she wasn’t surprised that she and Judson were tapped. She had joined the company in 2008, Judson in 2001. Both had left for a while and returned in 2013. Speis choreographed a work with Zollar. “We were developing as leaders without having the title,” Speis said. Zollar was preparing them.

Taking over felt like a natural outgrowth, Speis said. “In Urban Bush Women, everyone is an active member,” she added. “You continue to hone and deepen and unearth your gifts as an artist, and the space supports that.”

Speis remembered discovering the company in college. “Here was this ensemble of Black women who were so deeply different yet in harmony with each other,” she said. “It was a visceral experience, like I had permission to reclaim parts of myself that had been diminished when I entered a formal dance space.”

Judson described the Urban Bush Women experience similarly. “I had to put ballet and modern on the shelf and recall what I learned in church and from being a Black girl on the street,” she said. “I learned how to become virtuosic inside of that and also integrate it with what I learned in school.”

“What’s important is that Jawole isn’t saying ‘Be Jawole,” Speis said. “She created this container that says, ‘Figure out what it is that you do.’”

In this way, Urban Bush Women keeps going, more financially stable than ever thanks to a $3 million grant from the philanthropist MacKenzie Scott. “Scat!” travels next to the American Dance Festival in North Carolina, where Zollar will add to her lifetime achievement awards. More 40th anniversary events happen in July at Lincoln Center’s Summer for the City. What the company calls its diaspora continues to grow and spread.

And Zollar? “I’m now able to do more things outside of what people think of me,” she said. When she collaborated recently with the performance artist Taylor Mac, people were surprised, she said: “And I was like, ‘You don’t know me!’”

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