Performing Arts: Dance
December 13, 2015
For 30 years Urban Bush Women, led by Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, has used to dance to highlight the under-told stories of history and celebrate its African roots. This week, the company’s New York premiere of an evening-length work entitled “Walking with ‘Trane” took to the BAM Harvey Theater stage.

Choreographed by Zollar and dancer Samantha Speis (in collaboration with the all-women company), this work draws exclusively from the life and music of legendary jazz composer and saxophonist John Coltrane. This musical inspiration runs deep with original music by Philip White and George Caldwell—honoring Coltrane’s sound and performed live, video and dramaturgical effects centered on his artistry, and choreography echoing the structure and intricacy of the musical form itself.

Surrounded by soft lights, a soloist shifts her weight as the sound of a low drone grows in intensity, soon matched by her increased ferocity. Within moments of “Side A” (“Just a Closer Walk with ‘Trane”) others emerge from the shadows to create the persisting element of a disparate collective that comes to define the work. This is, of course, a physical manifestation of the improvisation and polyrhythms that exemplify jazz.

The eight dancers each unfurl a unique course of movement. At times they succumb to overlapping moments of pacing, starring, stomping, reaching in earnest. All the while abstract projections (Wendall Harrington) splay before and behind the dancers, slowly transforming in shape, then light beams (Russell Sandifer) slice across the stage - all adding to the visual maze. One dancer steps forward and begins scatting. The group bursts forward in a brief fit of moaning before the space transforms into a dream-like place and spoken word acknowledges Coltrane’s expertise, the powerful journey of music.

The second half, “Side B” (“FREED(OM)”), marks a departure from its preceding, abstract counterpart. Here Coltrane’s presence is more vividly felt – namely in the music (which explores his iconic work, “A Love Supreme”) and video imagery that artistically highlights his face, various instruments, and the fascinating scribblings of his “A Love Supreme” score.

The talented Caldwell joins the performers downstage as pianist. The dancers - now in red, white, and blue patterns – embody a lighter energy with quicker footwork and more jumps in lieu of the underlying sense of groundedness felt in “Side A.” As silence takes hold and we can hear their breaths, Coltrane’s handwritten note fills the back screen: “harmonies to a level of blissful stability at the end.”
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY – Jenny Thompson

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