Hep Hep Sweet Sweet is the opening piece of three, for the Urban Bush Women, a Brooklyn, New York-based dance company, celebrating its 30th Anniversary at the Newmark Theatre in downtown Portland, presented by White Bird. It begins in a lively mood, “Parker’s Mood” in fact, by Charlie Parker, with everyone costumed in fantastic sequined cocktail dresses that mesmerize onlookers, depending on the carefully designed lighting. Their style of dance should be immediately intriguing for anyone seeing them for the first time, yet it is performed so naturally that it can be taken for granted. I suppose after thirty years, the fusion of American contemporary, African-American jazz, hip-hop, and traditional African styles, is no longer any source of controversy or innovation, in itself. Of course it is innovative, but perhaps company Founder and Choreographer, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, seeks different means of change, having already accomplished the invention of a style that a young troupe can pick up and pass on. She is not present for this run, demonstrating her trust in the creative process and her own dancers.
One compelling theme threading through each piece is the awkward silence of tragedy next to the ecstatic noise of celebration, reminding the audience of the underlying misery behind the performers of great black music, as well as the quick slide from pleasure to misery. As the work passed through several classic jazz tunes, I reflected many times on the strength of black families, artists, and anyone whose life was and continues to be confronted by racial persecution.
This musical heritage evolved from a denial by convenience to something introspective and tragic by intention. John Coltrane’s era changed the sound with spiritualism and celebration of gains in civil rights. The Charlie Parker era was just as convenient for whites to hear swinging music that made no mention of racism, as it was for blacks to try and forget. Everyone could pretend that segregation worked, that everyone was free, because black entertainers could work at white clubs, even if they couldn’t stand in the white section.
This is basically what the first section of the night is about. It is set in a fictional night club called Hep Hep Sweet Sweet, drawing inspiration from the choreographer’s real life experience with a mother whose presence at Kansas City jazz joints was ubiquitous. A poor family rides high above the struggle of daily life by staying in the present, the now, and the now at that time was jazz, an ecstatic music invented by African-Americans during their Great Migration north. This period offered a sense of relief, the capacity to work as respectable artists must have been a tremendous feeling. It perhaps gave enough gratitude to a generation to ignore segregation.
George Caldwell accompanies several sections in the night from the grand piano, giving the real feel of those night club scenes. At least two of the dancers could really sing. A heartbreaking scat solo by one singer-dancer made a strong impact in the audience. We loved her extraordinary chops and the range of expression in her voice, surprised by this dancer who became a tremendous jazz singer on a dime. She’s losing herself in it, beating back the past which drags her down, “I can’t go back… I can’t go back! I can’t bat-em bat-em zoom cat-at at-dat-dat at-a-bang bop!!” This repeats a few times, whirling back from selfless scat improvisation to despair, and you may begin to see clearly that relationship between pleasure, pain, and repression.
That first piece is definitely the show’s meat and potatoes, offering a linear story with dramatic non-linear performances, classic music and awesome singing, but the follow-up from intermission takes the cake.
The second piece, Give Your Hands to Struggle, is an excerpt from a larger work. It speaks more literally to civil rights, naming historic names involved in the movement. It is a solo dance set to music of that title, by Bernice Johnson Reagan, embodying the battles, the victory, and the despair, all that which can be conjured in a short piece. In the end, the names were the martyrs of late, whose lives were taken at the hands of first-responders, namely, white police officers. It reminded me of the way that Martin Luther King Jr. and others were assassinated. And by the way, Barack Obama is never mentioned, perhaps because his legacy reflects the desire of a man who wants to keep his own life.
The night ends with the addition of an Urban Bush Man to the troupe, for a total of seven dancers. Caldwell offers an original composition, about twenty minutes in length (including silences), that pays tribute to John Coltrane. There are numerous direct quotes, but in large part, it pays tribute to his great harmonic style, his fluidity and virtuosity, as embodied in “A Love Supreme.” He pulls it off with precise hands. He literally looked to me like Breaking Bad’s Walter White on the piano, because of his chin beard, glasses, and collared shirt. But as soon as he stepped up to the stage at the end of the show, I realized he was wearing a more spiritual outfit and that he is a black man. This is a side note and has little significance, except that maybe his piano playing is as precise as White’s alter-ego, Heisenburg, and with all the uncertainty.
This work, “Walking the Trane”, is more collaborative than the previous two, including the input of Samantha Speis (a senior dancer) and the improvisation of the whole troupe. I don’t interpret this one as a story, like the other; it is more of a spiritual piece. The Urban Bush style is on full display here. Through to the end, these women exude enthusiasm, and this new man gives a little bit more flavor to the whole. He sometimes led the sections, and his steps were fresh, so there was no diminishment of energy at all, and he became a source. Similar things can be said of Samantha Speis.
I feel like I’m being non-descriptive because it became abstract here. Every step is interesting, but if you space out for a minute then you can pick up anywhere. I’ll just say that it is equally jovial and sad, the ending is tragic and beautiful. In fact, the audience prematurely applauded, just moments before the piece was meant to end. They could not contain it, although they felt that resolution. It was a solo, too. The woman somehow transmits the emotion of “A Love Supreme” and it reverberated through the hands clapping. I can’t say why, but this is all about fighting until you’re the last one standing. It’s about taking a stand. It’s about turning your back on injustice, not a blind eye.
For the first time in dozens of White Bird events, I could actually see black families everywhere I looked. I saw a father holding a little girl’s jacket as she felt inspired to spin gracefully into it, landing her arms perfectly in the sleeves. I think the Urban Bush Women have another generation of dancers to come, maybe thirty more good years ahead of them. Jawole Willa Jo Zollar has created a troupe that isn’t dependent on her. Sadly though, they can all depend on hate, injustice, and inequality as a creative source indefinitely. But you’ll like what they do with it.
Urban Bush Women end their run tonight, links below for more information. White Bird also announced the publication of their next season. Two more events will take place this month and they will return in October.