The Nov. 12 performance by Urban Bush Women at Duke’s Reynolds Theater began with a lone dancer, her arms and shoulders rippling with muscles, standing under a misty spotlight as someone offstage read the names of African-American leaders and activists from Sojourner Truth to Malcolm X. It set the tone for the evening.
Though Urban Bush Women performances are ostensibly a form of modern dance, they’re more Toni Morrison than Martha Graham. The troupe’s six dancers avoid nearly any hint of classical ballet forms, focusing on athletic, dramatic stomps, slaps and chest bumps. Troupe founder and choreographer Jawole Willa Jo Zollar uses dance to give voice and movement to the African-American experience.
The four choreographed works performed at Duke were social commentary as performance, and not in a subtle way either. The opener to “Naked City,” a new work designed to represent the history of Harlem, began with the dancers, in turn, howling like animals as they sat in folding chairs. The show’s final moments, at the end of a long piece based on the diaries of African-American dancer Pearl Primus, showcased a kind of tribal dance hybrid, complete with chants from the dancers and an onstage reading of excerpts from Primus’s writings.
But the best moment, for my money, was from one of UBW’s earliest pieces, “Sisters,” which managed to tell a compelling and often hilarious story of childhood without a word spoken. Like Morrison’s writing, UBW’s performances are interpretive and sometimes inscrutable, but the focus on impressionistic, non-linear storytelling opens the door to something that is unconventional and beautiful, and couldn’t be expressed any other way.