The Freedom of Tradition BY ANN DALY BONES AND ASH: A GILDA STORY. By Urban Bush Women. Choreographed by Jawole Willa Jo Zollar. Carver Center, San Antonio, April 2. ON OCTOBER 10, 1994, Time magazine’s cover trumpeted a “Black Renaissance.” “African American artists,” the subhead explained, “are truly free at last.” While the mainstream mouthpiece may have grossly overstated its self-congratulatory case, especially in light of its emphasis on how such choreographers as Bill T. Jones “are closer in spirit to the works of white choreographers like Mark Morris than to those of Alvin Ailey” \(which raises the question: true that African-American choreographers have had a major impact on dance in the last decade. Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, artistic director of the New York-based Urban Bush Women, has figured prominently in the postmodern dance scene since the summer of 1984, when the New York Times gave the company’s premiere performance a favorable review. Since. then, Zollar has delivered the keynote address at the 1990 Dance Critics Association annual meeting, choreographed for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, been awarded a 1992 New York Dance & Performance award and a 1994 Capezio Award, and seen her 1990 work Praise House adapted for film by Julie Dash. Zollar, presented most recently by San Antonio’s Carver Community Cultural Center on April 2, along with David Rousseve, presented by the Carver last season, and the San Francisco-based Robert Henry Johnson, presented by Austin Dance Umbrella last month, are harvesting one of the richest of African-American performance traditions. Storytelling and family oral history bring to the stage a journeya way of looking backward that can propel us forward. That’s exactly how Zollar has approached her newest work, Bones and Ash: A Gilda Story. As one character explains, through stories, “It’s as if I were seeing the world for myself.” Based on the novel The Gilda Stories by Jewelle GOrnez, the evening-length dance/theatre/music piecepart realistic, Ann Daly is a professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance at the University of Texas at Austin. part phantasmagorictraces the life of “GildaGirl,” an escaped slave who is taken in by Gilda and Bird, the lover-proprietors of a New Orleans bordello. GildaGirl’s story spans two centuries, because she has been given the gift of perpetual life by Gilda, who is part of a vampire community. The first act begins in in the year 2050 and travels back to 1850 New Orleans, and the second act shifts forward from 1890 New Orleans to 1955 Boston. In the preface, one of the vampire chorus, a trio that accompanies us on this epic trek, tells us that “the past is a place I visit on my way to the next two hundred years.” The shape of her life, she explains, is motion. As GildaGirl makes her way through time and space, she finds women dressed like boys, a world ruled by gold and scattered with black bodies swinging in the air. She builds community “anywhere there are two of us,” and finds that a century later, little has changed. In 1955 Boston, GildaGirl encounters the past: her childhood friend, who becomes her lover, and the male vampire Fox, whose violent nature, a product of white oppression, has left a trail of battered and murdered female bodies across the centuries. In a battle of opposing forces, GildaGirl kills Fox, as she did the white man who tried to rape her in 1850 New Orleans. Women, she finds, are still struggling to find their power, which “is a frightening thing.” At evening’s end, we are left with an image of the female body as the repository of history, journey, and wisdom: “a tightly-bound package of everything we need to know.” The production, whose evocative set defeatures, is not without its problems. Overall, the realism and the fantasy tend to remain discrete and the narrative rather linear, and except for a few key scenes, Bones and Ash never quite achieves the feeling of poetry that has characterized earlier works. And although the company’s own notes describe the vampires as women who “take blood and leave whatever vision, idea, or dream the person is seeking,” the dramaturgically muddy representation of lesbianism as vampirism is, unfortunately, a stereotype that works against the production’s intended celebration of these women as “nurturers and healersand warriors if need be.” Zollar’s aesthetic of collaborative theatrewhich integrates words, music, and dancedraws upon her childhood experiences in the floor shows for black social clubs, upon her participation in reader’s the atre with a gospel choir, upon African-American folklore and spiritual traditions, and upon the expressive forms of the AfricanAmerican community, especially those of the church. The movement derives from Zollar’s early Afro-Cuban dance studies with Katherine Dunham student Joseph Stevenson and later studies in jazz improvisation with Dianne McIntyre. In the work of Blondell Cummings, she recognized the usefulness of personal history and gesture, and in that of Kei Takei she saw the necessity for training people to move naturally. For choreographers such as Zollar, Rousseve, and Johnson, the challenge has been to find a way to work with both the Euro-American forms of dance and African-American traditions. And ‘ they have succeeded, creating a genre that is betwixt and between, keeping both traditions in dialogue, without settling on either side too comfortably. In fact, this body of work supports an argument that postmodern dance and African-American movement practices are quite mutually informing. Their work is adding an emotional richness to contemporary dance that is, for the most part, elsewhere lacking. For example, Johnson’s solo with drummer, A Nappyred Summer: Vesper, reaches for poetry of both word and motion, telling the story of peaches and a nappy-headed stranger, a seduction of metaphors and bodies that outdoes the elder Rousseve, whose Urban Scenes/Creole Dreams takes up the story of his powerful, gentle, unrelenting grandmother. When Rousseve was a keynote speaker at a conference on dance and gender, he was taken to task by a white woman for being another man appropriating a woman’s story, in particular her rape memory. I found such criticism unfounded, and still do, because oral history functions so differently in the African-American community than it has in the Euro-American community. Such storytelling is a cultural legacy, and in that sense Rousseve does indeed “own” his grandmother’s story. She made a gift of it to him, in the hopes that he would own and retell it. In Bones and Ash, as Gilda bites the neck of the young GildaGirl, thus bestowing upon her the potential of eternity, she explains that the gift is “learning how to live”: seeing people how they really are and still wanting to continue on. Urging faith and promising life everlasting, the theatre becomes a church. The sacred and the secular, like flesh and blood, like Gilda and Bird, become one. THE TEXAS OBSERVER 21
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