Molding Bodies

Photo: Robert Hart
Photo: Robert Hart

Meadows Prize winner Jawole Willa Jo Zollar on collaborating with Southern Methodist University dance students and celebrating 30 years of her company, Urban Bush Women.

Dallas — Choreographer Jawole Willa Jo Zollar was recently in Dallas at Southern Methodist University’s Meadows School of the Arts, immersing its dance students in her movement style and rehearsal process. From Feb. 17-28, Zollar taught classes and worked with a select group of students on the restaging of her workChalabati, which will be performed at the Meadows’ Spring Dance Concert March 26-30.

Zollar originally developed Chalabati for students at Virginia Commonwealth University and it is currently in the repertoire of her company, Urban Bush Women (UBW). “Even though the movement is new for a lot of the dancers they are really hungry,” Zollar says. “In the end they all found what I was looking for.”

Zollar’s two-week residency is part of her reward for winning this year’s Meadows Prize from SMU’s Meadows School of the Arts. According to the school, the Meadows Prize is awarded to pioneering artists and scholars who are active in a discipline represented by one of the academic units within the Meadows School. Zollar will return for the second half of her residency Nov. 10-21 to stage Walking with ‘Trane… Chapter 3, a new dance suite inspired by John Coltrane’s formidable legacy and his seminal work A Love Supreme.

Growing up in Kansas City, Mo., Zollar trained with Joseph Stevenson, a student of the legendary Katherine Dunham. She earned a B.A. in dance from the University of Missouri at Kansas City and a M.F.A. in Dance from Florida State University before moving to New York City to study with Dianne McIntyre at Sounds In Motion. “I was always a choreographer,” Zollar says, “Growing up I always enjoyed making up dances and scenarios, but I just didn’t really know or understood what it meant at that time.”

The Meadows Prize isn’t Zollar’s only cause for celebration this year. This season also marks UBW’s 30th anniversary which Zollar says she’s still trying to wrap her head around. “I don’t think I would have ever thought this could happen. This is just wonderful.” She adds, “There are so many companies out there that just come and go and I think the more unique you are the better chance you have in the long run.”

Zollar founded Urban Bush Women in 1984 as a performance ensemble dedicated to exploring the use of cultural expression as a catalyst for social change. “We are a company that, through our creative work onstage and our work in community, really looks at how we can bring out the ‘physicalization’ of stories that give perspectives that are not  a part of the dominate culture.” In addition to her 34 works for UBW, Zollar has also created works for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Philadanco, University of Maryland, Virginia Commonwealth University and has worked with collaborators including Compagnie Jant-Bi from Senegal and Nora Chipaumire.

Asked to sum up her experience at SMU, Zollar says she was very pleased with the Meadows School and its dancers. “The students are just fantastic. I really enjoyed working with them and watching them grow.” Zollar adds that she has also grown during her time at SMU. “As a teacher you are always striving to be more articulate and this experience has taught to be more articulate in class and in rehearsal.” And if there’s one thing Zollar would like the dancers to remember from their time with her, it’s how they distribute their weight. “It’s that shift of weight in the pelvis that enables dancers to get on and off the floor very quickly.”

The Meadows Spring Dance Concert will also feature Cold Virtues (2003) by Meadows Artist-in-Residence Adam Hougland; and D-Man in the Waters (1989) by Tony Award-winning choreographer Bill T. Jones. The Saturday evening concert will include a special tribute to Ann Williams, founder and artistic director of Dallas Black Dance Theatre, and Lily Cabatu Weiss, chair of the dance department at Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, with performances by DBDT and Booker T. dancers.

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