A Conversation with Jawole Willa Jo Zollar

By Amara Tabor Smith


The following is an exchange between former Urban Bush Women Associate Artistic Director and dancer Amara Tabor Smith and Urban Bush Women’s founder and Director, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar. Zollar opens up about the collaborative process for Les Escailles de la Memoire, (Scales of Memory) which was created with the Senegal-based Compagnie Jant-Bi and their Director Germaine Acogny. Together with the seven women of Urban Bush Women and the seven men of Compangie Jant-Bi, the choreographers explore the themes of memory, resistence, and love, highlighting the visceral links between African Americans and Africans and delving into the chasms and similarities of gender, history and geography. The work will be showing at YBCA April 4-6, 2008.

Amara Tabor Smith: How did you (Jawole) and Germaine first meet and how did the collaboration initially unfold?

Jawole Willa Jo Zollar: We met at the conference on contemporary African dance in Gainesville, Florida. When I met her, I felt something so strong and powerful and she felt it too. Then our companies were together in Chicago and the companies felt it too.

Amara: Yes, I remember that. I was there. It was an incredible connection.

Jawole: When we met in Chicago we began to think of a project in phases; the first one being to see if we could even collaborate. This phase began with three weeks that the company (Urban Bush Women) spent in Senegal with Compangie Jant-Bi improvising and exploring. That was in December 2005. There was creative tension in this process and we wanted this to push us both creatively.

Phase two began in 2006 spending time raising money to fund the project. Then we came together and found the theme of the work, which is seen as a journey—across time, continents, gender, culture, experience.

We found that we share a resistance to oppression. We have a section on this and a section on memory. We researched the history of slavery from Gorée Island to the plantations in the south. As well as how we celebrate the life circle throughout all cultures. The journey to love section is the journey of acceptance of our history.

Amara: What were some of the challenges/dynamics that the dancers faced being a company of seven African American women working together with seven African men?

Jawole: It was hard for some of the dancers from Jant-bi to accept some of the women as African. It created a creative tension. It was hard for some of the women of UBW to not be accepted as African. I had dealt with that already a long time ago having traveled over many years to the continent and experienced not being seen as African but Germaine said, “To accept who you are as African American, you accept the strength of that legacy and that is something to be proud of.”

There is an emotional longing for being African as an African American. It’s hard to be proud of being American because of the legacy of slavery and oppression that it represents.

There were a number of other challenges. Languages and assumptions of understanding when you really didn’t. Also, differences in cultures. We have different ways of doing and being—the ideas of noon and midnight and how we say time in French or Wolof—sometimes we just didn’t understand each other.

Amara: What were some things that you learned in this collaboration process that were new or different for you?

Jawole: There was a process of the planning. I work collaboratively with dancers and Germaine does even more so. She has her dancers generate all of the material. The whole piece (Scales) is made in that way.

Germaine has a training process of finding people who can generate movement with depth and savvy and we become the directors or shapers.

What I really appreciated was the time we had…taking the time to let things unfold.

Rehearsing in Senegal the studios are out doors and look out into the horizon, the African Savanna, it gave a sense of expanse that is different than rehearsing inside a studio. I realized that I need to rehearse and create in a sense of expansion…I can maintain something in a studio, but for the creation of work I need space…I can be blocked by the limitations of the space. It is why I have a hard time creating in NYC. I thought it was because I lived there but it is because I need a sense of expansion.

Amara: How did you negotiate leadership?

Jawole: We took a long time to develop trust, Germaine doesn’t mince words. When she doesn’t like something, she says so. That for me works so much easier and I think that is something that I have hesitated to do because American culture doesn’t respond well to a woman being that direct. That we both put everything on the table and were so direct worked well for both of us.

There was a section that I felt stronger about and she didn’t like it but she finally agreed. We respected that 98% of the time we were in agreement and other times we would let it live…

It helped that we had dinner most nights together and we didn’t talk about the piece. We had what Steven Kent (a director friend) calls “porch time,” that is a big part of the process…

Amara: How did the dancers respond to this shared leadership process?

Jawole: Germaine’s insistence that dancers make whole sections and the directors go away was an adjustment. Letting the dancers believe the movement and feel it or let it go when something wasn’t working for them. It would take my dancers time to connect to some things and for them to be able to come around and really know that they had the permission to actually say that it wasn’t connecting for them. Sometimes the dancers would look at things from a compositional view.

As the dancers generated material, I noticed the men would start from a conceptual place and the women from movement place. The Jant-Bi men worked from intention first and letting the movement come out of intention, while the UBW women would create phrases and let intention come out of that.

Amara: Did you have any more “aha” moments?

Jawole: The other aha moment would be Germaine’s use of ritual in the creative process. Everyday we connected to the energy of the space, of the work.

We utilized different ceremonies to keep us connecting to the process sometimes going to the ocean. It helped me to understand the importance of ritual in this intense work we are doing.

The collaboration was almost three ways with Nora (Chipaumire) adding a choreographic vision as a kind of dramaturg to this work.

Amara: Last thoughts?

Jawole: The main thing is for people not to think that there is a story. This piece is like going to a show in a gallery where every piece has it’s own energy but is part of the same show. Take in each moment of this work as a photograph without looking for the story.

It was very important the way Germaine is grounded in spiritual traditions and being open to using them in our process. This piece calls the ancestors and it was important to have ritual to ground this process.

Witness the culmination of this collaborative process at the performance of Les Escailles de la Memoire, (Scales of Memory) April 4-6 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater. Connect to a podcast with the choreographers and a film from this past summer’s creative residency, hosted by the Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography at Florida State University, at mancc.org.

Amara Tabor-Smith is a dancer/choreographer/ San Francisco Native and Oakland resident whose work can best be described as Afro Futurist Conjure Art. She is the artistic director of Deep Waters Dance Theater and is the co-artistic director of Headmistress, an international duet collaboration with danc- er/choreographer Sherwood Chen. Tabor-Smith has performed in the works of artists such as, Ed Mock, Joanna Haigood, Adia Tamar Whitaker, Ronald K. Brown/Evidence, Aya de Leon, Anna Deveare Smith, Faustin Linyekula, Anne Bluethenthal and Marc Bamuthi Joseph. She is a former dancer and associate artistic director of Urban Bush Women Dance Co. Tabor-Smith is an appointed lecturer of dance in the Theater, Dance and Performance Studies department at UC Berkeley and is currently finishing her MFA in Dance at Hollins University and the University of Music and Performing Arts in Germany.