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Founder of Urban Bush Women fuses modern dance and social justice work

A conversation with Gish Prize winner Jawole Willa Jo Zollar

When Jawole Willa Jo Zollar established her modern dance company, Urban Bush Women, in 1984 she wanted to highlight dance traditions of the African diaspora while also centering social issues like homelessness and migration.

Over the decades, Zollar, 71, has received critical acclaim and earned some of art’s most prestigious awards, including a MacArthur Foundation fellowship in 2021 and a Guggenheim fellowship in 2009. Last month, she won the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize, which grants $250,000 to an artist who has made an “outstanding contribution to the beauty of the world.”

But Urban Bush Women (UBW) was never merely a dance company and Zollar was always more than a choreographer. Using Zollar’s skills as an artistic director and organizer, the dance company developed the Choreographic Center Initiative, which invests in the development of women and non-binary choreographers of color, a similar program for producers, and a Summer Leadership Institute that trains artists to become frontline social justice workers.

Zollar, who is also a professor at Florida State University, said her social justice work has her thinking lately about Gen Z and the financial conditions that are most conducive to creating art. She recalled that when she first moved to New York City in 1980, she shared a one-bedroom apartment with her brother, splitting the $230 rent.

“So I could live in a way that put my art making front and center, even with odd jobs,” said Zollar. “We are in a really different economy now. I’ve been grappling with how to talk to more students about how they’re living. We’ve got this enormous student debt and it’s not one solution. … A student coming out [of college] as a dance major with tons of debt is going to have a hard time trying to then be the dancer they want to be in New York today.”

Zollar has several new works in development, including Scat! a dance-driven musical based on her parents’ migration from the South to the Midwest and her first opera, Intelligence, based on a true story of an enslaved Black woman who spied for the Union during the Civil War.

Andscape caught up with Zollar soon after she won the Gish Prize to talk about her career.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Can you take us back to when you founded Urban Bush Women?

Well, that’s almost 40 years ago … [Laughs.] but the thing that I was interested in was really pursuing a choreographic vision that was based on ensemble theater practices and jazz ensemble practices. How could a group of people who were each very distinct and original in their own voice and physicality come together through methodologies that we would devise together? I had this vision of a rough-hewn physical approach that also dealt with theater, singing vocalizations, but was centered in movement. From the beginning, the ensemble practice always valued that the dancers would be collaborative partners.

The organization evolved beyond choreography.

Some people see us just for the work we do on stage as a dance company. Some people see the work that we do in community and don’t know the artistic process, research, and teaching side of the work. Some people don’t know the ways that we’ve really studied organizational culture and have been diligent about what kinds of models we are creating. But we’re this complex organism that has many, many arms.

One of those arms, the Summer Leadership Institute, trains artists to become “frontline social justice workers.” When did you start using that term and what prompted this project?

We were invited to do a three-month residency in New Orleans in 1990. I didn’t want to just do the typical residency model. I wanted to look at how we could be a part of the organizing and artistic practices of that community. When that group of people we did that initial innovation with turned over — as companies do — I realized we didn’t have a way of passing this information on.

At first, I was thinking of it as some kind of ongoing professional development for UBW. But then I thought, well, why should it just be something for the company? Could it have a larger application far beyond just us?

In July, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar won the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize, which grants $250,000 to an artist who has made an “outstanding contribution to the beauty of the world.”

John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

In 2008, the Institute was in New Orleans at the invitation of arts workers who were exhausted after [Hurricane] Katrina and trying to rebuild. They were artists and organizers, and they were dealing with housing. They were dealing with getting infrastructure. They were dealing with getting grocery stores opened in their neighborhoods. They were dealing with huge mental health and equity issues. So that’s when we started using that term “frontline social justice workers” and we realized it had applications way beyond New Orleans.

Then when we moved it to New York, we looked at a 10-day model. We wanted it to be not just for dancers, but for organizers, educators, for us to really look at structural racism, sexism, homophobia — all of these things that impact how we work in communities and the kinds of work that we do as artists — through movement synthesis and movement-centered practices.

What does it mean for this kind of leadership training to be centered in movement?

What I learned as we were developing these community engagement methodologies for UBW is that when things were placed in the body, the learning deepened and synthesized in a different way. So it may be that you have a workshop that is mostly discussion or presentation. But then if we did something afterwards where we looked at: Where is that sitting in our body? How do we express that creatively? There’s something that went deeper and began to unfold in a more profound way than only talking about something or experiencing more passively as a workshop.

Of course, there’s been studies of embodied learning that have done all of that academic work. We were practitioners following our deep belief and hunch that the embodiment, that the ways that we work as dancers, could be applied to general populations. But we had to make it in a way that felt safe for people, so that they didn’t feel shame about their bodies in the way that I think sometimes certain kind of dance forms can cause.

What skills are required to do this work?

We work from a values base. So the skills are almost secondary. If you don’t have a strong sense of values, then you don’t have an authenticity about how you are. We work with a partner organization called The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond that does workshops called ‘Understanding and Undoing Racism,’ and community organizing. It’s looking at it from a very grassroots community organizing perspective, which I think if you’re running a dance company, you’re a community organizer. If you’re teaching, you’re a community organizer. So what does it mean to understand how structural racism, how internalized racial oppression is affecting how you are organizing your structures, how you’re treating the students.

We have a workshop called ‘Entering, Building, and Exiting Community,’ which centers our values around working in communities. Particularly as artists coming from New York, often we can be looked at as the experts. And how do we disrupt that? We’re coming in as catalytic visitors to learn about a community and to support the things that we’re in alignment with and our partners in community.

This summer, the leadership institute asked “Are We Democracy?” Tell about this theme.

I’m very influenced by the writer Adrienne Maree Brown, and working with the idea that if we’re trying to take on these big institutions that are in fact threatening democracy, but if we are not doing the work on the smallest level of our own organizations, then we can’t really take on the big things. So for us, it’s looking at UBW: How do we create better practices? How are we looking at examining ourselves and our own work as leaders? What is the difference between a directed experience where there is a director and everybody’s clear on roles and responsibilities, as opposed to a dictatorial experience?

A lot of structures and practices — particularly around how theater is made, how dance is made, how we are compensating artists — have all come under questioning. We looked at our voting rights — that I feel are being disassembled — and then we looked at how we’re running our organizations. If we’re a part of an organization, how are we speaking up, showing up, and then what does that do to what the work looks like.

Has the work with the leadership institute changed your process in the studio?

Tremendously. I mean, I came out of the old school where the founders of dance companies and their teaching methodologies were very abusive. So I modeled that same thing until I started to really understand that if I’m talking about social justice, but I’m modeling these same behaviors of infantilizing dancers and abusive language and feeling like I have the right to treat people any way I want because I’m the director, then I’m not walking my talk.

So it made me go inside and look at what I was doing first. And then ask, how has the organization been set up around this and how do we change that. It’s going to be be messy, but if we do the work, I think we’re going to really find something.

For UBW, a value has been that children are welcome in the studio and travel with us on the road, because it’s mostly women. So how do we foster an environment, how do we even start to deal with this in terms of providing support. And then, is the support only for people with children? Really, to me it should be around families, because so many of us are dealing with elder care. This is something we’re grappling with and I don’t know where we will land or how we will land.

How does it feel to be recognized with such a significant award like the Gish Prize?

When I got the MacArthur, I was overjoyed but I had a different reaction when I got this one. It freaked me out. I was really kind of vulnerable — like a tortoise, I just wanted to go into a shell. And then I realized I was having this reaction because it’s singular. With the MacArthur, there were a lot of people [honored], but this is singular. So it had a weird effect on me initially that I’ve moved through and processed with the help of a lot of wonderful friends. It is particularly exciting for me given that past awardees include Spike Lee and Ava DuVernay, two of my favorite filmmakers.

I’m still blown away when I read about Dorothy and Lillian Gish. When you look at the mission statement of these two women who I knew from silent movies — what a forward-thinking vision. It’s like a call, it gives me a way to ask, how do you think beyond your lifetime.

Candice Thompson is a writer and dance critic living in Brooklyn.