What Ensemble Touring Can Learn from Dance
Jeffrey Mosser: Dear artists, welcome to another episode of From the Ground Up podcast, produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide. I’m your host, Jeffrey Mosser, recording from the ancestral homeland of the Potawatomi, Ho-Chunk, and Menominee, now known as Milwaukee, Wisconsin. These episodes are shared digitally to the internet. Let’s take a moment to consider the legacy of colonization embedded within the technology, structure, and ways of thinking that we use every day. We are using equipment and high-speed internet not available in many Indigenous communities. Even the technologies that are central to much of the work we make lead a significant carbon footprint contributing to climate change that disproportionately affects Indigenous people worldwide. I invite you to join me in acknowledging the truth and violence perpetrated in the name of this country, as well as our shared responsibility to make good of this time and for each of us to consider our roles in reconciliation, decolonization, and allyship.
Dear artists, I am so glad to be back with you here in season three. The way the pandemic was going, I wasn’t sure if I’d have the time or the energy to do another season despite lining up several interviews, but my curiosity prevailed, and I had to keep asking questions to those who develop and support collaboratively creative art. So here we are. I’m glad to be back. One reason I wanted to keep this podcast going is because over the past few years I had some people in my life who reached out to me: one person who’s known me for maybe ten years and another person who I only just met. Both of them said, “Are you still doing your podcast?” And after I wiped the shocked look off my Zoom face, I said, “I am.” So Aaron and Don, thanks so much for your encouragement.
But now, to you, my audience, I truly don’t know who is listening out there besides Aaron and Don, so I’m hoping that you might be able to do me a solid. If you are a fan of From The Ground Up, please find, follow, and favorite us on Instagram and Twitter. You can find the podcast @ftgu_pod on those, and you can also email me at [email protected]. I’d love to know more about you and what you want to hear about on this show, seriously. And thank you in advance. You can find me personally on Instagram at @ensemble_ethnographer.
I am really proud of this season, with lots of exceptional artists and creators from around the world. That’s right, this season we’ve gone international with our interviewees, including folks from Ontroerend Goed from Belgium who are at the Under the Radar Festival in 2023 and with a senior dramaturg from the National Theatre of London who enlightens us about their Generate program dedicated to supporting new work of small and mid-sized companies around the United Kingdom. National Theatre has been on my radar for a long time, ever since I found out that War Horse was developed there. And if you want to talk about an example of supporting large-scale ensemble pieces, that is it.
This season, we’ll also hear from writers and practitioners from folks who’ve got texts out there that I want y’all to know about, including Cristal Chanelle Truscott, developer of SoulWork, which you can read about in Black Acting Methods; as well as Aaron Landsman’s and Mallory Catlett’s book The City We Make Together based on their recreation of a city council meeting and the civic practices it engages in its participatory audiences. We kick this season off with some really lovely human beings who are here to discuss what it means to curate and create for festival and touring, which brings us to today’s guest, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, founder and chief visioning partner at Urban Bush Women. Believe it or not, she has been on my radar since 2016 when I first started this podcast, and I’m glad to be speaking with her now after so many great milestones have been reached for that organization. They’ve been named an American Cultural Treasure by the Ford Foundation. They’ve celebrated their thirty-eighth year, and Jawole was named 2021 MacArthur Fellow.
Together we’re discussing touring and festival culture in America, where it has come from, where it is going and what theatre can learn from dance companies. You’re going to hear references to folks we’ve encountered on this podcast before, including Junebug Productions and John O’Neal from New Orleans from season one, episode six. You’ll also hear a reference to Pregones, which as you may remember, was where UNIVERSES got their start in New York City. We talked to them in season two, episode four. And another reference to that same episode, we mentioned Bill Rauch, who was the artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival who brought Universes there and now at the Perelman Performing Arts Center. Our world is tightening up, y’all. It’s getting smaller and smaller. You’ll also hear some amazing references throughout the conversation to dance troops and theatre companies, including Roadside Theater. I’ll be sure to put links to their work on the show page at howlround.com.
Two last things—I promise and then I’m done. First of all, the recordings are possible, thanks to Quasimondo Physical Theatre in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Without their professional Zoom line, I would not have been able to record these within the time limits Zoom provides. So, many thanks to that organization. Second, I would not have been able to connect with Jawole if not for a dear friend Carl Riley, who toured with the Urban Bush Women on their Homecoming tour. I spent hours in Carl’s office staring at a beautiful poster from the tour. Carl, if you’re listening, thank you, I love you, and I hope your spirit is dancing like it usually is. All right, with no further ado, let’s jump into our call with Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, coming to us from Miccosukee, Seminole, Creek, and Apalachee land. Our conversation was held on April 4, 2022. Enjoy.
I came to think of you because I know Carl Riley. Do you know Carl-
Jawole Willa Jo Zollar: Oh, yes. Carl told me that you were going to reach out to me. And Carl is like a dear.... Oh my God, he’s so talented and so fabulous.
Jeffrey: He had a giant poster of Homecoming in his office.
Jeffrey: So whenever I was in his office, I had this moment to look at Home... I was like, “What a beautiful poster.” He would talk so delightfully about you and about the whole experience. Again, thank you so much for joining me, and thanks for taking time to do this. You’ve already jumped out the gates and jumped into my first question of sorts, but I wanted to.... You talked about ensemble, and I love what you have to say about that. And I want to know: What is the Urban Bush Women philosophy then going into your ensemble nature of the work you do?
Jawole: It’s an interesting question about Urban Bush Women. I think it’s a constantly evolving philosophy. When I started it, I was very inspired by theatre ensembles and jazz ensembles. And in particular, what I was inspired by in that idea of jazz or what we commonly call jazz is that there are a group of people who are committed together working in the sound, but they don’t give up their individual sound to be part of a group sound, that there is the marriage of those two things but not the oblation of the individual sound. And that’s what I wanted to really explore as an ensemble. I wanted people to see unique individuals with a unique sound, a unique approach, a unique point of view, and this commitment to working together to find some artistic goal. And that leads us to a practice.
So if I’m making a work, what I’ve learned about myself is that for almost every work that I make, I create a language. So there’s some choreographers like a Martha Graham—she created a language of vocabulary and then she pulled from that vocabulary for all of her works. I like to think that I’m creating some kind of language each time I’m making a work, and that means that then there’s deep process, deep research, and deep study. So people have to be really committed because I’m not saying here’s the step five, six, seven, eight; we’re talking together, we’re going to see things together, we’re reading books together. And out of that comes a particular approach.
Jeffrey: That sort of leans into what you were saying about the New York City Ballet then too. I caught your interview from CUNY TV Black America. You mentioned that the core of ballet was falling apart. I think what you were talking about there is the structural—the very, very high structure of ballet. That sort of content is sort of falling away, and so that the ideas of it, I think you said, “The beauty is the skill”. So I think that leans into that individual skill.
Jawole: As opposed to body type, as opposed to color, as opposed to some of the ways that ballet has narrowed its definition of who could do the work. So when I say falling away, I think that means it’s being challenged and I think that’s a good thing. And then on other levels of ballet training, which is not necessarily where the person is trying to become a professional ballet person but the idea of: Can this training live and coexistence with this history and being in the moment of now? How does it find that when it is studied as a technique and a training? And it’s history, yes, it comes out of this court elitist colorist approach, but how does it evolve to the now? And I think companies are really working with that and exploring that. I think this is the moment where it’s been demanded that that’s what happens. And I think it’s a very interesting moment.
Jeffrey: Do you see these challenges going into other art forms beyond ballet, beyond dance?
Jawole: Everything, everything. I think the assumptions around the hierarchies that have been set up in not just the art world but in the world are being challenged. And I think that’s a good thing. I think sometimes we have to be careful of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I know there’s people that I talk to, and they think ballet shouldn’t exist. It’s an old form, it’s dead. And I don’t agree with that. Any form that is over certain many years is going to have to be looked at from where we are now, but that doesn’t mean you throw everything out.
Someone was talking to me about like, “Oh, I can’t listen to Michael Jackson’s music.” I said, “Honestly, particularly because I’m a music lover, I wouldn’t be listening to anybody’s music.” If I was throwing it out because of misogyny or racism or homophobia, there would be almost no music that I was listening to. That doesn’t mean those things shouldn’t be challenged. They should be challenged. But I don’t think that I have to throw out the genius of which I think comes from a spiritual place, but the life the person is living can’t live up to the creative genius. So for me, I look at the creative genius because otherwise I wouldn’t be looking at most people’s paintings. Almost everything would be thrown out.
Jeffrey: While we’re talking about systems here and while we’re talking about current culture and the programming that is around it, there’s been a call for more responsive and flexible creative practices, notably in the theatre world, something called We See You White American Theater. And I’m wondering, since we’re on this topic, what would you say to an institute that’s built on that systemic racism to help them take that next step towards their growth away from it?
Jawole: Honestly, that’s their labor. That’s the labor they need to do. That’s the physical, emotional labor that they need to do. There’s lots of ways and approaches and supports out there, but that’s the labor they need to do. Often what I find is that there’s an expectation that Black people, or particularly Black women, will hold that labor, and that can’t be expected. They need to do the work.
Jeffrey: A big focus of this podcast is to talk about sustainability. Again, back to the interview, Black America, you talked about putting art at the center of sustainability and art being the most important thing of that sustainability. The greatest challenge that I hear from folks is finding ways to balance making art the center but also finding the funds, finding the money to feed themselves. Throughout your time with Urban Bush Women, how have you balanced those two things of sustaining the art and then sustaining yourself?
Jawole: Yeah. There’s going to be a tension between those two things. I think that what I have done is try to look when it’s really out of balance. I put the company on hiatus for two and a half years because I felt like it was so out of balance; that the artmaking, the art processes were not at the center. Sustaining the organization was at the center. And what’s the point of sustaining an organization if at the center is not the artmaking and the work? So I put the company on hiatus to really look at that deeply. We stopped touring for a year and a half as a company. We continued our education work and asked all sorts of questions. Do we need to exist? Is it important that we still exist? Do we need to exist as a company? Do we need to exist as a project-driven basis? So just constantly asking the questions because if you are just sustaining to sustain, what’s the point?
I was willing to let it go. If it doesn’t make sense anymore, then okay, then time to move on, time to think about doing something else. What I learned was it was very important to the world of dance and theatre and art for us to continue. And it was very important for me to be inside of an ensemble practice. So I tried the different project things, project driven, and I was like, “You know what? I really need to be with a group of people for a period of time.” Because my creativity blossoms from having trust and working together, and when it’s just really quick, it’s hard for me to get the engine started. So that’s what I learned about myself in the process. So I think people just, are you sustaining to sustain or are you sustaining because there is a compelling reason, the artwork, or the community that you serve?
And then asking the questions, am I doing this in a way that nurtures me financially; nurtures the people I’m working with financially? We’ve gone up and down with that. At the start of the pandemic, I thought we were going to fold. I wasn’t sure that we were going to make it through. And then we had some very generous funders come in that really supported, but also gave the kind of support that allowed us to have a cash reserve. I mean, before that we were talking about, “Oh yeah, we need to have more money in our cash reserve, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah,” but we didn’t really understand it until the pandemic. It was like, we don’t even have enough for a month of operating. Then it became really clear like, this is not sustainable. We have to have much more grounding.
And I think that’s a hard place for organizations to get to because you’re so in the immediate needs of what things are. So I think that was one of the lessons of the pandemic for many organizations, is, “Okay, how do we build towards that kind of cash reserve, emergency reserve support alongside of making our work?” There’s no one strategy. We were very fortunate that we got sustaining gifts. Everyone’s going to figure that out differently, but we learned that you got to figure that out.
Jeffrey: How many iterations of Urban Bush Women has there been? Or does it change from show to show? I understand you probably cast based on needs or you probably—
Jawole: No, the company’s always been seven people from the very first show in 1984 up until the present. So there’s different... I mean, sometimes people leave in a group, so they kind of came in together. So then one decides to leave and then another, so then you have another kind of generation of groups. Sometimes it’s only one person leaves and you’re replacing one dancer. So it doesn’t have such a sense of a big shift. So it’s happened all different kinds of ways with Urban Bush Women, and I won’t say there’s easier or harder, you just deal with.
Jeffrey: And why seven?
Jawole: It wasn’t a magical number. I asked several people to be in the company in the very first iteration, and the people who agreed were seven. So I built on that number and then that’s what it ended up saying.
What’s the point of sustaining an organization if at the center is not the artmaking?
Jeffrey: Something that I’m exploring right now with ensembles is how touring has been a major factor of contributing to their success and their continuation of their work and creative fulfillment. And I’m wondering how touring has served Urban Bush Women from when you started versus maybe right now?
Jawole: I think our touring support processes systems go through periodic ups and downs infused by funder or certain kinds of initiatives. So for Urban Bush Women, we really benefited from the NPN, the National Performance Network, which was supporting, at that time, work that was not in the popular. It was more pushing avant-garde or however you want to determine it. It was more smaller theatre work. It wasn’t like the big theatre work. And that network was crucial to Urban Bush Women in its early days, along with working at women’s festivals. It was crucial to Urban Bush Women’s identity. Now, as things have changed, there was a point before I came to New York where the NEA had a really robust touring subsidy support and then that went away. And the NDP, New England Dance Touring Project—
Jeffrey: The NEFA? New England Foundation for the Arts.
Jawole: Yes, the NEFA, yes. Then that gave in touring support. So it’s, what we need though is something that can continue to sustain not only the touring, but one of our new initiatives at Urban Bush Women is on strengthening the field with independent producers of color or women of color in particular. I think independent producers got really hit hard during the pandemic. Most of them are not nonprofits, so they were not getting the kinds of grant support that many of us got that were able to sustain us. So it really showed a hole in the field that these group of people who are vital to getting the work done and made—and sometimes the producer is also the booking agent, but sometimes not. That was a part of the field that needed attention. It’s an ecosystem.
The touring network has to be there. And I would say, places like in the deep south, for a certain kind of work, there’s not a strong touring network. They’re working on building that through the, I think it’s a Subsidy Dance Touring South [South Arts] or something like that, but there isn’t the strong infrastructure. Then you got to have the people who help you make the work, who help you find the funds and the rehearsal space and all of that to make the work. Then you got to find the people who are going to book the work, and they have the kinds of relationships to be able to talk to people about it.
And then the artist has to have some kind of cash flow system to support the touring. Because as with touring, you don’t get your fee for the most part until you perform. But you had to buy the tickets, you had to get the costumes, you had to rent the space, you had to do all of those things before your money is really coming in. You have to pay the dancers; you have to pay your tech staff. So it’s a whole circle, and when one part of it isn’t strong, the whole thing gets wobbly.
Jeffrey: Yeah. Has there been a big change to this point? Is it better now or is it worse now or just different parts of the circle stronger now?
Jawole: I can’t tell yet because I think we’re still in a recovery process, so I can’t tell what’s really sustained. I mean, I can’t tell where things are. Urban Bush Women is starting to tour again. Some of that is the backup from when we were supposed to have toured. So some of that is the backup or the rebooking. Once we all get past that period of where presenters are going back to the companies they would have booked, I can’t tell where we are in that next point, that next place.
Jeffrey: Do you have a touring company and then maintain a local company at the same time? Or is it always—
Jawole: It’s the same company. The company that goes on tours, the company that is rehearsing, the company that performs in New York—it’s all the same company.
Jeffrey: Got it. Would you remount something that was from a past iteration, from another iteration of the company, and then come back and continue work on the other project that you maybe had in mind?
Jawole: Well, again, I’m not the artistic director of the touring company anymore. So those two women, Chanon Judson and Samantha Speis, really would make the decisions about the touring company. I’m doing other kinds of projects that intersect or run parallel with them. So it’s a new structure for us and it’s something that we are learning about.
Jeffrey: Mm-hmm. What’s been the biggest learning curve there then?
Jawole: Well, I think we’re just kind of in it because we made the change right before the pandemic. So it’s kind of hard to even know because what I will say is that the two artistic directors, what they really did a good job was pivoting our education work online. That’s not my skillset. They really figured out how to do that beautifully until we could be back in person and starting to rehearse again. I’m choreographing and directing an opera for Houston Grand Opera, a new opera called Intelligence by Jake Heggie (composer) and Gene Scheer (librettist). It takes place during the Civil War, And it involves Urban Bush Women. Well, that work was postponed from ’21 until likely ’23 now. So it’s been hard to... we’ve been kind of like in emergency mode and then now kind of recovery. So I don’t know if what.... A norming may be constant change, that we never go back to the norm of what it was before.
So I think we’re still really figuring out what it means to have these parallel tracks going because we haven’t seen it fully in operation yet. What it means for our infrastructure, our capacity, the organizational capacity, we’re just learning about all of that. So I think the biggest lesson is patience because this is a process and you’re not going to know it all. You don’t know everything about a work until you get in the room with the work. We’re not going to know about this until we really see it play out, and the pandemic is what kind of postponed that.
Jeffrey: So you’ve got seven in your company and then how many folks are on that administrative side of things?
Jawole: There are nine or ten. Some of them are part-time, some of them are full-time. We have a full-time managing director, full-time booking agent is in-house, full-time producer, full-time associate producer, full-time development associate, full-time marketing. I think that’s right. We have a part-time... BOLD is our education program: Builders, Organizers, and Leaders through Dance. Part-time BOLD person, part-time Summer Leadership Institute coordinator. So yes, somewhere in there, and then there’s the artistic team. Because as the artist, you’re going to straddle these worlds of administrative and the artistic world. And what I say to people: “You got to embrace it, and you have to figure out how you find the balance so you can do your best work.”
Jeffrey: Totally. And as I assume, you being one of those folks, how did you find that balance for yourself?
Jawole: Well, the first thing is embracing that you got to do it, and then it’s better if you can figure out the love of it as opposed to the chore of it. In the same way that when you go into rehearsal studio, it’s hard work, and then you got to dig and all of these things, but there’s a joy that that brings, ultimately, as you’re getting through that work. So finding that joy in the administrative because that’s really what’s going to support the work. So for me, it’s finding that joy and understanding that you have to slowly build your infrastructure. You can’t do it all. You cannot do it all.
In the beginning, you might be doing everything as the choreographer. But eventually, you’ve got to figure out a way and then figure out what that balance is. So for me, when we first started, a little bit more of a structure of rehearsing the company. We would rehearse 12:00 to 7:00, so I could have my meetings in the morning and then I could have my rehearsals. Everybody figures it out differently. It’s got to work for you on a logistics level and on the artistic level.
Jeffrey: I’m wondering who you in particular have the most contact within your company and how they help you maintain the art. And then maybe if it’s that same person or someone else in the organization, who might help you maintain the growth.
Jawole: That’s a really provocative question. I think that it’s taken different shapes over different years. So when Nora Chipaumire, who’s a choreographer who was in the company for seven years, Nora came into the company with a choreographic voice. She was a person that I would often talk to, and we were kind of thought partners. Sometimes that exists in the company, sometimes it didn’t exist to such a profound degree. Sometimes it exists outside the company, through dramaturgs; sometimes it was good friends. I want to work with people’s assets, so that may or may not be someone’s asset to be in that kind of conversation and to have confidence in what they’re seeing and noticing. So over the years, that’s just been real different.
Jeffrey: Okay. I think I’m melding two questions as we speak.
Jeffrey: Does touring force you into a container of some sort, whether that’s either abstracting ideas or by simplifying ideas so that the project can tour?
Jawole: It can, or you can look at what the need is and how it’s going to work. So I was touring with Taylor Mac’s 24 Decades. It’s a big show. It toured. Did it tour every week? No. So if a work has a lot of complexity like that, then it’s kind of understanding what are the different ways it can tour, “Here’s the big vision, here’s another version of that.” So it’s really understanding the work. If I’ve got a work that’s got very complicated sets and lights and things like that, then touring life might be a little bit different than a work which I call “lights and tights”. So there’s no set, very minimal props. It’s the dancing in the lights, maybe projections. That kind of work, but I don’t generally think of that. I let that answer itself. As I’m thinking about the work and creating the work, I let that answer itself. I don’t try to like, “Oh, well, if I want to tour this, I better not do this or I better not do that.” Yeah. That, I think, then you start to feel diminished.
There’s been times financially where I did have to think that way because we were on such a financial edge. And it did diminish my thinking. But then the moment that I could get out of that is, how do I think of this realistically that follows the artistic vision? So there was one work that I created in 1988 called Heat. That was early on in my tour. We had just gotten a booking agent, so we didn’t really have very much of a structure. It had, I think, five musicians, three poets, seven dancers, and it was divided into two sections. The first section was called Heat, the second section was called Shelter. And the first section was about desire, longing, sexual heat, and then the second section was about the unhoused, homelessness, displacement.
So as I looked at this work, it was only performed in three places. It was performed in Montpellier, the Kitchen, and Atlanta. Then when I looked at like, “Okay...” At that time I didn’t have the capacity to tour or work with that kind of ensemble. So it ended up, I took Shelter, I took most of the dancing parts, and then brought in one percussionist, and then I took the voice of the three poets. So I read, so I was seated next to the percussionist. And then it became six dancers. That was tourable. I did that because I felt like there was something powerful to say about this work in another way.
So in some ways, it’s because I’ve been around so much jazz music. And I look at different arrangements. There was musicians I would love and I would go to see. Okay, the big band version, same songs, the big band, then I’d see the octet, then I’d see a quintet, then I’d see a duet, and I’m like, “Huh.” So it’s still the same song, but the arrangements are different. And that’s kind of how I started thinking like, how could I think of this work Shelter in a different arrangement rather than a diminishment? Oh, I don’t have the money to do this, but what can be another arrangement? Then I’m in a creative process as opposed to a deficit process.
Jeffrey: Thank you for that. That is some language that I needed to hear. I needed to hear about arrangement because something that I’m so fascinated by is just like, for example, a cover song, as we’re talking. An arrangement is similar to a cover, and that it’s like somebody else doing the music potentially, but you hear it in a whole different way. You get to hear it from somebody else’s point of view. It’s something that’s changed, that illuminates another part that you didn’t hear before potentially.
Jeffrey: So arrangement is, I’m going to keep that for a while. Thank you for that. And lights and tights, I’ll keep that one in my heart for a little while too.
Jawole: Well, I saw Taylor do that with the 24 Decades work, is these different arrangements. So there was the big touring work as in the twenty, as it was conceived not doing the twenty-four-hour again, but breaking that up. And then these different arrangements, there’s still a creative process. If you think of them as a diminishment, a deficit, then I think they can’t reach their full potential. But if I think of the work Praise House, which was an evening length to act work, and then I tried another arrangement called Meditation on Angels of it, it didn’t quite work. And I think because I thought of it as a diminishment of the original work. Then I wasn’t in the creative space. I was like, “Oh, well, let me try to make...” And again, that doesn’t work, but had.... And this was young in my practice, so this was ’92. So I’m still figuring a lot of things out. Had I understood at that time? No, think of it as an arrangement, then it would’ve just opened up in a different way.
Jeffrey: I’ve noted from your website and from different interviews with you that you create a lot of community on the road while you’re on tour as well. And I’m wondering if you can talk about how you’ve seen success with creating community on the road.
Jawole: Connecting into community on the road is a committed practice. It does take time and expertise and asking the right questions. How we started developing this is, when we would start touring, there would be like, “Okay, you need to go to this school and do outreach.” So we’d go to the school, they weren’t prepared for us, the students weren’t prepared for us, there was no preparation or probably no follow-ups. So we just arrived on them and it’s like, I don’t think this is a good thing. So I started to question that approach and started to look at, what if we looked at this differently and looked at how we were going to be engaging with this group of people rather than just plopping something down where the students are? “This is good for you. You’re going to look at this lecture demonstration of this performance. It’s good for you. Now you’re getting art and there’s no other thing.”
Lots of other people have.... Lincoln Center Institute used to have the aesthetic education, I don’t know if that still exists, where they would hire teaching artists to go to schools in preparation of a work that they were going to see so that they would engage them in the themes or something about it. So then when the students came to see the work, there was already a relationship developed with the work through these teaching practices. For us, we started to understand. And I have to say, Sam and Chanon took this even further. During the pandemic, one of the discoveries was, “Oh, we could do online work.” Now that touring is resuming, we could still do this online work, which is engaging people so that when they’re coming to see the work, there’s already a relationship. So I think how you figure that out.
I think when we first were teaching ask-to-teach masterclasses or workshops, I know that there was a lot of resentment towards the questions we would ask. So why do they need to know that? We would ask questions like, is this a group of people that have been working together or are they coming together for the first time? What is the age range? Are they experienced in this? So we had a whole set of questions that people weren’t used to people asking, because that affects what you do. So if it’s a group of people who’ve not been working together, and they’re coming together for this workshop for the first time, that means that we have to do a certain kind of work upfront to bring them together. We have to create a community of them together.
If it’s a group of people who have been working together, let’s just say it’s a eighth grade class that’s been working together for a year, we still have to enter that community and follow our principles of entering that community. They know one another, they don’t know us, but they may not. They may be assumptions about what they know of one another. So all of these questions were really key and essential to us understanding how we would approach and who would we approach. So we would have sometimes presenters putting kindergarten through high school presentations together. It’s like, I know you want to serve a lot of people, but we actually work. That’s different attention spans, different maturity levels. You just can’t throw that all in. So then we would start to ask those questions. And I think in the beginning, we were met with a lot of like, “Why are they asking all these questions? Just come and do the lec dem.” We’re like, “No, we actually have to guide this process a little bit more.”
Jeffrey: That’s great.
Jawole: So that’s how then that same approach then became to when we were asked to be in community settings, not necessarily educational settings, that same approach. Okay, is this a group of people who have been working together? What do they know about us? What one of our values is, we don’t come in as the expert from New York. We come in people who have expertise in our practice, but we’re not experts in that community. We can be a catalytic visitor in that community. Actually, one of the greatest examples of that, it’s been on our email thread of our BOLD leadership group about the Brad Pitt housing in New Orleans. Disastrous. He had an impulse to do something after Hurricane Katrina. But the people that were hired to do it didn’t consult with the local people. It was like, “We’re going to do something. This is going to be good for you. We’re going to build houses and you’re going to like it because we’re doing this for you.”
The houses, they did insult the local people. There’s lots of things that were problematic in how the houses were built. It was some kind of architectural design competition. So there were lots of issues around how the houses were built, how they were going to sustain, who was going to sustain them. I mean, there was a big article that came out about it recently, and that’s been going around in our thread. Because this idea that, “We’re the experts and we’re going to tell you and your community. You’re dealing with Hurricane Katrina and we’re going to tell you what you’re going to do and you’re going to like it,” that’s not the approach that we take. We understand that was out of good intention, but we talk about intention versus impact. The impact was not good, even though the intention was good and sometimes the intention was downright ugly.
Jeffrey: With the community work and with the Urban Bush Women in general, is there any way that you’ve been able to measure the impact that you’ve made to diversifying or creating equity in dance or the performing arts at all?
Jawole: I don’t know that you can ever measure impact in the way that a scientist would measure something because there’s no control group kind of thing. What I began to be aware of is that I had a platform and how I would use this flat platform to both uplift and develop other emerging leaders, how I would use this platform to speak certain things. Sometimes that’s speaking truth to power and how I would use this platform in terms of creating my own work. So the Summer Leadership Institute came out of that kind of thinking. We had done a lot of work on our first big residency in New Orleans in 1991 to 1992. We spent almost a year in preparation for a three-month residency in New Orleans. And we did a lot of professional development, a lot of learning about working in community, our philosophy that we weren’t coming in as the experts. We developed values and principles around it. And then we had turnover in the company. So it was like, “Oh, we did all that work, but now we got new people.”
So then that became the idea of, what if I were to make a Summer Leadership Institute where we would institutionalize this learning? So at first it was going to be professional development just for Urban Bush Women. I thought, well, why would I do it just for us? This could impact the field. So why don’t I make it open? First it was mostly dancers and now it’s across the field. So that’s kind of how I think of, when there’s something that I feel like needs to be solved, rather than complaining about it, what can I do and then how can I use this platform to address it? So that’s where the Choreographic Center came out.
As I started to look, I started to realize what a lot of presenters were looking or calling or identifying as experimental work. Most Black women doing the kind of work that I really appreciated were not in there. They were experimental, they were pushing edges. It was complex narrative, but it wasn’t inside of those spaces. So I started challenging that, and out of that was born our Choreographic Center Initiative where we we fought, we raised money through Mellon and Ford and I think New York community, lots of different funders, to support fellowships for these women who I felt like were not being paid attention to. And in doing that, this helped to elevate them and bring more attention to them, plus just share financial support.
And then I started noticing, just from me being vocal about the conversation, people are starting to pay attention. So I think as an artist, you have a platform. Each artist decides what they want to do with that. Summer’s not a political or social justice platform at all. It’s like, I’m going to make my work, and my platform is the work, and that’s what I’m going to do. So I think everybody finds it has to be true to who you are and true to your passion. But that’s the way that I’ve looked at how can I use this platform, and if the platform gets bigger, how do I leverage that?
Jeffrey: I want to jump back for just a second into a little bit into touring and ask: What is the lesson that other performing arts touring companies of ensembles or otherwise can learn from dance touring? You kind of alluded to this a little bit about the arrangement aspect, but is there something else that is a secret that dance has had that maybe the other arts haven’t discovered yet?
Jawole: I don’t know if there’s a secret, but one of the things I remember, our first booking agent, Ivan Sygoda, and I was complaining about my brother’s a jazz musician. I was like, “He would go out on tour and he would come back with a lot of money from the touring, and we’d come back and maybe we could pay a rent.” He said, “That’s because they travel, perform, travel, perform, travel, perform. That won’t work for a dance company.” I don’t think it even really works for any but for music. So therefore, they’re doing a lot more performances in a week, and so then the pay is higher. What I think people could learn about, dancers have to have days off. We have to, for our bodies. We just have to. And I think certain companies have do that through a union structure, and others, it’s just like, you need to do that.
I think if anything theatre could learn that six-day-a-week rehearsal? I don’t know, personally, I think it’d be more productive if it was five days a week and people had two days off. In dance, we have two days off for the most part in our rehearsal structure. Touring, we try to really look at how we make that. We make the days off work. Sometimes you have to split who’s having the day off and other people will teach a workshop. It’s hairy. It’s hairy because the booking agent is trying to get you for point A to point B. So you’ve got to figure those out. So I don’t know that dance has figured everything out. In the rehearsal process, five days a week are better. Eight shows a week? I know the producer needs to make the money. It’s just not possible, you’re going to have more injuries. You’re just going to have more injuries. The body needs to rest.
So in a touring, how do you build that in? For me, touring was, how do I make touring fun? And it was about the cultural opportunities like, “Oh, we’re here in this city. They’ve got a fabulous museum. Come on, you all, let’s go to the museum.” I remember, when the company was touring in Hawaii, and I think they thought I was crazy, I was like, “We’re going to go to the top of Haleakala, so that means we have to get up 3:30 in the morning and you’re going to have to have winter clothes to go with you.” And they were like, “Eh.” I was like, “No, no, no. Come on. We’re going to do this.” It’s like a two-hour drive or I forget how long it is up to the top of the mountain for sunrise.
We got there, and then we had to have our winter clothes. And it was the most glorious, spectacular thing that you will remember for the rest of your life. Those are the moments to me that make touring alive. If it’s travel, perform, travel, perform, travel, perform, I feel like, I don’t know, you’re missing the human life. You’re in this amazing city and all you can see is the hotel to the theatre. I just think that the cultural aspects of learning and being on tour are just as important and inform the stage work.
Jeffrey: Yeah, of course. I was just going to say, it makes you a better artist to know culture better.
Jeffrey: It goes back to your anthropology.
Jawole: Yeah. So I remember we were... Oh, I can’t remember. I think we were in Basel, Switzerland. It was an amazing art gallery. We did a research trip in Jamaica, and we were all throughout the island and we met the Maroons. Yeah, I guess, again, this goes back to my anthropologist, that it informs the work we’re doing. This is the research. It informs the work we’re doing on the stage. And it’s also one of the reasons that I’ve liked staying small. Once a company is 20 people, it’s really hard to do something like this, but when you’re small, that’s the beauty that I’ve loved about it.
Jeffrey: Yeah. I can only imagine that then having absorbed some of the local culture, then you are ever more responsive in your performance to that culture that you’re in front of.
Jawole: And sometimes, in the creating, we were in Senegal and we were working with a Senegalese company on this piece called The Scales of Memory, Les Écailles de la Mémoire, and we do something called experiential research. So we’ll experience something together and then we come back in the studio and make work from what we experienced, or begin investigations. And I remember, when we went to, it’s called Maison des Esclaves, the House of the Slaves, they were dungeons. These were people who were held before they were put on the boat and taken for the middle passage. It was horrifying. And to experience that and then come and allow that to inform our creative process.
So I remember one dancer, we talked about being in these little tight dungeons, and she looked up and she saw a pinhole of light, and she just started imagining, like trying to breathe in that pinhole of light. So as she did that and opened her mouth, this is Maria Bowman, who’s a beautiful choreographer, and opened her mouth and reached up towards it. It’s like, “Aha, let’s experience this. Let’s investigate this together.” So again, these are, for me, the reasons that I like being small. The current artistic directors, Sam and Chanon, in their work, they’ve been researching in the same kind of way and then creating. So that anthropological, cultural, social, political approach is part of what’s embedded in Urban Bush Women practice.
Jeffrey: While talking about touring, you made me wonder if do you think a more robust touring or festival culture would contribute to improving that monetary situation? You described the jazz musician, right?
Jawole: Those are important. Yeah. I loved performing on festivals. I think, at a particular time, one of the festivals we performed at was something, the LA Festival. It was run by Peter Sellers, and he had artists come from all over the world. I remember we were in the hotel, and I can’t remember the group now, but we had a jam session just at the bar with this other group of musicians. I think there’s something that happens in festivals, particularly in the way that Peter did it, that these connections that you make are just, you get to see other work.
Spoleto was the same thing, when we did the Spoleto Festival. Jacob’s Pillow, I remember the one year we did Jacob’s Pillow. And it just happened to be we were there on a creative residency. But at that time, the company, it was Native American Dance Theatre, I think was the name, or American Indian Dance Theatre, and then it was a company from Hawaii, and we just all were there at the same time and we were jamming together and we were taking classes with one another. I think I love festivals. I do think we need more of them. I do think we need them funded.
A lot of the festivals are big festivals, and they only take big kinds of acts. So smaller companies or different kind of edgier companies often don’t get an opportunity as a part of those festivals. I think there’s a way we can open that up and find some new models. It’ll be for our funding. Because that, to me, is the exciting thing about seeing work. You see the big company of 30 dancers and then you see the company of the soloist and then you see the company of like Urban Bush Women seven. I think to see all of those different kinds of artists in some place together as opposed to only one kind of artist, to me, is what’s really exciting.
Jeffrey: Do you think that would help with the financial sustainability of things too, if it’s more robust?
Jawole: Only if you get booked.
Jeffrey: What’s that?
Jawole: Only if you get booked into the festival. But if it allowed more artists like the NPN, we were kind of in a nascent place. Our overhead was low. We didn’t have an office, or maybe we had an office that was a hundred dollars a month. Our overhead was very low, so we could take lower fees. There’s a point then when you get to another place, you can’t do that anymore because you’ve got much overhead. There’s different kinds of subsidies at different points in your career development that really make the touring make sense. To try to tour on a certain kind of subsidy like the way that we did in the very beginning is not necessarily going to work. As I’ve said, we have seven, eight, nine employees now. That won’t work, but it will work for someone. It will work for someone.
Jeffrey: Yeah. So I guess then to build off of what you were saying, how do we build that festival culture? And can we build that festival culture in America? I know one of the things that I’ve talked to other folks about has been that America desperately lacks any sort of international festival celebrations, cultural celebrations for the performing arts. I guess, I don’t know, what do you think? How do we build that for festival-
Jawole: I think we have to start in small towns. I think we have to start in small towns more. One of the things that just so struck me when we traveled to Italy was this small town Rovereto, I’m sure I’m pronouncing it wrong, in Northern Italy. It was a small town. They took siesta, they did polka at night. It was a small town, yet they had this art festival. Small towns in the US don’t have that, or the art is so in a particular narrow space. I think we can have conversations if the work is set up right with a community to engage them in things that might challenge them. That is what’s missing, to me, in America. Our artists is centered in the large metropolitan centers, and we need to be in small and rural communities.
We need to figure out how we do that and how at the same time we can... Maybe it’s in a small community that has a strong LGBTQ presence, but it’s a little bit more underground. So then maybe that performance has to be not at the big city center, but someplace that speaks to that. I don’t have the answers for it because you maybe start in the place... Okay, let me back up. One of the assumptions around popular education that we work with, participatory education, is you start with where people are and then you work to expand that. So if I come in and say, “This avant-garde work is going to be good for you, it’s from New York and you better like it. And if you’ve got some funder, we’re going to put it in here. And you little small town people, you know don’t know anything about art? Well, that’s not going to work. So how do we start with where people are, but then expand that understanding so that they can take more risk?
Even when I teach, so there’s a falling practice, I tell the dancers, “Start with your easy risk, so you can organize and figure out where you are. Don’t go to your biggest risk. Start small so you can understand and you can feel safe. And then it gets bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger.” So I think that’s the same thing we have to do in the touring network. We are isolated from a lot of these communities.
There was a group I was involved with in the ‘80s called American Festival Project. It was a group of artists, I think 11 of us, that were committed to working in working class communities and poor communities. So it was a Traveling Jewish Theatre. It was Junebug Productions out of New Orleans. It was Liz Lerman company out of D.C. at that time. I want to say Teatro Campesino, but I don’t think it was that group, but it was Pregones out of the Bronx. There were 11 of us. There’s a lot of names I’m leaving out that were very much a part of that group. We were going into rural communities, but we were invited and there was often a couple of years work before we were actually performing. So we developed relationships.
Well, that’s expensive. It takes time, money, and a commitment to process and engaging. It does not work if you go on and think these people are backwards. Oh, Roadside Theatre in Whitesburg, Kentucky. When I was performing in Eastern Kentucky, I had one work that had nudity. I was like, “This is a very deeply religious... I’m going to lose them right there. So let me figure out something else so that I’m developing a relationship.” So for me, that’s an important part of my own personal, let me develop the relationship. And then as we get comfortable in the same way that I teach, let me then go for more risk and more risk and more risk. Now you understand what you’re doing physically. Now you’ve got a strong core. Okay, now let’s go for the big physical risk. But I like to start slow.
Jeffrey: That illuminates a lot. I actually had someone tell me in grad school the idea of, where do I go next? How do I decide where I should plant my flag and make my work and do my thing? And someone gave me this really great advice that I hear you echoed in you so loudly, is go to the place that’s quiet to make the loudest noise. So I thank you for bringing that memory back up to me. You really-
Jawole: But really working in relationship to that community.
Jawole: Because one of the things that John O’Neal, who was one of my mentors and a co-founder of Free Southern Theatre and the founder of Junebug, he would say, “You just can’t come in here with this kind of New York superior attitude to these rural working class people in the south. They ain’t having it. You can’t be outside of yourself, so you have to be authentic.” And that is a practice. So that’s part of our... In our Summer Leadership institute, we look at like, how do you tap into your authenticity? If you are a upper middle class person from the suburbs of New Jersey and you’re trying to pretend like you’re here down with people, they’re going to smell a rat.
But if you are authentically who you are and you’re in this situation and you’re examining your assumptions so that you can be, some people use the word right relationship, but a relationship that has integrity, I think people then will engage with you. But nobody wants to feel like you’re making them feel stupid because they don’t know or they don’t like or they don’t appreciate something. No one wants to feel that way. Black audiences, white audiences, I don’t care, no one wants to feel that way.
So one of the things we learned about early on doing our lecture demonstrations, the kids don’t want to be talked down to. So people would say, “Oh my God, your lec dems are so great. The kids weren’t acting out like they do with other ones.” And I was trying then to figure out, well, what are the other people doing? Well, the assumption that, “Okay, these are bad kids, you’re going into... They’re going to be bad.” How do you know? But I come from that so I know what that was like as that little Black child in what people call the inner city, having the ballet brought to us. And all white ballet company, we’re sitting there and we’re told, “This is good. This is culture. You better like it and you better behave.” Well, of course we acted out. Of course.
So I think we, I would say, as a society have moved past those sixties, seventies, eighties models of that. I think now is how we get into rural small town communities in a authentic way, developing relationships, creating work or presenting work that allows people in. I remember when in the eighties and ‘nineties and if you gave a pre-show talk, that was considered as like, “Oh, you don’t need to tell people what they’re going to see. The art speaks for itself.” Well, actually I like to be in conversation because I think, no, sometimes the art doesn’t necessarily speak for itself because the context is so different than what people have gone to. So how do I have a conversation with people that is really, again, not talking down, but just telling them something about who I am?
When I learned this, there was a program in New York years ago called Affiliate Artists. It was a corporate-funded program. I think Elizabeth Streb, Bill T. and Arnie, Bebe Miller paid... When I think about it, this is in the ‘80s, it paid a thousand dollars a week. At that time, that was a lot of money. What they taught you to do was that, they said your work could be as out there as anything, but they taught you and it was solo. Or in the case of Bill and Arnie, they taught you how to communicate with people.
So you would sometimes go on the factory worker’s lunch break, in their lunchroom, and do a performance. And they taught you how to have these stories, ways of engaging your life. It was a fantastic program. And really, for me, that learning was really essential because I had to go in as this lone Black woman doing this really kind of out there work, perform to these factory workers who could care less about me coming in and performing. I’m on their lunch hour in their cafeteria, so I’m a nuisance. So how do I get to engagement? How do I move away from nuisance to engagement? And that was the stories.
Jeffrey: Well, that kind of context is so helpful and that’s great. And that big idea of forcing something on someone, it seems to be a trend in what we’re talking about today, which I really appreciate. Can you tell me about your role and what you hope to accomplish at the Perelman Performing Arts Center in the coming years here?
Jawole: My role has been, I’ve been part of the artistic advisors for several years. For many, it was a stop-and-go process for a long time and then it kind of fell apart and then the Perelman Bloomberg money came in and then it’s going again. So I think my role is to be a thought partner as needed, to present work that I think will challenge and bring people to the theatre that wouldn’t necessarily think of that area as a place to go. It’s such an interesting area because when you go down to Lower Manhattan, there’s definitely people who live there. They’re kind of marginalized from the business community. And from the high rise, middle and upper middle class community, how are we going to bridge that? That’s going to be a challenge to solve. I think there’s a huge housing issue.
I remember early on when it was going to one of the meetings before it became this and they were talking about all these things and all this development, and I was like, “Excuse me. And where’s the affordable housing?” Room went silent. Because I don’t hear a place for low-income artist to live in this beautiful plan you’re talking about. I don’t see me in there. That hasn’t been solved yet in terms of the area, but in terms of the theatre, I think Bill is an amazing visionary, Bill Rauch. He’s an amazing visionary, and I want to support and be a part of his vision.
Jeffrey: That’s great. Well, I really look forward to what happens there and how it builds and how it grows, and I look forward to hearing more about how Urban Bush Women continues to grow and build. And I hear, I saw there’s a new initiative posted on your website, I believe.
Jawole: Yes. That’s Choreographic Center 2.0. So, we got the support to these choreographers, but then they were saying, “But we don’t have people who can help us move the work.” So like, okay, what are we going to do about that? I was thinking how to problem solve. It took maybe two or three years of thinking and talking and working before we went to a funder to say, “Here’s a program where we want to develop producers.” And we define producers very openly. People facilitate the artistic work. So we’ve got to develop producers who understand process-driven, complex narrative work, that’s not three weeks rehearsal and then it’s up on the stage. It’s iterative. You’d often don’t know because you’re talking about these complex narratives of identity.
I just saw some beautiful work by three of my students here, gay male students, exploring identity, loss, grief, joy, racism, all of these things. Those are complex narratives, and they’re going to take time. And that’s what I mean by their iterative, because you do it in like, “Oh, okay.” And then if there’s projections and all of these things that ways people are telling, they take a different kind of time. So there was a need for people who could invest in that, who could be developed to be excited about investing in that kind of time and support it with the artists. So you’re walking that path together. It’s not the administrator, “Okay, I’m making the work happen over here in the office,” and the artist is creating it, and never the train shall meet, but we’re on this path together.
Jeffrey: Well, I really look forward to hearing more about that and seeing how that grows and continues and everything that you’ve mentioned here today. Thank you so much for your time today. It’s been such a delight. Can we take a picture for Carl? Can I take a screenshot for Carl?
Jawole: Yes. Yes. Now I’m ready.
Jeffrey: All right. Are we ready? Here we go. Three, two, one.
Jawole: Thank you. What a wonderful interview. Thank you so much. This is so intelligent and insightful. And I really appreciate, I really enjoyed talking with you. I hope we have an opportunity in person.
Jeffrey: If you like that as much as I did, can I please encourage you to once again check us out on Twitter and Instagram, @ftgu_pod, or find me on Instagram, @ensemble_ethnographer. I really want to know who’s listening so that I can steer season four and beyond. So, thanks in advance.
Okay, so wow, yes, I am all over that connection of musical ensembles to creator ensembles: the idea that they are essentially leaderless and that they don’t give up their individual sound to be part of a group sound. Such a beautiful way to say that we all use our actor-poet talents when we are in such an organization. And the leap that she made from hearing the big band version of a song to the duet version... oh, a musical metaphor always works for me.
If I was going to pick a word to describe this conversation, it would be generous. It was so awesome to hear her expand upon so much so thoughtfully. And then to share the names for artists. She dropped the names like birdseed, which I’ve come to learn is from the desire to see others expand their capacity. So I really see that she has that sort of generosity inside of her throughout this conversation. It was fantastic to be a part of.
The whole cycle of festivals was so satisfying too. The macro and micro cycles including payment, finances, art, and the idea that we all could benefit from two days off. Dancers need that time to heal y’all, and I think it would really help us theatre makers too. And the casual drop that we need to build a model for smaller companies to succeed in these touring circuits, which has been what we’ve been getting at over the past few seasons. And we have to start in small towns, and I’m so glad she juxtaposed that with her work at the Perelman Center as well. I have to say, this is one of my favorite episodes. Jawole just had a philosophy that I can believe in, and I’m there with her on this.
On our next episode, another interview close to my heart with Carlos Uriona and Jennifer Johnson, Co-Artistic Directors at Double Edge Theatre of Ashfield, Massachusetts. You won’t want to miss it, but until then, I leave you with the sound-check lightning round. Thanks for listening, artists.
Can you give me your favorite salutation?
Jawole: That’s an interesting question. How do I greet people? It depends on who they are, but it’s like, “Hey.” But if it’s more formal, it’s, “Hello, how are you?”
Jeffrey: What’s your favorite form of transportation?
Jawole: I love to walk, and in New York, I love walking.
Jeffrey: What’s your favorite exclamation?
Jeffrey: What does ensemble mean to you?
Jawole: The word ensemble, I think of a group of people who have committed to a shared practice together, who have a vision of some kind of shared goal practice or philosophy, and they’re committed to working through that in an ensemble practice. For me, as I’ve used the term ensemble, it does not mean collective. It is a directed process, but it’s a group of people that have really committed to exploring a way of working together over time.
Jeffrey: What is the opposite of Urban Bush Women?
Jawole: Whoa. I don’t know if there’s an opposite of... maybe New York City Ballet? And what I mean by that is that the way that we approach unison is through the individual. So we’re a group of people working together with the same movement, maybe, at times, but you will see a different interpretation of each person. And I shouldn’t just say New York City Ballet, but I think the essence of quarter ballet or court dances of Java or other kinds of court dances, it’s this very exacting unison where everything looks alike, and that’s very much the opposite of who we are and what we do.
Jeffrey: What would you be doing if not Urban Bush Women?
Jawole: If I were not doing Urban Bush Women, my guess is, I would’ve been an anthropologist. I might have been some kind of producer, but likely an anthropologist because I’m interested in the ways of culture, how people, the cultures they inherit, how they live inside that, how then they change, how they challenge, how they develop their own structures inside of a culture.
Jeffrey: What is your favorite ice cream?
Jawole: Well, I’m lactose intolerant, but when I eat ice cream, chocolate. I like deep dark chocolate.
Jeffrey: This has been another episode of From the Ground Up. You can find, like, and follow this podcast @ftgu_pod, or me, Jeffrey Mosser @ensemble_ethnographer on Instagram, and @KineticMimetic on Twitter.
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