Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and the Contemporary Arts Center have a special affinity for each other that dates back nearly 30 years.
In 1989, Zollar, who had founded the Brooklyn-based modern dance company Urban Bush Women five years earlier, spent a month in New Orleans, taking part in “community engagement projects” sponsored by the CAC and Junebug Productions. Within a few years, those collaborations morphed into UBW’s Summer Leadership Institute, a vital offshoot of the parent company that has trained thousands of young dancers over the past 25 years.
To commemorate the milestone anniversary of what germinated in New Orleans, Urban Bush Women will premiere a new work titled “Hair and Other Stories” at the CAC from Jan. 24 to 28. The seven-member company will perform at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Jan. 27 and conclude with a 3 p.m. matinee Jan. 28.
A 90-minute, multidisciplinary piece, “’Hair and Other Stories’ will incorporate stories sourced in New Orleans to address matters of race, gender identity and economic inequality through the lens of hair, primarily that of African American women,” according to a statement released by the company.
UBW’s co-associate artistic director, Samantha Speis, who will also be dancing in the piece, explained the company’s latest work “is actually a reimagining of a work she (Zollar) created in 2001 with ‘Hair Stories.’ They are different pieces because it is a different time and different people are in the company right now. We’re bringing it to the next level, but we did use ‘Hair Stories’ as a springboard to develop what our vision was for this work.
“We’re looking at it as a way of challenging our practices as people, as an organization, as creators and sharing all that with others,” Speis added. “We’re thinking of it as a conversation we’re having with our audience. It is not only a performance but it’s like a life’s work for us.”
Speis also noted the current work, which she co-created with associate artistic director/dancer Chanon Judson, is the first of the nearly 50 original works in the company’s repertoire not created by Zollar.
“Jawole has stepped back in the creative process for this production and allowed the voices of her artistic directors to come through,” Speis said. “And so it’s a really wonderful opportunity, and I feel so honored to be able to step into that. She really supports her people and nurtures their interests and allows them to grow and develop.”
Zollar will attend rehearsals, where she will function primarily as dramaturge, and she is expected to remain throughout the performances, Speis said.
Other company members besides Speis and Judson who will be dancing in this production are Amanda Castro, Courtney J. Cook, Tendayi Kuumba, Stephanie Mas and Du’Bois A’Keen, the company’s lone male dancer.
Throughout recorded history, hair and hairstyles have been visible markers of the popular culture of the times, frequently making political or fashion statements. The same basic principles apply to this production, Speis said.
“We’re using hair as a ledge to open up and really examine some other things ... underlying things that you may not even think about,” Speis said. “Really using hair as an opportunity to pull out those different strands; those stories of how we see beauty and where we see beauty and how we conditioned ourselves to internalize what beauty means.
“So we’re trying to look at the layers and not just the surface,” Speis said, adding that groups in the recent past such as the Black Panthers and the Black Power movement used Afro hairstyles to make a political statement. “Hairstyles have different meanings for different people,” she said.
These themes will be reflected in the dancers’ movements, Spies said.
However, Speis was quick to point out, “This work is not only about hair. At some point, we stop talking about it; it’s not the central focus anymore. We start with it and we’re using it as a way to open up the discussion but we’re really trying to have a deeper conversation.”
Urban Bush Women
Hair and Other Stories
WHEN: 7:30 p.m Jan. 24-27; 3 p.m. Jan. 28
WHERE: Contemporary Arts Center
900 Camp St., New Orleans
INFO: (504) 528-3800. cacno.org