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The work of choreographer Jawole Willa Jo Zollar intentionally and unapologetically centers on blackness in the absence of the white lens. She has choreographed Black culture – ritual, tradition, and joy of daily life – with her 38-year-old company Urban Bush Women, Black Womanhood. Her body of work is a physical archive of complex experiences, while her choreographic practice is intricate and expertly crafted with the purpose of concomitantly reflecting, holding, and lifting the community. 


ICONS: First, congratulations on receiving the MacArthur Award. Please share what it means for you, your work, and your mission.


Jawole Willa Jo Zollar: I think it's still early to understand what it means for me personally. I've gotten a lot of affirmation and a lot of accolades, and each one helped me believe in myself a little bit more. There were times when I had doubts… I remember when I was first talking about how community engagement is important as a part of what we do. At that time in the 80s, many people commented, “Oh, that's nice, she can do the community work and the real artist can do the work.” I think that sometimes when we're ahead of things and out in front, it's a weird place, but I always understand that we're part of a community… It's just great affirmation, yes, and I would wish it for everyone.


ICONS: How did you come to dance?


JWJZ: I danced all of my life. My mother was a dancer; I remember dancing with my father; as little kids we always danced and the grown-ups would say, “Come on, show us that dance.” I went to a local community dance school, Joseph Stevenson School of Dance. However, it wasn't until I got to college that I saw it as an actual major and I understood it could be a profession.




ICONS: As a dancer did you instinctively feel yourself a choreographer? How did you discover your artistic voice?


JWJZ: In the 70’s everyone was trying to choreograph in the style of Graham, Cunningham, Dunham, Limón, and I could not get my work to look like everybody else’s, so I thought I was bad at it. I thought there was something wrong with my vision. Later, in grad school, I turned a corner after my mentor Nancy Smith Fichter helped me understand that I actually had a creative voice that was coming through. It was distinct, except I didn't know it. I didn't understand it, and I didn't even value it. I now can say I can see how it developed…


ICONS: And what were that voice and that dance aesthetic?


JWJZ: I think about singer Betty Davis or Tina Turner. I wanted to be an Ikette, I wanted to dance like that. I was attracted to the gritty…Urban Bush Women is gritty; we weren't the Supremes… the Black Arts Movement was so influential – the visual arts, the poets, the music, the dance. I saw Eleo Pomare. I saw Mr. Alvin Aliey... I was trying to look like them, but what was coming through was visceral, weighted down, like gutbucket blues. In an ironic twist of affirmation, in 1992 I set Shelter on the Ailey.


ICONS: How do you find the courage, stamina, and fortitude to trust yourself, and when did you decide to establish a dance company?


JWJZ: One of the things that motivated me to form a company as I went to a folk art exhibit or Visionary Art at the Brooklyn Museum. I was so taken by the art coming out of the Spirit. I noticed, “Oh, wait a minute, they didn't do this work to be successful.” They weren't trying to be successful. They did this because they had to. There was a spiritual drive to do this and so that was my question to myself: Do I give permission to myself to do this? And the answer was yes.





ICONS: Could you talk about your choreographic process?


JWJZ: I have broken it down into the next steps with a map. First, I get an idea about something, for instance by reading a book or an article. Then I start to research, and what starts to happen is that whatever that subject is, it suddenly starts to appear everywhere. Then I say to myself, “I think I might make a dance about this.” The next phase is taking that research into the rehearsal studio – I begin a lab. Now, I’m still not making the dance yet, but experimenting, singing, and other activities that are experiential. We might travel somewhere. For example, we went to Jamaica on a research trip; we experienced things together and then we would make work based on those experiences.


This process is very collaborative, and I'm still not trying to make the dance yet…. Then I start to think, “Okay, there probably needs to be a more clear direction. What is the structural focus and what is it going to do?” We continue to improvise and lab… and then I ask, “What ideas resonate and which ones resonate the most?” And so we experiment with that in mind, and gradually we create a form and a structure. Once the work starts to evolve, the last phase is rehearsing it.



ICONS: What are your thoughts and your advice on the importance of editing?


JWJZ: I know that 80% percent of what we create and set with the company is not going to make it on stage. We only go for the jewels. So that 80% might have included someone’s favorite solo... But if we think of the larger picture, it is about telling an important story. We look at who we’re serving – the whole, the entirety, and then ask, “How is this or that idea serving the whole and moving us forward? Is giving this particular information needed, either from what happened before or what happened afterward?” Another way of editing is mining some past works for jewels and replanting them into pieces where they actually work better.


If I go back, I can think of Shelter starting in college. I did a work in college called Magic of Juju  – the whole piece didn’t work, but there were sections where I could see I was onto something. When I came to New York, I did a piece called Spirit Rising. Again, the whole piece didn’t work but I could see “I am onto something right there.” Eventually, those places became Shelter.


So things migrated, migrated, migrated until they found their home. I'm okay with time and working over longer periods of time. I may not have it all figured out the first time around in doing the work. But sometimes I do, and sometimes it comes out right away – bam!


ICONS: You referenced the book Black Women Writers at Work an Anthology of interviews with authors, including Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker. How have they influenced you?


JWJZ: They often talked about the writing process. And I think for me, this helped me to understand that it is iterative, it's time. Creating takes time. In dance making, we got lately into this really weird thing of three weeks of rehearsal, meaning to make a work… And I couldn't work like that.




ICONS: How did your decade-long initiative THE UBW CHOREOGRAPHIC CENTER INITIATIVE (CCI) come about?


JWJZ: It really came out of me seeing particularly in the experimental world, the way that experimentation was being defined was through a very white lens. And I wasn't seeing the kind of black choreographers who were embedded in a story narrative, identity, messiness, literality abstraction both holding space together. So know the way that I think is ‘okay, vexes me. What are we are going to do about it?’ And that's when I started thinking about how I could create something that would support a particular kind of work that really is experimental in process, that is looking at the radical, pushing beyond all rules and boundaries, and it's bold. I also want to support Black women choreographers and women of color who are also bold and demanding, because men can do that, but for women, it’s difficult, right? Like some of my brothers, right. I wanted to create a place where these voices can be heard. And I decided to support that.


ICONS: The CCI reflects your core value of community. Can you talk about the way in which peer-to-peer mentorship works if it is structured, i.e. regular meetings or more organic in that people naturally gravitate to one another?


JWJZ: We do one convening together, and some people connect through that convening and keep the connection. The mentorship with me was a big part of selling it, only some of that mentorship is “choreographic.” A lot of it was other things, like resources and learning and knowledge. For instance, how do you deal with contracts?  We share resources. What we have come up with [contractually] has been vetted by lawyers; we've done this work. We can pass this on to them. They might not be in the position to do that.




ICONS: Advice for young choreographers?


JWJZ: When I talk to young choreographers, I say read, read, read. Go see some visual art. I remember seeing Faith Ringgold's work early on in the Studio Museum, Freddie Sars and Kerry James Marshall’s work and thinking, “Oh, they're doing that. Okay.” All of those things inform you. And study choreography. Writers study writers, visual artists study visual artists, painters study other painters, actors study actors, dancers judge other dancers. Before, choreographers didn't have the possibility of looking at work over and over and over again in the way we do now because of technology. One could go to a museum and just sit and study a painting, looking at the color theory, the composition. It doesn't mean a choreographer is stealing it, but simply studying it so that it gives an artist a great deal of information to work with.











Interview images:


Image 1: Portrait of Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, photography © Crush Boone

Image 2 and 3: Girlfriends, photography © Don Pollard, Urban Bush Women, 2020

Image 4 and 5: Give Your Hands To Struggle, photography © Ian Douglas, Urban Bush Women, 2019

Image 6: Women's Resistance, photography © Hayim Heron, Urban Bush Women, 2019

Image 7: I Don't Know but I Been Told, photography © Don Pollard, Urban Bush Women, 2020


Newsletter cover images:

Women's Resistance, photography © Ian Douglas, Urban Bush Women, 2020




Interviewer: Therese Ruth Howard

Executive Content Editor: Camilla Acquista

Executive Assistant: Charles Scheland

Executive Director: Vladimir Angelov

Dance ICONS, Inc., April 2022 © All rights reserved.