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Pearl Primus was an important exponent of African-American and Caribbean dance, a gifted choreographer and anthropologist who could also conjure a continent in words, as her diaries reveal.
In Walking With Pearl . . . Africa Diaries (2004) the artistic director Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, sitting to one side of the stage, speaks Primus’s words, a series of reminiscences about an African trip. To sounds of bird calls and native music, the dancers softly stalk on stage, moving like jungle cats in slow motion.
Choreographically a rich mix of native movement, modern dance and ballet, each short episode reflects Primus’s sometimes mystical impressions. In one, Love Muwwakkil (from Zimbabwe) and Nora Chipaumire play out the parting of a mother and daughter. Primus describes an idyllic landscape that suddenly becomes violent, “the pageantry” of an African sunset turns to raining blood, a metaphor for slavery. Zollar intones softly: “Dance is my medicine.”
Now in its 24th year, UBW still retains its driving energy and openness for change, its eight company members throwing themselves unreservedly into every piece. The new Here We Go . . . Again? by company member Camille A. Brown had the disadvantage of Anthony-Michael Alexander’s repetitive five-note score, which after a while made one long for ear plugs. Performed by five energetic dancers, this fast-paced exercise in attitude, moving in jittery hip-hop, didn’t really reveal where it was going until someone pulled out a map (at first held upside down) at the end.
Blondell Cummings’ warm, unsentimental sketch of a woman in her kitchen is a mimed miracle of observation. Having first unnecessarily screened Census Bureau statistics about women and families, she shows us Marjani Forté toting her shopping bags, doing her chores, silently gossiping and cooking the Chicken Soup of the title in this 1981 piece restaged by Cummings.
Zollar’s Batty Moves is an
exuberant ode to the amplitude of some African women’s rear anatomy, “batty” being Caribbean slang for buttocks. The dancers wear black tops and short tights with white towels tied around their hips to emphasise the swivel and shake, shimmy and strut action. They sing but mostly rap. Such uninhibited wiggling put me instantly in mind of the old jazz ditty “It Must Be Jelly ’Cos Jam Don’t Shake like That”.
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