We all have the primal need to feel connected -- to one another, to the Earth, to the ineffable joys and sorrows of existence. The late modern dance pioneer-anthropologist Pearl Primus understood this; so too does Jawole Willa Jo Zollar. Founder and artistic director of New York-based Urban Bush Women, Zollar has crafted a lush, deeply spiritual tribute to Primus with connections so visceral that at times, it's like watching delirious strands of dancing DNA.
Two Los Angeles premieres, "Walking With Pearl ... Africa Diaries" (2004) and "Walking With Pearl ... Southern Diaries" (2005), drenched the stage of Cal State L.A.'s Luckman Theatre on Saturday night with raw emotion. In the former, Zollar, giving powerful voice to Primus' own words, sidled elegantly onstage before taking a seat and starting to speak of the jubilation and awe of a visit to Africa.
In addition to her narration, a sound collage including whooshing winds, insect noises and traditional and new percussion music illuminated the work, which featured six dancers who often appeared to be a part of a dream. From whipping turns and rock-solid, one-legged balancing poses to upper torso seismic quiverings, their moves seemed to embody Africa. "Dance is my medicine," Zollar intoned, as the sextet of ancestral ghosts wove across the floor, a feral crew whose every gesture revealed majestic, proud truths.
In "Southern Diaries," which included a restaging of Primus' "Hard Time Blues" by Kim Bears-Bailey, the narrative took inspiration from the South, where the "shout," a form of expressive release, originated in worship. And shout the dancers did: Each laughing in turn, these infectious guffawers fanned out into celebratory circles, a preface to tragedy, one played out against Nina Simone's rendition of "Strange Fruit."
Veteran Christine King, a confident matriarch, hip-shimmied eloquently in this 1940s vision. Susan Hamburger's blood-red lighting then captured the dancers in a state of frozen shock: A lynching ("Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze") unites the women in grief, their communal resolve finally pushing them toward liberation -- a body shout of life-affirming, rhythmic foot-stomping and crackling body-slapping. Connecting to the pain and intractability of the human spirit, the audience leaped to its feet.