The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
April 7, 2017
Rather than beginning at the beginning, I’ll begin with the end. I walked away from the performance of Walking with ’Trane by Urban Bush Women (UBW) completely satisfied. Although I wish that happened every time I go to see dance, it doesn’t. That’s part of the gamble. Usually whether I’m satisfied at the end of a piece has more to do with my personal taste than anything else. It’s the same when dining out, discussing a book, watching a movie with friends, etc. Obviously, my preferences are personal. While beets, dense historical novels, and horror films are turnoffs for me, others love them. Add peanut butter, write quirkily, make a film about everyday life that’s heartbreaking and uplifting at the same time, and I’m hooked.
So when it comes to dance, what turns me on? Lots of things. Because as a critic I see dance so often, one thing that may make me different from many — I really like a challenge. If a piece meanders sometimes painfully slowly, and yet I’m enrapt, that’s a plus. If I’m forced to think, to pay attention, to encounter something new, all the better. And this is what Walking with ’Trane did for me. It’s complex and demanding, and the same can be said about John Coltrane’s life and music, its subject. Good jazz rattles you, it takes your mind on a journey, it pierces you deep inside. It shouts and it whispers, sometimes simultaneously. It begs you to be patient, to wait, and then it sneaks up and slams you hard when you’re least expecting it. Good dance does this, too. In this way Walking with ’Trane is a perfect tribute.
I’m so thankful that Walking with ’Trane, which could have been straightforward, isn’t. I’m also thankful that the individuality of the dancers is highlighted. UBW’s seven dancers — Du’Bois A’Keen, Amanda Castro, Courtney J. Cook, Chanon Judson, Tendayi Kuumba, Stephanie Mas, and Samantha Speis — all strong performers with immense stage presence, attack this work with all they’ve got, and they each have unique gifts. My eyes usually gravitate to one or two dancers during a performance, but not with this group. I eagerly watched them all, and I regretted that I sometimes had to choose a particular dancer to watch, as I was worried about whom I missed seeing across the stage.
Among the many treasures in Walking with ’Trane are the phenomenal lighting and projection designs (lighting design by Russell Sandifer, projection designs by Wendall K. Harrington and associate projection designer Shawn Boyle). From billowing blue plumes of smoke to neon city lights that flicker with life to a backdrop of sheet music against which the dancers become jumping notes, the projection designs truly enhance the artistic experience. The lighting design brings forth rich shadows, keeping the dancers cloaked in a little mystery. A haze washes over them like recalled memories. All of the production elements are excellent, in fact. The costume designs by Helen Lucille Collen and assistant costume designer Troy Blackwell, although simple, are appealing in that simplicity — pedestrian clothing in black and white hues for “Side A,” Just a Closer Walk with ’Trane, and black and white patterns coupled with vivid red for “Side B,” Free(dom).
Of course, there’s music to mention as well. I didn’t love Side A’s music composed by Philip White. I did love, however, that rather than solely focusing on Coltrane’s music, the work makes a surprising departure by starting out with music that’s inspired by him, but doesn’t particularly conjure him at all, other than by being demanding and complex. Side B features impressive live music by George O. Caldwell on piano. He, together with the dancers, explain the program notes, “explor[e] the artistic imprint of Coltrane’s A Love Supreme.”
What’s may be most amazing about Walking with ’Trane is that the choreography, credited to founder Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, Samantha Speis, and dramaturg Tavin Wilks, in collaboration with the company, mirrors the emotions of jazz, its bumpy highs and lows, so thoroughly. The dancers are nothing short of exquisite. The choreography, like jazz, shows off a blend of influences. African and contemporary dance meld with bursts that seem too personal to have been generated by anyone but the dancers themselves. If a great deal of the choreography, especially on Side A, feels improvised, well, doesn’t jazz feel that way, too, sometimes? Like jazz musicians at a jam, the dancers have plenty of space to exert their own style, and it’s rewarding to see. The unison sections where dancers sink into the floor in slow motion, or swing their arms up high, like winding up for a baseball pitch, or move as a flock with pelvic rhythms ripple through them, are enjoyable, but watching the dancers explode in powerful solos is probably more gratifying. Through their percussive barefoot stomps, their exalted leaps, their wild screams (dancer Courtney J. Cook get to exercise some vocal gymnastics), their silent boogies, their exhilarating rolls and dives to the floor, the dancers paint a moving portrait of the man they’re saluting. These self-assured virtuosic solos are incredibly touching precisely because one gets a sense of Coltrane’s rare genius and his humanity.
Side A feels more grounded to me, and Side B more transcendent, as if during the first half the dancers trace the history of Coltrane’s musical influences, and then close with aparallel spiritual journey. I didn’t prefer one side over the other, but rather felt immersed in the moods and body collages each presented. Throughout Walking with ’Trane, the choreography is layered and thoughtful and wise. When the lights go out and the dancers disappear and you can’t help but happily sigh, that’s what a dance performance should be.