Winning Moves
Story by Victoria Winkelman Photos by Kim Leeson
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Chalabati
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Meadows Prize Winner Jawole Willa Jo Zollar champions community building through the art of dance and teaches students the importance of the "path to extraordinary."

Five SMU dancers in brightly colored African costumes leap across the stage to an energetic drumbeat. They reach for the sky, swoop low to the ground, break apart and regroup.

They are performing Chalabati, a dance that "reminds me of stories traveling over land and time, from generation to generation," says choreographer Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, whose inspiration for the piece came from the music and culture of the Gnawa people of Morocco. The work explores the ritual retelling of the Gnawas' shared history, including deliverance from slavery. "The Gnawa know their stories by heart and sing them with reverence and joy," she says.

Zollar is the winner of the 2014 Meadows Prize, which is awarded each year to up to two pioneering artists and scholars who are active in one of the academic disciplines of the Meadows School, with the generous support of The Meadows Foundation. She is the founder and artistic director of acclaimed New York-based dance company Urban Bush Women (UBW), which has toured internationally and helped inaugurate a cultural diplomacy program for the U.S. Department of State. In addition to 34 works for UBW, Zollar has created works for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Philadanco and other major companies, and her numerous awards include a Master of Choreography designation by the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Chalabati was the focus of the first half of Zollar's Meadows Prize residency for two weeks in February. Along with two UBW company members, Zollar worked with Meadows dance students to restage the 2007 piece for the Meadows Spring Dance Concert.

Lead dancer Kaylah Burton (B.F.A. December '14) says it was an exciting experience working with Zollar and the company members. Intensive rehearsals took place four hours a day, six days a week, yet they required much more than showing up and learning movements.

"Jawole asked us all to do extensive research to have a sound cultural context for the work we'd be producing," said Burton. "We journaled every day during the process. We did character studies to find multiple dimensions in our characters, who are all part of a multilayered story of struggle, emancipation, resilience and transcendence. Rehearsals often began with a community-building exercise. Then at the end of rehearsal everyone was given an opportunity to share something valuable they learned or experienced that day – what Jawole called an 'aha!' moment. Virtually every dancer would have something to offer – something new or exciting they discovered about themselves or about the group or dance in general that day."

Chalabati exemplifies the work of Urban Bush Women, which Zollar founded in 1984 as a performance ensemble dedicated to using cultural expression as a catalyst for social change. The company has become known for bold, innovative works that challenge long-held assumptions about women, people of color, body types, styles of movement, society, history and appropriate content for the stage.

The company weaves contemporary dance, music and text with the history, culture and spiritual traditions of African Americans and the African Diaspora, exploring the "transformation of struggle and suffering into the bittersweet joy of survival." Zollar is also director of UBW's nationally recognized Summer Leadership Institute, which since 1997 has empowered artists to strengthen their involvement in cultural organizing and civic engagement. In addition, she serves as a distinguished professor at Florida State University.

"Jawole Zollar exemplifies the kind of pioneering artist the Meadows Prize was designed for, and her work showcases the substantial impact such artists can have on their communities," says Meadows Dean Sam Holland.

BRINGING ART, ACTIVISM & COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT TOGETHER

Planning for the second half of Zollar's residency also began in February. Clyde Valentín, who joined Meadows in fall 2013 to develop new programs that will integrate artistic practices with community engagement in Dallas and other cities, now oversees the Meadows Prize. He helped arrange informal meetings with UBW members and Dallas community groups. "There is a whole arm of UBW that is focused on community engagement," he says. "They have a diverse menu of about a dozen workshops they offer to the public, geared to different ages, interests and levels of experience. This was a great opportunity to bring some of those to Dallas."

In addition, seven students – including dance, theatre and music majors – and two staff members, as well as Meadows Chair of Dance Patty Delaney, participated in the UBW's Summer Leadership Institute (SLI) in New Orleans. Using the Civil Rights-era Free Southern Theater as a model, the institute provides training in dance and community engagement for artists with leadership poten-tial who are interested in developing a community focus in their art-making. One of SLI's goals is to help build a global network of community arts practitioners and what Zollar calls "front line social justice workers," using the arts as a vehicle for social activism and civic engagement.

"We are very grateful to the UBW for making it possible for us to attend," says Valentín, who also participated in SLI. "They annually receive more than 100 applications for 60 slots in the program, and they were kind enough to reserve spaces for us. The students who went served as a core group to work with Jawole and her team in the fall."

Zollar, accompanied by a number of UBW members, returned to Meadows for the second part of her residency November 9-22. Assisted by SMU students, they spent the first week conducting movement/jam "Dance for Every Body" workshops for children from St. Philips School & Community Center and seniors from the South Dallas Cultural Center, and "Story Circle" workshops for students at Paul Quinn College. During the second week, students worked with Zollar and company members on the development of a new work planned for UBW, Walking with 'Trane...Chapter 3. The new dance suite, which is inspired by jazz legend John Coltrane's formidable legacy and his seminal album A Love Supreme, is taking a cinematic approach to the musician's life with the help of playwright/director/dramaturge Talvin Wilks, who was at Meadows during the second week, and other artists.

The residency concluded with an informal, celebratory event from 6 to 8 p.m. Saturday, November 22 in the Taubman Atrium, at which Zollar, UBW representatives, SMU students and community group members showed excerpts of dance movements they worked on over the previous two weeks.

"Working with Jawole and Urban Bush Women has been a true collaboration," says Valentín. "They have provided invaluable artistic and professional development for our students and joined us in active community engagement, and we have supported their development of an exciting new work that we will continue to advocate for. Looking ahead, that is one of my goals for the Meadows Prize – to provide a consistent level of impact and visibility for our students, our city and the artists themselves."

LASTING IMPRESSIONS

Burton said the experience of dancing in Chalabati was unforgettable. "The movement told a story about the real, lived experience of not only the Gnawa but, in a larger sense, all oppressed people, which is something Jawole wanted us to connect with. It was really an honor to tell that story through the movement."

Burton added that among all the valuable things she learned, two stood out. "One thing Jawole really stressed to us was moving with what she called 'the entire self.' Entire self, meaning literally everything that I am – my history, personality, intellect, the dancing I grew up watching and learning outside the classroom, all the things that make me me – she stressed that we needed to bring all that into our dancing. Once we get in a rehearsal space we can get so serious and focused, we lose that element of play, of us, of who we are, our sense of humor, all types of things. Jawole was really about bringing the whole self to rehearsal, which I loved.

"The other powerful gift she left us with was the idea of the 'path to extraordinary.' She said the first thing we strive for is to be competent, then good, then very good, then excellent – and then extraordinary. We decide where on the path we want to stop as dancers, and we have to do what it takes to get there. There are a lot of very good dancers and a lot of excellent dancers. But to strive for extraordinary is almost a higher calling. She left us with a lot of tools to stay on that 'path to extraordinary' – I just loved that so much. I'm so, so grateful to have worked with her – it's truly one of the best experiences I've had at SMU."

MORE ABOUT JAWOLE WILLA JO ZOLLAR

A native of Kansas City, Missouri, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar trained with Joseph Stevenson, a student of the legendary Katherine Dunham. She earned a B.A. in dance from the University of Missouri at Kansas City and an M.F.A. in dance from Florida State University. In 1980 she moved to New York City to study with Dianne McIntyre at Sounds in Motion, and four years later founded Urban Bush Women (UBW).

Under Zollar's leadership, UBW has toured five continents and has performed at venues including the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and the Kennedy Center. UBW also was selected as one of three U.S. dance companies to inaugurate a cultural diplomacy program for the U.S. Department of State in 2010. In addition to 34 works for UBW, Zollar has choreographed works for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Philadanco, University of Maryland and Virginia Commonwealth University, among others. Featured in the PBS documentary Free to Dance, which chronicles the African American influence on modern dance, Zollar was designated a Master of Choreography by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 2005. The following year she received a New York Dance and Performance Award (Bessie) for her work as choreographer/creator of Walking With Pearl ... Southern Diaries.

Other key awards include a 2008 United States Artists Wynn Fellowship; a 2009 Guggenheim Fellowship; and a 2013 Doris Duke Performing Artist Award. As an artist whose work is geared towards building equity and diversity in the arts, Zollar also received the 2013 Arthur L. Johnson Memorial award by Sphinx Music. In addition, she serves as Nancy Smith Fichter Professor of Dance and Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor at Florida State University. For more information, visit urbanbushwomen.org.

MORE ABOUT THE MEADOWS PRIZE

Inaugurated in October 2009, the Meadows Prize is presented annually to up to two pioneering artists who are active in a discipline represented by one of the academic units within the Meadows School. The prize includes support for a minimum four-week residency in Dallas in addition to a $25,000 stipend. In return, recipients are expected to interact in a substantive way with Meadows students and collaborating arts organizations, and to leave a lasting legacy in Dallas, such as a work of art that remains in the community, a composition or piece of dramatic writing that would be performed locally, or a new way of teaching in a particular discipline. The Meadows Prize is sponsored by the Meadows School and The Meadows Foundation.