Movements Rooted in Ritual Urban Bush Women Combine Folklore and Social Issues

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FRAMED by a row of flickering candles, the seven dancers that make up Urban Bush Women sit in various positions on the stage, singing and chanting rhythmically about Zion. Soon their slow trancelike movements gather energy, as the drums of the accompanying percussionist beat faster. Toward the end of the work several of the dancers act like firecrackers - their limbs seem to explode in every direction as they are overcome by the "spirit."

"Nyabinghi Dreamtime," which combines movement and chant from the Nyabinghi rural Rastafarian tradition in Jamaica, is a good introduction to a company whose name is as intriguing as its dance. It was the first of five works performed at the Emerson Majestic Theater in Boston last month. Urban Bush Women was sponsored by Dance Umbrella, New England's largest year-round presenter of contemporary dance.

The troupe's repertoire is rooted in the folklore and spiritual traditions of African-Americans. Through a collage of movement, song, music, and words, artistic director Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and her company explore issues such as homelessness, oppression of women, and survival. For Boston audiences, Zollar balanced several powerful and pithy works against lighter pieces.

"Lifedance III ... The Empress (Womb Wars)" fell into the former category. It begins with Zollar sitting atop a table and talking in a throaty voice that seems to come from deep within her. She gives a monologue that mirrors her own birth and that of her daughter, whom she gave up for adoption.

Interspersed among these stories is a series of phone conversations she has in a different voice with a friend who is seeking an abortion. In language that is poetic but biting in its descriptions, she focuses on the struggle by women to make choices and to confront challenges in a world that often devalues them. In the background, a naked woman in the fetal position slowly rolls toward the audience - a symbol of vulnerability. Other dancers gather around the woman and dress her.

By contrast, "A Dance ... Batty Moves" celebrates pure movement and music. The solo performance is accompanied by Junior "Gabu" Wedderburn, a Jamaican percussionist who tours with the company. On this particular night, Beverly Prentice-Ryan swiveled and moved as smooth as silk across the stage to quick rhythms. …