urban bush women, walking with ‘trane @ columbia college dance center, 20 february 2016.
It isn’t about trying to imitate or be John Coltrane, but find the individual and collective voice inside him. — Urban Bush Women Associate Artistic Director/Dancer Samantha Speis
I never think of John Coltrane’s music as being about hips. It is hip, to be sure, but one usually learns of Coltrane’s life and music as progressing on a saxophone wail of an arc away from the earthy, sensual, and profane toward sheets of sound and an Eastern mysticism. His story typically is told like this: a move from the terrestrial plane toward the celestial skies, from the places where hips sway in all their profane glory to the places where birds soar and the spirit resides.
Urban Bush Women’s magnificent Walking With ’Trane, however, proved this kind of thinking utterly wrong. John Coltrane’s music is indeed full of hips. His urgent sound on the tenor and alto saxophones was a torrent of forceful exertion, and even at its most spiritual and floating, its most free and gravity-defying, it kept its roots in the world of body and physicality. Hips, feet, buttons, valves, wings, bones, grit, air.
This two-part work created by Urban Bush Women, with a Side A danced to an abstracted Coltrane score recorded by Philip White and a Side B featuring a live piano take on “A Love Supreme” by George Caldwell, did not only reveal dimensions of Coltrane’s music and life that we usually overlook or misapprehend. That would have been enough, of course, but the company did much more than just Walk With ‘Trane—they also took his music to new places. The dancers swayed and stomped, leapt and turned, worked as individuals and as a group to move through and past Coltrane’s legacy to their own forceful and potent expressive terrain.
Musical composers White and Caldwell pulled new associations, possibilities, feelings, and ideas out of Coltrane’s famous compositions and his instantly recognizable saxophone sound. White’s score was especially creative, incorporating train and cityscape sounds, rural and urban references with jazz, and even multiplying the sonic qualities of Coltrane’s playing into a kind of piping choral incantation, as if we had entered into the metallic brass inner workings of Coltrane’s horn itself. Inventive too were the light and projection designs of Susan Hamburger, Russell Sandifer, and Wendall K. Harrington (particularly a moment when piano notes turned to train tracks turned, eventually, to city buildings) and the smartly effective costumes of Helen Lucille Collen. They all riffed on Coltrane rather than just illustrate what made him a great artist.
But it was the dancing of the Urban Bush Women company members that most of all took Coltrane far past standard issue interpretation. They didn’t just walk with him, they expanded and widened what Coltrane means as a historical figure and musical genius. And they also took his story and extended it into something singular and all their own. As Urban Bush Women artistic director Jawole Willa Jo Zollar asked of herself and her company in a video interview conducted during the development of the piece, “How do we have a deep relationship with the music of Coltrane and the life of Coltrane as a jumping off point to new information and new material?”
Urban Bush Women. Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
So, what was this new information and new material? It was many things, including multiple small instances of insight and discovery, but overall Walking With ’Trane struck me as a work about how to put together the past and the present in fresh ways as well as how to find unexpected paths between the particular and the universal. Or if not the universal, the collective. This piece examined what individual dancers could do if focusing on particular parts and uses of the body and how these acute, specific explorations might fit together into a coherent whole. It used the stage effectively, breaking off dancers into subgroups that would then gracefully reassemble into an organic totality. It featured moments of profound desire, longing, and even loss, but it always found its way back to a kind of balance and poise, what Coltrane himself noted as the musical goal and endpoint for his masterpiece, “A Love Supreme” as “rising harmonies to a level of blissful stability.”
Coltrane’s sheet music notations for “A Love Supreme,” with the ending goal of “rising harmonies to a level of blissful stability.”
Urban Bush Women find “a level of blissful stability.”
Hips and shoulders, feet and torsos, sprints across the stage and stillness with intensity: it was just sheer pleasure witnessing each of the dancers as individual performers. Amanda Castro, Chanon Judson, Samantha Speis, Courtney J. Cook, Du’Bois A’Keen, Stephanie Mas, and Tendayi Kuumba each found signature transpositions of Coltrane’s music, from Chanon Judson’s slow, building entry at the start of the first section, in which she slowly accreted motion out of her hips to the rest of her body, to Amanda Castro’s focus on the use of the heel and foot, to Tendayi Kuumba’s gospel-inflected scat-singing solo, which became one of the apexes of the performance.
Kuumba’s singing garnered shouts of approval from the audience as she moved from guttural sounds to little quotes and references from the Coltrane song “A Love Supreme” to a furious combination of sound and movement. The result was a set piece of glowing expressive power that implicitly commented through dance performance on Coltrane’s music itself, particularly how his solo virtuosity linked back to certain black church traditions but ultimately became its own distinctive sound.
And yet, Urban Bush Women did not want to stop there, with insight into the meaning of Coltrane’s music. Discussing one line of inquiry in the piece, Zollar explained that she was interested in how those who heard Coltrane live described his playing as “muscular, that it was athletic, people had this experience of something intense, powerful, and deep.” Her focus was on the questions of “how we find that.” But not merely to document or recreate it. For Zollar, the crucial goal was to ask “what is a world that we can create that doesn’t try to replicate that but takes a riff of that.”
This was, I found, just what Kuumba did in her performance. In one sense, she was but a sophisticated jazz historian, unearthing information and interpretation about the sources and inspirations for a song such as “A Love Supreme.” Yet her performance, as with so much of Walking With ’Trane, became so much more than merely dance as scholarly origin-story essay. It also became a larger tale about how sound and movement transit from past to present, from others to self and back out to others, from exterior sources brought in through communal experience to interior ownership before moving again to externalized expression. What is this process? How does culture, beauty, power move from wellspring to fountain? How does it get generated, passed along, absorbed and transmitted and transposed, brought back to be brought forth, pulled in to be pushed out? Coltrane turned out to be one crosstie on this track, one rail to ride to a far bigger, more expansive investigation of the way culture gets moved and, in turn, moves.
What was so satisfying about Walking With ‘Trane was how deeply intellectual and physical it was in exploring these questions—how it indeed defied the very stale assumptions about a boundary between mind and body. Inquiring into Coltrane’s own powerful complicating of mind-body duality through musical expression, Urban Bush Women followed their own line of thinking, from the past Coltrane left behind to go past him, landing on solid ground as they asked what it might mean to grasp how we rise and fall on our capacities for moving between self-expression and collective listening, between making our own and then sharing with others what we can bring within us from those before us.