BOSTON — 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.
``Girlfriends,'' another light piece, is actually a short excerpt from a full-evening work. It's a slumber-party type setting, as dancers dressed in nightgowns and bathrobes bicker and reconcile. The piece is silent and comical until the end when the girls burst out laughing after one shyly takes off her robe to proudly reveal an outfit that the others find uproariously amusing.
``Shelter,'' is an intense work about the plight of the homeless. Zollar tells the story, through several different texts, of a woman ``making a wrong turn and falling down ... between a rock and a hard place, at the intersection of reduced resources and reverberating rage.'' Against Wedderburn's incredible percussion beat, dancers leap and twist angrily, evoking emotions of being cold, frightened, and abandoned. In one sequence, dancers fall to the floor, shivering violently to cymbal-like sounds.
Urban Bush Women, which Zollar established in 1984, is based in New York City but spends about 30 weeks each year on tour. A number of Zollar's works premiered at such places as Dance Theater Workshop and Spoleto Festival USA. ``Shelter,'' part of a longer work by Zollar, was chosen by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater to join its repertoire.
``Our work is to be creative and relevant and connected,'' Zollar says during a question-and-answer session with the audience after the show. One person commented on the amazing energy she felt from the dancers during several performances. How do you build up to that point? she asked.
``It's breathing and releasing, working with energy and staying inside it,'' Zollar replied. ``We're in a different cultural mode.''
* Performances of Urban Bush Women: Davidson College, Charlotte, N.C., March 6 to 9; University Musical Society, Ann Arbor, Mich., March 9 to 12; Wiener Internationales Tanz-Festival, Vienna, Austria, March 14 to 20; Central Michigan University, Mt. Pleasant, Mich., April 11 to 14; Alverno College, Milwaukee, Wis., April 14 to 17; Sweetbriar College, Sweetbriar, Va., April 18 to 21; Joyce Theater, New York, May 9 to 15; Fur on the Belly/AMTF, Philadelphia, May 17 to June 4; Carver Community Cultural Center, San Antonio, Texas, June 5 to 12.