This past weekend, the New York-based Urban Bush Women dance company went on an explorative journey through the music, spirit and life of John Coltrane-and took Chicago audiences along for the ride.
In keeping with the musical tenor of the show, Walking with ‘Trane ran in two sections—Side A and Side B during its stay at The Dance Center at Columbia College.
Side A opened with a single dancer, Chanon Judson, slowly swaying and undulating in quiet darkness. The movement, music and lighting all came up gradually. The lone dancer moved with the type of elegance that makes you involuntarily want to move along. She danced so organically and naturally it’s as though the dancing was in her DNA. Her movement was powerful and inquisitive, with a presence and expression on her face saying, “come listen to my story.”
Side A was a wonderful blending of sounds and motions. Each movement was distinct and precise, with each dancer embracing his or her own unique quality of movement and story to tell. They all danced with unwavering feeling and conviction.
There were quick phrases and beautiful moments of stillness, extended arms and impeccable control.
At times the dancers seemed to be reaching for something. I don’t know if they found what they were seeking, but like the music, it was beautiful to watch the process.
The choreography was big and bold, while also having moments of self-contained smallness. There is a thirst, a drive. When the music stopped, the dancers made their own, either stomping or singing. At one particular incredible point, they danced along as dancer Tendayi Kuumba began singing—she then began dancing to her self-made music. When there is emptiness, there is still music.
Walking With ‘Trane explored and executed dance as jazz music. Jamming together, taking solos, highlighting the improvisational and cooperative nature of jazz.
Side A, so deeply rooted in Coltrane’s music and spirit, ended with words about him and his music read aloud.
“Coltrane music is felt…you can run out of steps, but you can never run out of sound.”
Side B began with four dancers on stage, dancing around themselves in circles almost as if they were chasing their tails. At first the energy seemed a bit low—understandable given the intensity and ferocity with which the performers danced in Side A. Side B seemed to delve deeper into the intricacies of the music. Kuumba looked pained, as though focused solely on keeping the melody alive, although not quite able to find the right note. She impressed throughout the entire evening, completely committed to the piece and her character.
The energy picked up with the music, and the dancers sprinted back and forth and in every direction across and around the stage. The running felt chaotic—although exquisitely so—as if they all might crash. The beautiful and swirling creation seemed balanced precariously, as if at any point it could tip and fall apart, but the significance of the moment was in the anxiety, anticipation and determination of keeping that balance.
The dancers moved in groups and independently through one spot of light to another—still searching and seeking, but grounded in their performance.
In silence, the dance continues. They moved in a chain reaction of motion, working together to get the dancing and music back up.
Side B showcased slower movements and alluring phrases and extensions. It explored gentleness within the strength, a subtle confidence in the determination.
There was a particularly gorgeous solo captivating both audience and dancers alike. Side B dove deep inside the music, cacophonous and harmonic.
After all of the running, the reaching, the stomping, the anguish and happiness, the dancers reached a final moment of stillness, heavy with meaning. Side B is an exploration of Coltrane’s album, Love Supreme, often considered his greatest work. In that final moment of the dance, words Coltrane wrote about Love Supreme project across the back of the stage: “…rising harmonies to level of blissful stability at the end.”
Further investigation into Coltrane’s writing gives more context to the phrase. He described Love Supreme as an “attempt to reach transcendent level with orchestra rising harmonies to a level of blissful stability at the end.”
During Walking with ‘Trane, that transcendence was reached.