Jawole Willa Jo Zollar wins Gish Prize

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Jawole Willa Jo Zollar wins Gish Prize
Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, founder of Urban Bush Women, in New York, Nov. 22, 2017. Andrea Mohin/The New York Times.

by Kalia Richardson

NEW YORK, NY.- Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, a choreographer who communicates cultural identity and issues of equity through dance, was awarded the 29th annual Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize on Monday. The award, which comes with about $250,000, is given to U.S. artists who, as described by renowned actress Lillian Gish, have made “an outstanding contribution to the beauty of the world” and to people’s “understanding and enjoyment of life.”

“I don’t think about trying to have impact or trying to be recognized or seen,” Zollar said in a phone interview. “I think it’s in my social DNA to think beyond myself.”

The leader of the selection committee, Kay Takeda, said the panel had received more than 100 nominations and chose Zollar in response to her community building and the engagement birthed through her creative work.

“She brought movement vocabularies inspired by African traditions into the canon,” Takeda, executive director of the Foundation for Contemporary Arts, said in an interview. “Aesthetically, she has been a trailblazer.”

Zollar founded Urban Bush Women, an ensemble that explores Black identity and systemic oppression through movement, in 1984. As a 1970s college student, Zollar said, she involved herself with the feminist, anti-Vietnam War, free love and Black power movements. Nodes from present and former decades have left traces in her work.

“I’m not waving a banner saying, ‘Here, this is what you’re seeing onstage,’ but people were clearly experiencing a company having deep analysis of systemic oppression of racism or sexism,” she said.

A majority of Zollar’s founding members grew up in de facto segregated cities, where they communicated their racialized life experiences onstage. Zollar did not want to erase individuality, she said, but heighten it through the use of sound and full body movements. She challenged stereotypes in “Anarchy, Wild Woman and Dinah,” where performers ate fried chicken and watermelon, and asked dancers to put the fight and rebellion in their hips in “Batty Moves.”

“We had this Blackness of thought and culture and ways of being that we didn’t have to articulate,” she said. “And at the same time, we also understood that we were constantly pushing up against something, so how do you use that creatively?”

Paloma McGregor, a choreographer and member of the Urban Bush Women from 2005-10, said Zollar inspired her to leave her journalism job and pursue dance. Despite the marginalization of dance compared with other art forms, McGregor said Zollar has unmatched skill to transform vision into action.

In addition to her powerful choreography, McGregor said, “she has committed to innovate these leadership development strategies that have benefited two generations of arts leaders, including me.”

McGregor, who said she has nominated Zollar for the Gish Prize several times, said Zollar has influenced people through the company’s Choreographic Center Initiative, which helps choreographers who are women of color, and a Summer Leadership Institute, a 10-day intensive that builds artists into “front-line social-justice workers.”

“Too often artists like Jawole aren’t recognized until after they leave us,” she said, “so getting to celebrate her now while she continues to innovate as an artist, a choreographer, a leader, a mentor, a maverick is not only satisfying as a person who’s in her life,” she said, but also as a marker of the value of this work.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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