In 1984, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, a Missouri-born, Florida-trained, and New York City-based dancer and choreographer, founded Urban Bush Women. The highly theatrical troupe was conceived to tell stories previously untold -- those of women of the African diaspora in the U.S., from the lives of their ancestors through the present.
In 1998, dancers studying under renowned choreographer Germaine Acogny, in the premier workshop of the International Center of Traditional and Contemporary African Dance, in Toubab Dialaw, Senegal, were assembled by their instructor into Compagnie Jant-Bi. Their mission was to advance African dance by fostering collaboration between dancers and choreographers of that continent with those of other cultures.
The two companies are separated by hemisphere and gender: Urban Bush Women are true to their title, while Compagnie Jant-Bi is led by the proud granddaughter of a Yoruba priestess whose performers are all of the male persuasion. But the troupes have a shared aim: to herald the richness of African culture and art through art, deliver artistic tradition into the contemporary, and nurture its practitioners.
Their eventual union was only a matter of time, and early in the 21st century, Zollar and company made their way to Senegal to study, work, explore and live with Acogny and her cohorts. Through their joint discoveries was built Les ecailles de la memoire (The Scales of Memory), which the Pittsburgh Dance Council and the August Wilson Center for African American Culture bring to the Byham Theater on Sat., Feb. 9.
Scales of Memory unifies Zollar's aesthetic of the city and the street with Acogny's devotion to the natural world, and reflects the deserved reputations of each for constructing ardent, intelligent works, performed by dancers who radiate fierce and focused electricity.
Zollar's previous works -- such as Hair Stories, which looked at the relationshop between women and their physical characteristics, ethnicity and self-esteem, and Batty Moves, on the magnificence of the female posterior -- revealed her distinct voice as a choreographer. It's a voice of compassion, humor and strength. That strength is echoed by her dancers: They possess similar muscle, and every move they make is powerful and ferocious, movement of confidence, grace and raw beauty.
Scales of Memory is the union of seven women who most frequently use motion to examine the experience of the woman of African heritage living in the United States, and seven men who focus on distilling African ritual and history. They are respectively led by two choreographers intent to communicate, to enlighten and to celebrate their past, present, and future. In Scales, the theme is that of identity and community, and the new understandings that result when the two merge.
While the concepts explored are on some level specific to each dancer, they're also universal enough to absorb anyone and everyone. By homing in on Africa, Urban Bush Women and Compagnie Jant-Bi open themselves up to the planet.
Urban Bush Women and Compagnie Jant-Bi present The Scales of Memory 8 p.m. Sat., Feb. 9. Byham Theater, 101 Sixth St., Downtown. $19-40. 412-456-6666 or www.pgharts.org