Zollar, founder of the powerhouse Brooklyn-based dance group Urban Bush Women, is 70, the oldest among the 25 fellows announced Sept. 28 by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Yet if her age contributes to the delight of her award, it’s also part of the virtue of it. For Zollar, a force of creativity and empowerment in the modern-dance world and an artist-activist whose wider recognition is long overdue, receiving the MacArthur at this point is a validation of her inexhaustible drive.
After all, the MacArthur honor, which comes with a $625,000 stipend paid out over five years, does more than reward an outstanding oeuvre. It is also meant to facilitate new creative work and to recognize the “promise for important future advances,” according to the foundation’s website.
“A lot is coming together,” Zollar says. “My world is expanding. And to quote Sly and the Family Stone, ‘I want to take it higher.’ ”
For some, the expansion Zollar has already achieved would be enough to cap a career. It’s all too easy to overlook her groundbreaking contributions because some of them have become either mainstream (having a multicultural dance company) or rather newly topical (addressing racial injustice). An experimental dance company in Brooklyn? Nothing unusual about that now — yet Zollar was forging a new path when she founded Urban Bush Women in 1984 in that far-from-trendy outpost, distant from New York’s downtown cultural scene.
Then there’s the composition and focus of Urban Bush Women, established as a (rare) all-female group, primarily women of color, that loudly addresses the hidden truths of the Black experience and the life of women in America. Zollar’s dances combine a luxurious, flowing performance style with provocative subjects: poverty and homelessness, historical racism, covert misogyny. Long before the Black Lives Matter movement, this body of work was a radical idea, and a difficult sell — Urban Bush Women was not the darling of the funding community, and it frequently flirted with financial ruin.
“We persisted. We stayed in the work even when it was really hard to keep your head above water,” Zollar says. “And we still managed to do amazing things, on prayer and spit.”
Zollar “wasn’t tiptoeing around,” says choreographer Elizabeth Streb, a close friend of Zollar and a past MacArthur recipient, whose daredevil Streb Extreme Action Company settled in Brooklyn years after Zollar moved there.
“She dove directly into the center of the storm,” Streb says. “Her company was this legion of powerful women who wanted to change the world with movement.”
Even before the MacArthur, Zollar had moved into new territory. She has stepped back from leading Urban Bush Women, having handed the reins to two of her dancers in 2019. (The group is holding workshops this fall and has scheduled performances starting in January.) Zollar is continuing to teach at Florida State University, where she has been a professor for 25 years; she splits her time between Tallahassee and Brooklyn so she can coach dancers in her works. But Zollar’s current artistic projects are bigger than anything she’s done before: She is directing two operas and, with Urban Bush Women’s 40th anniversary looming in 2024, planning a major choreographic retrospective.
Zollar is making her first foray into opera with Jake Heggie’s “Intelligence,” which she’ll direct and choreograph for Houston Grand Opera. The piece, slated for 2023, tells the true story of an enslaved Black woman who was part of a spy ring in Richmond during the Civil War. The character is close to her heart, Zollar says, but when Heggie, the acclaimed creator of such operas as “Dead Man Walking” and “Moby-Dick,” emailed to ask her to work with him, she had an unusual moment of doubt — at first.
“I don’t know anything about opera,” Zollar recalls lamenting to a friend. “But they said, ‘You know about storytelling, music and narrative, so yes, you do.’
“And what I discovered about opera is, it’s big. The emotions are big. Sometimes I’ve been critiqued as having too much emotion in my work that goes on too long, and in opera, that’s valued. So, yes!” She laughs, a deep, rich laugh.
“I’ve found my people.”
This spring, Urban Bush Women received the largest donation in its history: $3 million from MacKenzie Scott, the ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos (who owns The Washington Post), and her husband, Dan Jewett. The funds were part of Scott’s latest round of philanthropic giving, going primarily to organizations led by people of color. A year ago, the dance company received a $2.1 million Ford Foundation “America’s Cultural Treasures” grant, also aimed at organizations of color affected by the pandemic. These extraordinary gifts came just in time, Zollar says, because her company had been existing “hand to mouth.”
“We didn’t know how many weeks we could hire the dancers,” she says. “Can we keep this person on? Can we raise money for a project, or do we have to cut it?”
The past year “has been a roller coaster for sure,” Zollar adds. “Being beautifully overwhelmed, and then, okay, what do I really want to do? Now I can think about that.”
Zollar grew up in Kansas City, Mo., one of six children whose parents worked in real estate. Her mother harbored unrealized dreams to sing and dance professionally. Her father’s ambitions were also curtailed “because of how racism played out in his life,” Zollar says. They urged her to follow her heart, and after studying dance in college, she moved to New York to work with Dianne McIntyre, a prominent Black choreographer who combined dance with live jazz.
“It was mind-blowing for me to see her work,” Zollar recalls.
But such work is fragile, difficult to preserve. The ephemeral nature of dance, especially McIntyre’s, which was often performed to improvised music, is one of the reasons Zollar is determined to celebrate her company’s anniversary with a retrospective. The idea is common in the visual arts and theater, but rare in the modern-dance world, which hasn’t always had the means to archive its past and tends to focus more on premieres than revivals. The project Zollar envisions includes touring, with performances and exhibits charting the company’s evolution.
“That would be my big dream,” she says. The MacArthur brings it closer to realization.
The dramatic upswing in funding that Zollar has seen is a function of the Black Lives Matter movement, she says, which laid inequities bare in the world of arts funding as in so many other places.
“People were doing a kind of reckoning of their own philanthropy,” she says. “Who’s been overlooked? It’s been very powerful.
“What we want is for this to be a movement, not a moment,” she continues. “A movement of seeing all of the instruments in the orchestra — from trans people to the disabled and Indigenous, Blacks, people of color, Whites, poor folk — all of this is the orchestra of America. And immigrants who came legally or any way they could, to escape horrific conditions. We have the opportunity to look at the whole orchestra now.”
Finally being seen. After decades of artistic struggle, trying to keep her dance company alive, this, she says, is what’s most meaningful about the MacArthur.
“Even though you think that eyes aren’t on you. I’m past the age to be thought of. But this means that age doesn’t matter, that you keep evolving,” Zollar says.
“It means people understand that you keep growing and expanding as an artist, if you keep doing the work.”