Soul Deep, the collaboration between the David Murray Octet and dance troupe Urban Bush Women, started promisingly. Trombonist Craig Harris, attired in long black skirt and serious walking shoes, played triplets against a lush ostinato, then bowed deeply and shot out his slide at each stage mark as if to bless them with holy notes. He then marched up and down the auditorium stairs, weaving a dense, brassy incantation, before rejoining the musicians upstage. Would that the rest of the evening showed so generous or dynamic a gesture.
The company -- some dozen dancers, including artistic director/choreographer/ narrator Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, presented group pieces with an intermittent use of text by Langston Hughes and Ntozake Shange. Soul Deep purports to be a "visit to the primal passion heard in the Blues; it is a return to sensual awakening to earthy social dances and "blue light' basement parties." However, Murray's "Octet" (of seven) played a muddle of mid-'70s jazz ventures that ranged unimaginatively for most of the show from sub-Lester Bowie/Art Institute semichaos to not-quite-ready-for-the-pop-charts fusion. What's disappointing is that UBW's production fails to acknowledge anything that's happened in choreography or jazz since, say, 1975. So can ya dance to it? The UBW troupe certainly tried, but there seemed to be no coherent choreographic vision, a suspicion confirmed by the program, which dodges the question by crediting Zollar "in collaboration with the company." In other words, the dancers' solos seemed no less improvised than the horn players'. The bush women and men possess plenty of vigor, decent extension and luxuriant hair, braided and loose, which they swung about in wide, glorious arcs. For "Saturday Night," the first act, they were bizarrely costumed in neon leotards and trousers, tight at the thigh and loose at the knee, or short bunched skirts with panels draping the front, like some unlikely amalgam of carnival skirt and shalwar kabeez. Some dancers were additionally draped in leopard-spotted scarves, which further obscured their bodies. The dancing featured a lot of single moves -- a quick turn followed by a drop to the floor, a half-swivel and then a leg shot up toward the ceiling and a foot flexed. Aside from a smattering of stag leaps, much was reminiscent of the work of Lucinda Childs, the grand minimalist, albeit run at an absurdly high rev. Several dancers were visibly exhausted at the end of the act.
But no matter, because they only danced for 20 minutes during Act 2, "Sunday Morning." (This started with a 15-minute musical jam.) Costumed in brown skirts or trousers, with funny, old-fashioned white shirts, some with peplums, the dancers still worked their way up to a crescendo of movement, despite the band's more modulated riffing. And why move at hyperdrive speeds during pianist Donald Smith's fervent gospel chant of "Don't Know What I Would Do (Without the Lord)"? Moments were decidedly rare when a pair of dancers, or even a small group, would actually move in concert with one another. Even then the audience's attention was constantly deflected. In one sequence anchored by Hughes' elegantly spare text "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," one female dancer arched into a backward "crab" position, belly-up, and completely supported the weight of a male dancer, who did a marvelously liquid roll across her. Yet elsewhere on the stage, standing dancers in similar half-light were continuing to move. I wrote in my notes, when "they're allegro, the pianist is andante, and there's no conductor to pull it together."
Despite the brassy name, oxymorons abounded. You'd expect feminist critique -- or social critique of some depth -- but nothing. No "urban" music either, in the colloquial sense -- no hip-hop beats, nor rap, nor modern gospel, nor even '60s soul. On occasion, a dancer would drop into that pose from the '80s that always presaged break-dancing: a push-up with leg extended to the side. It's not that anyone needs to see break-dancing again, but an action that suggested, "Oh, we're way beyond this," would have been welcome. Perhaps the "urban" referenced the occasional arm gesture reminiscent of hailing a cab or reaching for a subway strap, but the motif here was rural -- the river sequence, picking motions, the revival-meeting prayers. As for "Women," well, I'm sure the three male dancers have processed their feelings about all that just fine. Their solo turns had more gusto and were more memorable -- perhaps because there were only three of them, and they were spared -- or spared themselves -- the trouble of any unison dancing. But "primal passion"? Only sole deep.