Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, Hair Stories, photo by Bette Marshall.
Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, Hair Stories, photo by Bette Marshall.

Jawole Jo Willa Zollar and Kaneza Schaal

Across the Table

On View: February 18

Across The Table brings together The Kitchen and BOMB Magazine in critical dialogue and creative collaboration at the turning of anniversaries across both dynamic institutions. With The Kitchen celebrating its 50th and BOMB celebrating its 40th, each has built a community that centers artists and their voices first. In a moment where models of care continue to be central to the ways the future of art can be imagined, The Kitchen and BOMB have teamed up to present a series of conversations via Instagram Live that invite two artists with distinct ways of making and thinking to share common ground. Bringing together folks who have never-before been in public conversation with each other, Across The Table gives space to center the creative process as its own site of exploration ripe with mutual points of departure. The series features artist-to-artist conversations between Sadie Barnette and Meriem Bennani (February 11, 4pm); Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and Kaneza Schaal (February 18, 4pm); Lex Brown and Miguel Gutierrez (February 25, 2pm); Lafawndah and Qualeasha Wood (April 1, 1pm); and Jeremy O’Harris and Brontez Purnell (April 15, 1pm).

This video features a recording of Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and Kaneza Schaal on February 18, 2022.

Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and Kaneza Schaal in conversation


Jawole Willa Jo Zollar (b. Kansas City, Missouri) earned her B. A. in dance from the University of Missouri at Kansas City and her M. F. A. in dance from Florida State University. In 1980 Jawole moved to New York City to study with Dianne McIntyre at Sounds in Motion. In 1984 Jawole founded Urban Bush Women (UBW) as a performance ensemble dedicated to exploring the use of cultural expression as a catalyst for social change. She has created over 34 works for UBW, as well as for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and others. Her collaborations include Compagnie Jant- Bi from Senegal and Nora Chipaumire. Her company has toured five continents and was selected as one of three U. S. dance companies to inaugurate cultural diplomacy program for the U. S. Department of State in 2010. She is the founder of UBW Summer Leadership Institute, founding Artistic Director and Chief Visioning Partner of UBW and currently holds the position of the Nancy Smith Fichter Professor of Dance and Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor at Florida State University. Jawole received a 2008 United States Artists Wynn fellowship, a 2009 fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial, and a 2021 fellowship from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Jawole received the Doris Duke Performing Artist Award and honorary degrees from Columbia College, Chicago, Tufts University, Rutgers University, and Muhlenberg College in Allentown, PA. Jawole received the Dance Magazine Award in 2015 and the Dance/ USA Honor Award in 2016. She received the 2017 Bessie Lifetime Achievement in Dance Award for her work in the field and is a recipient of the 2021 DanceTeacher Award of Distinction, and the 2021 Martha Hill Dance Fund Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2020, The Ford Foundation awarded Urban Bush Women as one of America’s Cultural Treasures. Jawole has recently been named a 2021 MacArthur Fellow.

Kaneza Schaal works in theater, opera, and film, and is based in New York City. Schaal's work has shown in divergent contexts from NYC basements to courtyards in Vietnam, to East African amphitheaters, to European opera houses, to US public housing, to rural auditoriums in the UAE. By creating performances that speak many formal, cultural, historical, aesthetic, and experiential languages she seeks expansive audiences. Domestically her work has been shown at Brooklyn Academy of Music, LA Philharmonic, The Shed, The Kennedy Center, Walker Arts Center, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, REDCAT, The New Victory Theater, New York Live Arts, Performance Space 122, New Orleans Center for Contemporary Art, Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center, PICA, and On The Boards. Schaal received a Guggenheim Fellowship, Herb Alpert Award in Theatre, United States Artists Fellowship, SOROS Art Migration and Public Space Fellowship, Ford Foundation Art For Justice Bearing Witness Award, and Creative Capital Award.


BOMB Magazine has been publishing conversations between artists of all disciplines since 1981. BOMB’s founders—New York City-based artists and writers—created BOMB because they saw a disparity between the way artists talked about their work among themselves and the way critics described it.

Today, BOMB is a multi-media publishing house that creates, disseminates, and preserves artist-generated content from interviews to artists’ essays to new literature. BOMB includes a quarterly print magazine, a daily online publication, and a digital archive of its previously published content from 1981 onward.


Below is a full transcript of Across The Table: Jawole Jo Willa Zollar and Kaneza Schaal, a virtual conversation which took place on February 18, 2022.

Isis: Hello, hello.

Jawole Willa: Hi.

Isis: Welcome everybody.

JW: Hi Kaneza,

Kaneza Schaal: Hi Jawole.

JW: How are you?

Isis: Welcome everyone to Across the Table, an artist conversation series organized by The Kitchen and BOMB Magazine. I'm Isis, BOMB's Digital Media Coordinator. Across the Table is a critical dialogue and creative collaboration at the turning of anniversaries of both of our dynamic institutions, with The Kitchen celebrating its 50th and BOMB its 40th. Each space has built a community that centers artists and their voices first. For those who are new to these inspiring institutions, since its inception in 1971, The Kitchen, based in Chelsea, has been a local, national and international nexus of avant-garde and experimental art. BOMB Magazine is a nonprofit supporting artists in conversation since 1981, quarterly in print and every day online. In a moment where models of care continue to be central to the ways the future of art can be imagined, BOMB and The Kitchen have teamed up to present a series of conversations via Instagram live. Thank you all for joining us.

And for a bit about these two amazing artists, we have us today, Jawole Willa. Jo Zollar, is a dancer and choreographer from Kansas City, Missouri. After moving to New York City to study dance with Dianne McIntyre at Sounds in Motion, Jawole founded Urban Bush Women as a performance ensemble dedicated to exploring the use of cultural expression as a catalyst for social change. Since then, she has created over 34 works for Urban Bush Women, including two at The Kitchen, as well as for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and others. Jawole was also named a 2021 MacArthur Fellow.

Kaneza Schaal works in theater, opera and film, and is based in New York City. Schaal's work has shown in divergent contexts from New York City basements to courtyards in Vietnam to East African amphitheaters, to European opera houses, to US public housing, to rural auditoriums in the United Arab Emirates. By creating performances that speak many formal, cultural, historical, aesthetic and experiential languages, she seeks expansive audience. Jawole and Kaneza, thank you so much for being here today.

JW: My pleasure.

KS: So glad to be with you.

Isis: I'll let you go ahead with the conversation, talk about whatever you'd like.

JW: Well, first of all, let me start with saying, thank you Isis, 'cause I'm not on Instagram or any social media, and so I didn't know how to navigate any of this. And she talked me through this, so thank you very much. And I'm happy to be here in conversation with Kaneza and BOMB Magazine.

KS: Back at you Jawole. And my shoutout goes to Chelsea Goding who similarly just got me hooked up. I think it's been two years since I was on Instagram, but I can't imagine a better way to arrive.

JW: Well.

KS: Well, I mean, I've been thinking about the fact that we were gonna get to hang out for a minute and I feel like I haven't seen you in flesh form, sharing breath for a long time.

JW: Yes.

KS: And the thing that I am curious to talk about is genealogy.

JW: Yeah.

KS: You have built a genealogy of dance-makers, of art-thinkers, of practitioners, and people use different tools to make that happen. Some people own their buildings, and because they owned their building and had a place to show up every day, they could seed a genealogy of artists. And I feel like you built practices that were the architecture, through which you seeded, cared for, nurtured, proliferated, a genealogy of art making. How? What are the practices? How do you think about that architecture or the building of that architecture?

JW: Well, thank you for saying that. Somebody started referring to the Urban Bush Women diaspora, and it was very exciting to hear that. I think in the beginning, like anything that, when you're beginning something, you're just doing the work and trying to get through the small moments. But I think that, because I came out of, I grew up in segregation and I came out of what people call the inner city, in Kansas City, Missouri. So I came out of a strong community that was at its best, lifting one another up, each one, teach one. If one rises, we all have to rise.

So I think that was always there. And then in my college days, very much involved in politics and the different movements of the time from feminism, to the Black Power Movement and spiritual traditions and culture, the Black Arts Movement, all of those were about a collective sensibility that it was not about just you, but it was about you and your community, you with your community. So, I think the practices really come from that. And then over the years, I found people who've helped give, who've helped lift it up, like Laurie Carlos and Robbie McCauley and Steve Kent, who was on the West Coast. And they've really helped shape it along with the individual company members. But I never felt threatened that company members wanted to do other things. In fact, I always encouraged it, I thought it was healthy. And in that way, I thought more like a jazz ensemble. If we're a group of people playing together, that doesn't mean we can't play with nobody else. That doesn't mean we can't write our own songs or lead our own band. So that's kind of been the underlying, maybe philosophy around it.

KS: I've been thinking about that so much lately, this sense of, more than any other art form, us who make performance, we create from collectivity, and we give unto collectivity.

JW: Yes.

KS: And so then what are the practices that actually nurture practice, that actually nurture what we do? And that is inherently thinking about how groups of people are moving forward, their ideas, which may or may not intersect with a particular project and likely have ten other projects circling around them. And I feel like we know that money doesn't make art. We know that we are so insanely rich in the resource that we build and the resource that we work through. And I've been thinking a lot lately about how to tend to the alternative economies that are at the core of how we make work and that have very little to do with whatever, institutional practice let's say.

JW: Yeah. Again, when I started the company, I didn't have any money. I think that you just have to do the work. If there's a vision that's strong and compelling, I think over time, people will begin to align with that vision and align with it financially. But I guess maybe one of the things that I see today and I'm trying to understand, as I see many people starting with, "I have to build my brand." And I'm like, what, on what? So, and I'm not saying, maybe that's another way of doing it. It seems to me that when you start with the vision that people become excited about that, and that builds the brand. And when I saw your work Kaneza for the first time, I was just so blown away, because it was movement, it was theater, it was ritual, it was complex, it had depth. And those are all of the things that really excite me when I see work. That I'm challenged to be present. And I'm challenged to really grapple with and work with the material that's presented. That for me is the most exciting thing when I go to theater. And I see that, and that's what I saw with your work.

KS: No, I appreciate it. I appreciate it. It's been such a gift to be able to be in conversation, even if loosely, over the years with you. And obviously as a beneficiary of the genealogy you've built, I feel that directly in practice, but it's also been wonderful to even, even if it has been more distant, to share practice with you in some way and in conversation, if nothing else.

Yeah, I mean, I think coming out of this very challenging moment for sharing breadth and ideas in the way that we're used to, a big question for me has been, for those of us who do not have family resources to fall back on and like, young people around my practice in particular, what does it mean to create opportunities for people to bet on themselves? And that some of that is about, how finances are moving through communities, but there's all these other structures that we have as we build practice, and as we build through collectivity to kind of, support betting on ourselves. As fundamental to being an artist, at some point, you choose to bet on yourself rather than a job that is gonna constrict you in certain ways or whatever it is. And feeling like what are the interventions that allow us to do that for young artists or early-career generative, a word I do not believe in, but to delineate what I'm trying to say. People who are just beginning to imagine themselves as an engine on a project, rather than young, I think at super difference. And then what does it mean for mid-career, particularly Black women, or established Black women artists to continue to have opportunities to bet on themselves that is. I want structures. I'm in the process of building structures.

JW: Well, I think that what you say, betting on yourself, because I think that this is something that I think that Black women and women of color were taught the opposite or were socialized to think the opposite, bet on everyone else. And there's a power to that. But for me, it came from being in women's communities. When I first started my work. I'll start in New York. When I first was in New York, I was involved in a lot of women's community, women's writing groups. And in college I was involved in women's communities. And that was first supporting my art, and saying, "Yes, you can go do it, you can do it. You have a voice, you have power, you go out in the world to do this." And a lot of Black women, a lot of women of color were saying that. So I think that was a really important place for me to begin. And then another kind of odd thing happened in terms of betting on myself is that, I thought that the Black dance community was gonna really embrace me. And they're like, "Yay." And I would say from the traditional Black dance community, I kind of got the opposite, that they saw me affiliated as white, downtown experimental artist. And I was kind of like very confused as someone who came out the Black Power Movement, Black radical, kind of thinking. And then I realized that, because the work was challenging, and not so easily digestible, there is a way that that is, can be seen as white experimental. And I'm like, "No, there is a whole long line of Black experimental, radical work that follows this.” But there was some reductiveness that started to only see it, to see that as white. And that was the most disturbing thing to me to experience.

So I think really that idea of coming from community, coming from women who were saying, "You own this, you do this, and I'm gonna help support you in that." And that's what I wanna do. I wanna support other women of color and particularly Black women to feel that agency of their own voice. How did you find that Kaneza? How did you find that?

KS: I certainly had my own battles, but ultimately I think I got to a point where the context, the kind of experimental context, many of them, white, avant-garde, downtown, New York. I honestly, I felt like I spoke more languages than I was able to use in the context that I was in. And so, I had to make a context where I could speak as many languages as I speak and engage with the work in the ways that I wanted to. So I felt like it was like a lexicons issue. I was like, I need to make a room that I can speak as many ways as I wanna speak simultaneously. I also think, and I was drawn to experimental theater and to the Avant-Garde Theater, as it got canonized, which was by white artists, primarily. That's what I learned in my history books.

JW: Ah

KS: To be clear. So, but for me, there was a sense of, I was drawn to experimentation and to formal hybridity, and I was drawn to that work for a reason. And then the question for me was how do I then speak historical languages, cultural languages, experiential languages in a way that I needed to make a room for? The other thing that comes up for me though, in listening, to what you said is, so much of my work has become, not only working on what happens on the stage, but what happens in the frame, in how people are gathering and how they're gonna meet in a room. And that, that is often a dance with institutions. And that often relates to kind of like systems intersecting and creating systems to bring, to institutions to hold invitation, to hold invitation in ways that require, a kind of labor that the many us's are very familiar with and institutions weren't necessarily built to do. And I feel like I see that so much in what you have built as well. Not only were you making the work, you then also began making the frame to hold the work.

And, I noticed that your Summer Leadership Program Institute, there's one more week for applications.

JW: Yes.

KS: Plugging that, on behalf of Urban Bush Women. But that feels like one of these places where you had to make the frame, to also hold these practices and to hold the genealogy.

JW: Yeah. Again, it's so much easier looking back and thinking about that. In the time I was problem solving. And mostly, a lot of my discoveries came from problem solving. So, we were doing community engagement work, and then we had turnover in the company. So there was a group of people that were really highly trained and highly skilled. And then when they left was like, "Oh, we don't have a way to bring the new ones in." So it was first, it was gonna be professional development. I thought, why should that? It should go out. So it was really trying to solve the problem of, how do I take these complex set of practices of the training and the chops as a dancer or a mover, storytelling, analysis of the isms, racism, class, all of these things together, community organizing, and bring that together so that we can look at what might come out of that for not only us, 'cause each time we do it, we go deeper, but also for a generation for our community of artists? So it really was problem solving. And in the problem solving, I thought, okay, well let me go back to, how did I know what I know? So in the very first Summer Leadership Institute, we had Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, do the keynote. And she was phenomenal, because as a community organizer, and an artist, and just amazing person, so deeply in her craft, I thought this is a person who can set the tone. So, it's been creative problem solving. And then later like, oh, that's what I was doing.

KS: Yeah.

JW: In terms of this frame.

KS: Yeah. I've been, these… how to build structures that support the work, and support the sustainability of work and that have that porousness for all of the artists who are in, who are working through collectivity to evolve in the directions they need to go.

JW: Yeah.

KS: Amazing.

JW: I tend to just jump in like, okay, this needs, like the choreographic center, it's like, oh! There's not enough Black women voices out there. What am I gonna do about that? So I tend to just go to like, what is how do I make a difference? And then the frames start to reveal themselves about how that's going to shape out.

KS: Yeah. Yeah. Hmm. So many things. One of the things as, you had something, go ahead. You go, you drive .

JW: Well, no, I was just gonna ask you, what are you up to? And what are you thinking in terms of your work and where are you going, and next things, ideas?

KS: You know, I've been…I've been chewing on this exorcism of King Leopold for a while, and thinking about this, what is the looking inward and looking outward required to kind of unroot the legacies of catastrophic events? And that, the residue of colonialism is in the materials all around us. And so, what does it look like to exorcise that? And that that's inherently looking in and looking out, and feeling like there was this moment, speaking of the histories you're thinking about and particularly Black feminist thought and that moment where Third World feminism meant something. I feel like that moment of thought, there was this, there were conversations that were happening between Harlem and Saigon, and Kigali and Ethiopia and Atlanta and Brazil. And this kind of looking inward and looking outward at postcolonial, post-slavery, through the lens of imperialism. I mean, it transformed the world, like literal revolutions came out of that conversation between everyone. And so, I think that that template of looking in and looking out and this conversation happening around the world and in the Sixties, and the glow of the Seventies.

I wanna, I fear a kind of balkanisation, and its its smell of policing. And anytime that smell comes around, we can know that it is coming from colonial structures. And what does it mean to really think through the lens of imperialism and look inward and outwards simultaneously? Anyhow, so I'm doing a piece about King Leopold and I'm actually performing in it, which is wild. I've never performed in my own work, then I've

JW: That's-

KS: Yeah, yeah, it's fun. It's been fun. It's been fun and challenging.

JW: It would be great to have you and Nora Chipaumire in a conversation together, because her work is now looking at this... She's from Zimbabwe, I think she's putting the Queen of England on trial in this work.

KS: Oh Nora.

JW: And she's lifting up the story of Nehanda, who was an activist, who they hung, and I think it took them three times to kill her. So there was a whole then, thing of like her spirit was so strong, her spirit of revolution. And so, I think that would be interesting conversation between the two of you .

KS: For sure. For sure. Yeah, I'm always excited about whatever Nora is cooking up. And then I've been messing around with opera.

JW: Yes.

KS: I feel like, I just feel like opera is this form that is big, it's made for big, it's made for bombasity. It can hold contradiction and violence and glory, and it's built of the surreal of the unimaginable and that it you know, I think the many us's who have been disinvited for so long, are actually the most equipped to handle that form. And that it was built on thousands of years of cultural exchange. It's lost itself to the lie of the West and singularity and fixedness. But the form itself, even the sounds we've come to understand as classical are born of hundreds of years of cultural exchange. So I'm excited about the opera as a place to kind of hold contradiction and violence and glory, which feels important.

JW: I'm with you, I'm gonna be directing and choreographing my first opera for Houston Grand Opera, it's called Intelligence. It's written by Jake Heggie, as the composer in Zheng Cao, and all of those things you just said, it's the magnitude of the story. And that often in Urban Bush Women's work, I've had this big emotional life, which at a certain time in the downtown world, wasn't so popular. But it's always been like, there's a big, extended, emotional life that deals with complexity. And I felt like, as I'm dipping my toe into opera, it's like, I really like that I don't have to pull back, that I can, you know, that an aria can go on and on, and it keeps digging into the emotion. And so, that's a really exciting place. It's new for me, but I'm finding that I really, so far am really enjoying coming into this world. And then, and at some point, will seek to define it through my own terms and my own creation.

KS: Here, here, we'll be there.

Isis: Definitely. I just wanted to be conscious of both of y'all's time. We have about five minutes left. And if people wanna ask questions, they can do that in the comment section or in the questions box. But firstly, I mean, I have a question for you both. I'm hearing you talk about coming from community and talking about genealogies. And I was wondering how history, I guess, slash nostalgia and, slash memory show up and inform both of y'all's work.

JW: Every day. Every day. I kind of think that nostalgia can often be seem like a bad word. There's a part of me that really lives in that place and interrogates it at the same time. That ah, this feels good. The smell of a particular food cooking, gives me a certain sense. And if I dig into that story, there's much more there, that history. And we were just talking about this with chitlins. And how horrible they smell when they're being cooked or cleaned. But it, it's a smell that... And the complexity of the story of chitlins, why were we eating chitlins? And then making that food taste good, the thing that was thrown off, cast off, making it something that tasted good and was shared. So that's kind of how I relate to that.

KS: I think that, especially lately, I've been thinking so much about how to hold practice in these ways we're talking about, through collectivity, through the kind of alternative economies that are already built in. And so, when you just asked that question, I was thinking about like family histories and nostalgia for economies we know existed before imperialism, and some sense of how that information really does trickle through to all of us. Like through how our aunties deal with a wedding or a funeral, and how money moves or, what has become understood as microfinance. Like in, I don't know, in a Grameen Bank, in India or something, or in West African Susus, and hair braiding salons. But I think that this sense of how we hold practice is also grounded through history. And maybe for me being called out that there's some nostalgia in there too.

JW: I don't know, I feel like you gotta have the nostalgia, but I think you can't, it's not the answer. It is just once.

KS: Maybe it's an engine sometimes.

JW: Yeah, sometimes it is an engine.

KS: Like how to reach both ways at the same time.

JW: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. I think the practices, and this is something interesting that I've been really going back to look at. I've never collected our practices, so to speak, because I didn't want them to become like this codified, "This is the truth, this is the way, Jawole did it, and she admitted that it's true." Because I didn't want that. And don't want that, but I think that by not... But there's an opportunity to archive a way of learning, that I'm now becoming interested in.

KS: And there's ways of holding that porousness that I think. You started to say some of them now, just in terms of values, I would say. But I think the genealogy, you have seeded, there's information about how to hold the porousness, through which collectivity functions and not get into these noun structures of the collective or the co-op, but what does it mean to work through practice with people? And I think without creating methodology language, I hope there's ways that we can share the values that lead to holding practice in that way.

JW: Well, I wanna talk to you more about this, we're gonna talk about this because.

KS: To be continued.

JW: This is kind of right where we are at Urban Bush Women. So yes, to be continued for sure.

Isis: Yes, all right. So we're just about at time, this conversation has been amazing and I hope that you both get to continue it, 'cause I know that's gonna be great. I wanna say thank you to our ASL interpreter, Avery, we appreciate you so much. And this, live is gonna live on the Instagram page of the BOMB. So you can find that here in a couple days and we'll be having another iteration of Across the Table next week. So make sure you join us for that too.

JW: Okay. Thank you. Thank you.

KS: Thank Jawole and Kaneza.

JW: What a truth.

KS: It was a pleasure, Isis.