campus news

Urban Bush Women’s anniversary performance provides pathway to local arts community

Chanon Judson performs in front of a class.

Chanon Judson, visiting associate professor and co-artistic director of Urban Bush Women, warms up in Ariel Nereson’s graduate seminar. Photo: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki


Published March 8, 2024

Chanon Judson.
“We often say once in the bush, always in the bush, and it really denotes that Urban Bush Women is a community and an ecosystem. ”
Chanon Judson, visiting associate professor and co-artistic director
Urban Bush Women

An effort to explore, share and amplify the untold stories of the African Disapora through dance began 40 years ago with the establishment of Urban Bush Women (UBW). Since its inception, the award-winning performance ensemble and dance company has performed throughout the world and has found its way back to Buffalo for a residency and special performance at UB to celebrate that milestone anniversary.

UB alumna Chanon Judson, who is originally from Buffalo and currently a visiting associate professor at UB, is co-artistic director of UBW and is co-leading the “Legacy + Lineage + Liberation” celebration taking place at 7:30 p.m. March 13 in the Mainstage Theatre in the Center for the Arts, North Campus.

The performance is presented by the CFA in collaboration with the Department of Theatre and Dance.

Judson joined UBW in 2001 as a performer and has been with the Brooklyn-based company ever since.

“We often say once in the bush, always in the bush, and it really denotes that Urban Bush Women is a community and an ecosystem,” Judson says.

Through her role on the faculty in the Department of Theatre and Dance, Judson is exploring the embodiment of jazz, and redesigning the jazz curriculum. And while her work with UBW has taken her all over the country, she says she always felt an obligation to share her artistic talents with her hometown.

“Being from parents that are Black artists who were inspired by the Black arts movement in Buffalo, I was raised with a notion that I had a responsibility to bring my resources and assets to the community — that giving back was intended and expected,” Judson says.

Her intentions to make her way back to Western New York coalesced with her passion for arts education and developed as an opportunity to bring UBW to UB.

“I was doing this work everywhere but not sowing seeds strongly in Buffalo, and so it planted a seed for me of wanting to look at ways in which I could develop a more intentional relationship as an artist with the Buffalo community,” Judson explains.

“I’m excited — both in terms of being able to deepen the work that I am doing at the University at Buffalo and bringing so much of Urban Bush Women’s practice and methodologies for folks to experience. By way of the company, it furthers that teaching, but also the part that I hold dear is being able to be in a meaningful artistic relationship with the Buffalo community.”

Chanon Judson speaks to a class of dance students.

Chanon Judson (rear, standing in front of the blackboard) talks with students in Ariel Nereson’s graduate seminar. Urban Bush Women's visit to Buffalo includes a residency and special performance celebrating UBW's 40th anniversary. Photo: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki

UBW held a residency with UB in 2019, and Judson wanted to expand UBW’s reach with local artists; this anniversary performance and residency have provided an opportunity to engage with that community.

“We’re working with community liaison Naila Ansari, who is an alum of our graduate program, to bring us in a relationship with local artists and professionals. Some are students, but largely it’s folks who are outside of our learning institutions and who are working in the community. So we’ll be doing what we call a Collab Lab, where participants will be engage in art-making and organizing for the sake of building and sharing practice together.”

Judson says the Collab Lab values experimentation and process rather than the creation of an artistic product.

“It’s really about the shared experience of co-creating. So I’m looking forward to that opportunity as well.”

Judson has a whole lot of talent, knowledge and connections to impart upon her collaborators. She is a recipient of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP) Leadership Fellowship Cohort II and Director’s Lab Chicago Fellowship 2018. Additional credits include Taylor Mac’s 24-Hour Spectacular and the Tony Award-winning musical “Fela!” Her commercial credits include Victoria’s Secret Live, L’Oreal Live, “The Tonight Show,” starring Jimmy Fallon, Apple Watch and the Michael Jackson 30th Anniversary Concert.

Under her direction, and that of co-director Mame Diarra (Samantha) Speis, UBW continues to weave contemporary dance, music and text with the history, culture and spiritual traditions of the African Diaspora. For the 40th anniversary performance at UB, audience members can expect an evening of new and classic works that transcend genres and decades of storytelling.

“We essentially took something from every decade, and notable experiences from every decade,” Judson says.

Works include, but are not limited to, “Give Your Hands to Struggle,” “Women’s Resistance,” “I Don’t Know but I Been Told ... if You Keep on Dancin’ You Never Grow Old” and “Haint Blu.”

“There is an ensemble work from the ‘80s, when the company was founded. There’s a solo from the ‘90s, and there is a group dance from the 2000s. And then the second half is from the newest work we’ve created.”

With new pieces being continuously developed and choreographed, Judson says UBW will be around for the foreseeable future.

“We just finished a strategic planning process where we’re looking 10 years out. And the hope is that Urban Bush Women has 40 more years and beyond. It’s a legacy organization, and I think it’s a company that merits being a leader in our arts ecosystem. I think that the work is meaningful, relevant and necessary. 

Tickets for the 40th anniversary show are $30 and are available through Ticketmaster; UB students, employees and alumni receive $5 off if they purchase their tickets at the Center for the Arts box office from noon to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Friday.