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Dancer Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, of Urban Bush Women, wins prestigious Gish Award

Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, founder of the dance ensemble Urban Bush Women, has won the $250,000 Gish Prize.
Crush Boone
Gish Prize Trust
Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, founder of the dance ensemble Urban Bush Women, has won the $250,000 Gish Prize.

A pioneer in the world of dance has been awarded one of the largest cash prizes for artists in the United States.

Jawole Willa Jo Zollar founded the dance ensemble Urban Bush Women in 1984. It was one of the first major dance companies composed entirely of female African-American dancers. Almost immediately, it was a sensation in the dance world. Revolutionary at the time – and still cutting edge — Zollar's choreography synthesizes movement from modern dance and traditional folk African dance styles with the kind of text and shouted language the company describes as "the urgent dialogue of the 21st century."

Zollar, who grew up in Kansas City, Mo., can trace her artistic lineage to Katherine Dunham, one of the most influential dancers, choreographers and educators of the 20th century. (Zollar studied with one of Dunham's former students). Like Dunham, Zollar emphasizes community engagement and combining activism and dance. Now in her seventies, Zollar continues to perform, collaborate and choreograph and her company still thrives.

The Lillian and Dorothy Gish Prize was established in 1994 from the will of early screen actor Lillian Gish. It comes with a cash prize of approximately $250,000. Other recipients have included Sonia Sanchez, Ava DuVernay, Gustavo Dudamel, Suzan-Lori Parks, Spike Lee, Anna Deavere Smith, Maya Lin, Trisha Brown and Chinua Achebe.

"I became aware of the Gish Prize when Bill T. Jones received it, back in 2003," Zollar said in a statement. "It's amazing now to have my name included in the extraordinary list of Gish Prize winners, and above all to be recognized both for the work onstage and for the impact I've sought to have as an organizer and activist in the community. We artists don't work for the sake of validation, but when you get the Gish Prize, it's another way to keep moving forward."

Just last year, Zollar was recognized with a MacArthur "genius" grant; her numerous other prizes include a Guggenheim fellowship and a Doris Duke Performing Arts award.

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Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.