Dance as diplomacy: Inspired by Rwanda, Urban Souls' Walter Hull fuses Africanmotifs and hip hop
Dance is a form of diplomacy. In fact, it's happening right now in Houston.
When the Urban Souls dancers take the stage on Saturday for Walter Hull's Women of Ishyo, they will be honoring another set of women in Rwanda, who touched his life and work. Hull, general manager of Urban Souls Dance Company, recently returned from a residency at Ishyo Art Centre in Kigali, Rwanda, where he taught, choreographed and conducted empowerment workshops he called "My Soul is Urban."
Hull fused African motifs and urban modern techniques to tell a tale of the vision and persistence that it took to build the successful Ishyo Art Centre. His tribute headlines "Playlist: A Jazzy Night of Music & Dance" at Morris Cultural Arts Center, Houston Baptist University, which concludes Urban Souls Dance Company's inaugural season.
There was nothing arbitrary about Hull's destination. In 2005, the choreographer became interested in Rwanda after watching Sometimes in April, an HBO movie that is considered one of the most accurate films on the 1994 genocide. (The movie screens on August 25 at the Shape Community Center as part of the Houston Museum of African American Culture.)
"I was ashamed, I didn't know about it," remembers Hull. At a John Legend show at House of Blues, he spotted Idris Elba, who starred in the film. (Elba is most famous for the role of Stringer Bell in The Wire.) Hull took it as a sign that Rwanda was in his future. Little did he know just how much.
Hull turned his interest into an artistic exploration when 2007, Urban Souls exploded on the Houston dance scene with Across the Waters, a dance chronicling the genocide. Jointly choreographed by Hull and Artistic Director Harrison Guy, the potent dance told a brutal story, while leaving room for hope and healing. The team delved deep into research to create the piece, sharing their findings and feelings with the dancers. Across the Waters went on to become the standout piece during the Dance/USA showcase in 2009, leaving audiences stunned by its truth and honesty.
When an opportunity to travel to Rwanda in partnership with the U.S. Embassy arose, Hull jumped on board. The plot thickened when he arrived at Ishyo to find none other than Carole Kamemera, who also starred in the HBO film, running the place. "My dance honors Carole and four other women who founded Ishyo and organized my residency by demonstrating how a vision turn into reality," says Hull. "Ishyo started as a dream, and the right people came together to bring it to life. Like us, they believe art should be accessible. But, that's not all, Ishyo was founded in 2005, the same year as Urban Souls."
Fate and destiny collided for Hull, all very far from home, but so close to his heart.
The arts are in short supply in Rwanda, yet more important than ever for a culture still in the midst of healing from a tragedy that we still struggle to understand. Hull found the students excited to get some Western influences in contemporary and hip hop dance. "Hip hop is like a universal language," he says. "They were so eager to learn."
With the mission of Urban Souls global from the get go, Hull eventually plans to divide his time between Houston and Rwanda. But for now, he's pleased to be honoring his Rwandan colleagues with a big dance party. Also on the program is Guy's Pluck’d by Duke, a tribute to Houston’s own jazz legend, Barrie Lee Hall, Jr., with live music by The Conrad Johnson/Barrie Hall Big Blue Sound. Hall, Jr. a renown plunger style trumpet player, was handpicked by Duke Ellington to play in The Duke Ellington Orchestra.
Both Hull and Guy see themselves as arts activists, making a difference in their community, working with young people, and infusing their dances with social messages. They enlist their community organizer backgrounds into their mission. Urban Souls comes full circle by including Hull's tribute to Rwanda, a place that has left it's mark on this remarkable young company. Hull reminds me, "We are a social arts organization."
Urban Souls Dance Company rose to prominence with Across the Waters
Watch the super steamy Urban Souls preview video