Oct. 6, 2023

Truth in the Body

Through dance, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar finds the beating heart of Intelligence.

Mortal danger, colossal ambition, clever disguises. The spy story at the heart of HGO’s season-opening opera Intelligence feels like something out of a historical-fiction Mission: Impossible. 

Except it’s a true story. And the spies were Southern women, Black and white, who helped win the Civil War. 

The heroines of this world-premiere opera sent Confederate secrets to Union generals—and then they dropped out of history. Source materials leave a great many holes. So how do you bring such an improbable, daredevil saga to the stage? For Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, the choreographer and director of Intelligence, there was only one way.  

She had to find its truth in the body. 

Her body, for starters. 

“My style is visceral,” said Zollar. “I wanted to understand the story not just on the page but through the different sites, to sense the power of this story.” 

So Zollar wandered around the whereabouts of the events in Intelligence. You could say she relied on her body’s intelligence as she walked in the footsteps of the opera’s two main characters: Virginia heiress and abolitionist Elizabeth Van Lew and her young co-conspirator, born into slavery in the Van Lew household. She went by several names; in the opera she’s known as Mary Jane Bowser.  

Zollar toured the site of the Van Lew mansion in Richmond, Virginia (which is now a school), absorbing the sweeping view that once led down to a prison yard, where Elizabeth would carry food to the Union soldiers held there. She hid escapees in her mansion, and she released many of her late father’s slaves from labor.  

Mary Jane was one of these, and Elizabeth doted on her. Among the privileges she accorded the younger woman was a Northern education. She didn’t stop there. Elizabeth was forward-thinking and a little eccentric. She cooked up an elaborate, high-risk plan for Mary Jane to infiltrate the White House of the Confederacy as an enslaved woman and spy on Jefferson Davis. By some miracle—or rather, by virtue of the smarts and courage of these women—the plan worked.  

“It’s one thing to read the facts of what they did,” said Zollar. “But when you experience it and understand what was on the line if either of them had been caught—” She paused, letting the image hover.  

“It’s very powerful.” 

As Zollar toured the White House of the Confederacy, she felt in her bones the perils Mary Jane must have encountered there, living undercover. She had to have been especially attuned to her body, what Zollar calls the “physical language” that Mary Jane needed to perfect as she code-switched and carried her body differently so she could slip by unnoticed, eavesdropping, stealing battle plans, and hiding her truth as an educated person. 

That tension between truth and lies permeates Intelligence. The opera asks us to contemplate what is truth, and who gets to decide. Even at the outset of the project, Zollar had to confront these questions as she struggled with her own conceptions of truth and knowledge.  

“I don’t know opera,” she acknowledged, and that caused her to hesitate before joining the Intelligence team.  

It was a rare moment of doubt in a storied career. Zollar is an icon in the dance world. She’s a fearless artist-activist, the recipient of major awards including a 2021 MacArthur Foundation fellowship, and a leading voice of women’s empowerment. In 1984 she founded Urban Bush Women to blow up modern-dance conventions. With her choreographic style that is both forceful and fluid, Zollar established an all-female powerhouse, based in Brooklyn, to tell stories of racial injustice, the Black experience, and the life of women in America. 

Inspired by the jazz scene she gravitated to in New York, Zollar built Urban Bush Women into a tight-knit ensemble company—a rarity at the time in the underfunded modern-dance sphere, where dancers are frequently hired short-term, on a “pickup company” basis.  

“I wanted it to become a system, with many methodologies informing it,” Zollar said. She brought in actors and directors “who helped us understand, as dancers, what does it mean to tell a story in your body?” 

She discovered that a stage actor’s focus—direct, involved, and intimate—feels more dramatic than the typical dancer’s focus, which is softer, veiled, generally aimed at a point over the audience’s head. Zollar also developed a technique of dancing that looks natural and improvised rather than meticulously rehearsed. Even though it is. 

“It’s what I call living in the moment,” she said. “Cultivating the practice of being completely present so it feels like everything just happened in that moment, and the movement came out spontaneously.” 

Movement and storytelling are Zollar’s bread and butter. But when Intelligence composer Jake Heggie, the acclaimed creator of such operas as Dead Man Walking and Moby-Dick, sent her an email asking her to team up with him and librettist Gene Scheer, Zollar sat on it for days. 

Finally, she decided opera might not be such a stretch. 

“I’m very musical,” Zollar said, “and I connect with music in a visual way. It’s also story, something I relate to on a physical level. And that’s in Jake’s music.  

“I’d listen and think, ‘Oh, I’ll take this approach. I think this is a dance of foreboding,’” Zollar continued. “Because the music feels tentative, like a warning, with a delicate yet powerful sense of the spacing of sound. And I got ideas about creating bigger dances—dances of courage and hope, building some specificity.”  

By that point, Zollar had dreamed herself into directing her first opera.  

Her approach was exactly what Heggie wanted. The buried truths and mysteries of Intelligence call for an unorthodox opera, he said. Movement and dance are as essential to the storytelling as music and words. 

“I wanted to think outside the box,” Heggie said. “I wanted this to be very special. I didn’t want someone ingrained in ‘this is how we do opera.’” 

“I knew I wanted to incorporate movement into this piece because there were so many question marks, so much in the shadows,” he continued. “I felt movement and dance would be essential to tell the story because of all the unknowns. Because it goes beyond words.” 

Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, left, with Associate Director Colter Schoenfish.

As work began on the opera, Zollar gathered some dancers from Urban Bush Women and, over many months of trying things out in a rehearsal studio, she mapped out the kinetic traces of the dangers and deceptions that run through Intelligence. The character of Mary Jane’s deceased mother, an enslaved woman who, absent historical records, the opera names Lucinda, took shape, as a guiding spirit with secrets of her own. 

Lucinda introduces the notion of an ancestral realm into the opera, an all-knowing place beyond time. Eight dancers embody this realm; they form an individualized, dynamic chorus, and comment silently on the story through movement alone. Zollar calls them the “Is-Was-Will.” 

“The past, present, and future live within their bodies,” Zollar said. “That allows me to think in a more poetic and narrative way about where they are in a scene, what the dance is about and how they’re moving. 

“One of the concepts I brought forward is part of African cosmologies, that the past, present, and future always exist together,” she said. “So the people who are able to hold that knowledge are powerful. It gives you a very different way to think about time and what is known.” 

What is known. Intelligence wrestles with this question, exploring the way knowledge and facts are defined, used, and misused. What does the word “intelligence” mean in the context of wartime espionage—and when the spies are women and enslaved people, all of them chronically, tragically underestimated and rendered invisible? The story is full of paradoxes, cryptic motives, and betrayals. This is rich fodder for the opera’s creators. 

“The main characters existed in their time, but we’re not looking at it from the 1800s. We’re looking at it now,” said Zollar. “I wasn’t interested in creating a straight reality of the Civil War.” Once they decided to incorporate ancestors, the story took on a quality of magic realism, she said. 

“It’s the idea that there’s a magical world happening all around us, and at the same time we’re in this linear, historical world,” said Zollar. “Afrofuturism is another way to put it. It’s that there’s so much of the ‘knowing,’ and also the things we don’t know but suspect. There’s mystery.” 

Sharing ideas like these with Zollar has been “life-changing,” said Heggie. “She’s made me look at how I put things together differently. I’m thinking about not only having a dance company onstage almost all the time, but also about the singers and their movement. That took me by the throat and has led me through the whole process.” 

He recalled the first time he watched her dancers rehearse back in 2021, when Heggie, Scheer, and Zollar were workshopping Intelligence at the University of Colorado, Boulder. The dancing inspired him to rush off and write more music. 

“I knew there would be an ancestral dance in Act Two,” he said. But he struggled to find the right sound for it, until Zollar told him, “’It just needs to sound other,’” he said. “So it became primarily percussion alone. And I’ve never done that in opera before. 

“It gives me shivers to think about,” he continued. “And that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been in the room with them. There was this specific movement, where the dancers came in and raised a foot and hovered, and then put it down. Raise, hover, and down. It was this arc of energy, holding up—and then down to the earth. I was like, ‘Oh, my God, I have an idea!’” 

Zollar is “an amazing life force,” said Khori Dastoor, HGO’s general director and CEO. “In many ways she’s been the primary creator for the work. This is a Black woman’s story, and she has been our North Star in how this story is expressed in this piece.” 

Dastoor is excited to open with a world premiere. “I really feel that this is the story I want to tell about the Houston Grand Opera in this moment, to spark a conversation.” 

“Here in the South,” she added, “understanding our history is an important part of how we get anything done. How are we here together? How did we get here? At a time when we’re reflecting on the framing that is being taught to our young people, it’s important to say, ‘This is an important story that you need to know.’” 

For Zollar, giving voice, movement, and corporeality to courageous women nearly lost to the past has a particular urgency. As Intelligence demonstrates, the truth can vanish with terrifying ease. 

Intelligence opens out a whole other history,” Zollar said. “And you see how these histories are going to become even more obscured, and the way history is being erased. So it’s really important that these stories are told.” x

about the author
Sarah Kaufman
Sarah L. Kaufman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning dance critic, formerly with the Washington Post. An author, educator, and journalist, she is working on her second book. SarahLKaufman.com