Buffalo native Chanon Judson (BFA ’01) knew early on she was meant to perform. But it was a master class she attended at age 14, held by the contemporary, social justice-focused dance company Urban Bush Women, that crystallized her aspirations. After the class, she approached the associate director and asked how to be a part of the group. “He said, ‘You need to be able to dance,’” Judson recalls. “I said, ‘Got that.’ He said, ‘You need to be able to act.’ I said, ‘Great, got that.’ He said, ‘You need to know how to sing.’ I said, ‘I’ll work on that.’”
Work Judson did, first at the Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts, then at UB, where a generous scholarship made it possible for her to enter the New York City dance world immediately after graduation. “My dad always said, ‘Don’t be a struggling artist, because if you’re struggling, you’re not making your art,’” she says. “I left school with impeccable training, but I didn’t leave with debt, so I didn’t have long days of living on a popcorn diet. I had some days, but not a lot.”
During her first year in New York, Judson made good on her ambition to join Urban Bush Women, where she performed in pieces combining singing, dancing and storytelling to explore the experience of women in the African Diaspora. She also answered an open call for a Michael Jackson 30th Anniversary Concert performance. After dancing onstage with Jackson, she stayed out late celebrating with friends and woke up the next morning to her roommate telling her they had to go on the roof. It was 9/11. Judson’s work with Urban Bush Women, she says, became “a healing space to process 9/11. There’s concert art, there’s the commercial field, and then there’s how art functions in a community in a more natural way.”
Judson toured with Urban Bush Women for four years, then became pregnant with her first son, Ausar. With the support of other mothers in the company, as well as her own parents and grandparents, she was able to keep touring until her son was 3. After her second son, Zion, was born, she expanded her teaching repertoire to include teaching artist roles with Bill T. Jones, Alvin Ailey and Brooklyn Academy of Music. She also kept dancing: When a last minute opportunity to audition for the Broadway musical “Fela” came up, she arrived with both sons (her youngest in a stroller), parked them in the audience, stripped down to dance wear and got the job. “One thing my children have learned: Everyone in the house is going to do the things they need to be full,” she says.
Now in her 17th year with Urban Bush Women, currently in the role of associate artistic director, Judson is embarking on a fall residency at UB, where she’s teaching technique while working on a piece of her own. “I still feel in some ways like a budding artist developing my own voice, so I appreciate the university giving me the space to do ‘Chanon work,’” she says. Integral to all her work is deeply engaging the audience, in the same way she was engaged—and challenged—as a 14-year-old aspiring artist. “Inside the performance, I’m asking the audience, ‘What do you bring to the space?’” she says. “I’m bringing all of myself.”