When composer Brad Cox met dancer Jennifer Owen 11 years ago, their chemistry went beyond romantic attraction. They inspired and challenged each other on an artistic level. And so, the jazz-minded musician and the ballerina with directorial aspirations decided to collaborate on a short performance project.
"I always wanted to choreograph," Owen says. "And what better way to start an ensemble than with your composer-husband?"
Now in its fifth season, the Owen/Cox Dance Group averages three big shows a year, plus a handful of smaller performances and guest appearances. The troupe features no full-time dancers — other than Owen — although performers are recruited from around the world.
Outside the company, artistic directors Owen and Cox teach their respective art forms and engage in other performance projects — Cox founded the People's Liberation Big Band of Greater Kansas City — but remain focused on growing their collaborative endeavor.
When they produce together, Cox enjoys translating his often improvisational style to something that dancers can move around. "I love composing," he says, "and it's fun to have this other element that makes the process so much richer." Sometimes the music comes first. Sometimes the dance does.
Cox describes his wife's choreographic style as musical. Owen calls it contemporary, an organic outgrowth of the classical technique she had studied since childhood and practiced professionally for 13 years on international stages.
Her evolution and the couple's shared experimental vision are apparent at a rehearsal for their spring production. A few weeks before the premiere of the new piece "For the Beauty of the Earth" on the H&R Block City Stage, six dancers spring across a room, inside St. Teresa's Academy, to otherworldly music that blends with bird calls, crickets and mechanical-sounding percussion.
Cox usually leads the ensemble of musicians that accompanies Owen's troupe of dancers. The collaboration often features other forms of locally generated creativity.
For an original twist on the Nutcracker, Owen/Cox recruited 2007 Pitch MasterMind Peggy Noland and another creative Kansas City power couple, horn sculptor Mark Southerland and artist Peregrine Honig, to help outfit their dancers. Another collaborator, National Endowment for the Arts fellow Nate Fors, designed costumes, including inner-tube tutus, for a circus-music-driven Owen/Cox performance called "Bottom of the Big Top."
Owen and Cox say they feel lucky to be able to work with such a talented pool of creative minds. "This is a good place to start something new," Owen says of Kansas City.
Growing will mean taking their shows on the road. The group has appearances scheduled in Lawrence and St. Louis.
"Ideally, as the group evolves, there will be more opportunities to tour," Cox says.
Luckily, the married muses can now do their artistic jet-setting together.