The Owen/Cox Dance Group’s Saturday night performance of A Good Missouri Song began with the ensemble ruminating on fragmented themes from the traditional song “Cross The Wide Missouri.” Eerie chromatic instrumental sighing imitated the word “away,” from the familiar verse “Away, we’re bound away, ’cross the wide Missouri.” Broken lines of the folk song were sung in layers by the three singers, and the disunity of the music was echoed in the soloistic dancers, who mingled among each other, lost in their own worlds. This plaintive original material was interspersed with other music, and each mood shift back to the haunting opening material was signaled by sighing figures in the lap steel guitar. The gradual, unpredictable entry of each new tune in small pieces made listening a game—what will come next? And how long will it take before the melody finally comes together? Brad Cox’s artfully woven arrangement made the arrival of new themes exhilarating, especially the joyful, quirky bits of Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag at the end.
The second piece was also based in folk song. Valery Price’s stunning, passionate mezzo was the perfect partner to Jennifer Owen, who performed the piece as a solo. Owen was simply remarkable. Her stage presence was captivating from the outset, and her interpretation was beautifully sensitive to the tender ballad’s story of love found and then grown old. Owen’s choreography was expansive and emotive, and her expression matched the yearning and tenderness of Price’s voice.
“For the Beauty of the Earth” featured video footage from Nate Fors. The footage featured images of the world juxtaposed in wild contrast, with nature against industrial images. Unlike the other pieces, the music began with a bold statement of the familiar hymn-tune, but with untraditional, grating harmonies; the melody devolved from there, providing an interesting contrast to the previous two pieces, when the opposite effect was achieved.
The power of the piece lay in the interaction of all elements. The video footage was a bit jarring, seeming to have no foreseeable climax. The unsettling and harsh visual image was enhanced by supremely athletic dancing and mysterious music. The high point for me was another little game that emerged; it took a few moments for me to realize that there was an ostinato building in the background, driving the dancers’ climactic moment—and the ostinato was actually counting out the beats of the hymn. The militaristic interpretation pushed the piece to its end, leaving the dancers melting organically into the floor. As the lights, pictures, and music faced, all that remained was the sound of the dancers’ humanizing breathlessness as they lay panting on the ground.
The final piece on the program was a riotous circus ballet, “Bottom of the Big Top.” Cleverly demented variations on carousel music accompanied the story told by the dance company, who were clad in hilariously colorful costumes made of only the most ridiculous things: bendy hoops, be-feathered bicycle helmets, butt padding, and more. The company told a funny story about friendship among all the world’s weirdest creatures, and they did it with incredible humor. It was delightful to watch, and the vaudevillian comedy was not lost on the audience, which was giggling the entire time. The best part was definitely the end—when the band bounced out and joined them on stage, banging on cans and costumed and dancing as well.
The Owen/Cox experience is one not to be missed, and one of the great examples of creative collaboration that Kansas City has to offer.