For all its thorny monumentality, Bach’s Goldberg Variations has been choreographed dozens of times through the years, by such major figures as Jerome Robbins and, more recently, by adventurous folks such as James Kudelka, Mark Haim, John Clifford and Jurij Konjar. (Haim called it a “sort of Mount Everest of dance.”) Jennifer Owen and her husband, Brad Cox, formed the Owen/Cox Dance Group after Jen’s departure from the Kansas City Ballet, and their company has made quite a mark in the city’s artistic landscape – partly for its zany and now-annual The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. But holiday traditions aside, Jen has spent the last couple of years creating what is surely the largest work of her choreographic career.
Jen didn’t make it easy on herself. While Haim made his 1997 ballet into series of solos – initially for himself and later for five dancers “taking turns” – Jen has created a highly varied series of duets, trios, quartets and larger ensembles. Her approach to variation is not to create a handful of movements and use them 30 times: Instead, a casual repertoire of phrases evolves through the course of the 80-minute piece – performed live and capably onstage by pianist Kairy Koshoeva – as they form an interplay that becomes increasingly complex, even “busy.” The theme or Aria opens the piece with four dancers in a square huddle, from which they peel off successively and form a diffuse and complex set of formations.
Variation 1 demonstrates a strong feel for translating musical phrases into dance, in a loose-limbed but logical duet for Jen and Christen Edwards that introduces the humor we’ll continue to see throughout the ballet. The eight women and four men, many of whom are current or former KC Ballet members, unfold a dazzling series of mini-dramas: Logan Pachciarz d tries to woo three women (Variation 5), Catherine Russell and Molly Wagner circle each other, warily, in canon to one of Bach’s Canons (Variation 6), Sarah Chun and Ryan Jolicoeur-Nye do a laid-back series of classical ballet steps (No. 7), four men (Ryan, Logan, Michael Davis, Geoffrey Kropp) march regally around the stage and show off their turns and leaps, preening and strutting (No. 10), Juliana Bicki and Catherine Russell observe each other and create near-mirror images of oneanother, but with variations each time (No. 11), two couples attempt something similar (No. 12), and on it goes. There are flirtations, struggles, and Tharp-esque tangles. Some variations are downright clownish (No. 16), with a joyous, almost commedia-del-arte wackiness. The 21st Variation was refreshing for its simplicity, with four dancers in a stately, “courtship.” At times the density grew wearing (as in the long, slow 25th variation), and the collusion of styles threatened to undermined a clear sense of individual choreographic style. In the 30th Variation (“Quodlibet”), the dancers slowed to a stride as the music slowed, preparing us for the close. A repeat of the Aria featured the same four dancers peeling off the square, with bird-like arms as before.
This Goldberg is a remarkable achievement and will probably continue to have a life of its own. In addition to Kairy one must also mention rehearsal director Christine Colby Jacques, lighting designer Rachael Shair and costume designer Lily Walker. The piece will most likely with evolve with time, with repeated performances, and with influxes of new dancers. One hopes that instead of growing more complex and detailed, as often happens, it might grow into something simpler and more emphatic, perhaps with more focused, pensive dancing that allows the viewer more time for reflection.