Article by Steve Paul
July 12, 2022
I wasn’t expecting this. In a darkened theater, as a favorite musician and a troupe of dancers performed on stage, I was beset by rolling tides of emotions. Riding on one wave was an intimate connection with Helen Gillet’s aching cello lines and the elegant bodies moving in space just in front of me. On the other was my personal history with modern dance. Together they triggered the kind of interior physical response every artist hopes to achieve.
Earlier in the week, I’d spent a couple of hours watching and hearing parts of this concert developing in rehearsal. That was an arm’s length experience, made more so by my efforts to capture photographs and video of the proceedings. (Yes, I know, if you really want to live in the here-and-now, put down the
In its formal presentation in April, Owen/Cox Dance Group’s production of “Skin” — a concert-length sequence of Gillet’s songs, several sung in French, and her hyperactive, loop-boosted cello inventions — ascended to a wholly remarkable level.
Dance, of course, is one of the most ancient of art forms. We can all imagine our ancestors motioning around the fire, sharing wisdom, making visual poetry in the eons before speech and writing.
I never really learned to dance, except in that free-form, clunky way of teendom. But I did somehow, years ago, gain an appreciation for the modern stream of dance. Watching the quintet of Owen/Cox dancers sent me back to the place from where I calibrate my interest. It was a concert-lecture by the composer John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham, whose liquid range of motion embodied a kind of magic. I knew nothing of their relationship at the time, but I was moved by their mutual elegance and sense of modernity.
It was not much later when I almost struck up a special thing with a student dancer but lost her when she transferred back home, left me, that is, with a hole in the heart. (A week or so after writing that line, I remembered something this aspiring dancer told me, something that might have had to do with her departure from the major she’d been enrolled in. Her boobs were too big for success as a dancer, she said. College certainly can be a place of cruel revelation.)
A few years after that, a dancer and teacher I knew became as close as family among our small circle of friends, two of whom are no longer with us. She moved gracefully in the world. Her knees were unforgettable, even decades later — you should see the surgical scars!
Add to my dance memory’s inventory the avant-garde films of (the Ukrainian choreographer) Maya Deren; the concerts of David Parsons, Pilobolus, Momix, Twyla Tharp and Alvin Ailey; the Kansas City work of Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, Mary Pat Henry, Westport Ballet, Haley Kostas, Owen/Cox. You get the picture. I don’t think it’s an obsession. It’s deep appreciation.
Dance connects. And often in unexpected ways. It’s possible all this emotion was stirred by the fact that we were now seeing live performances again. Our inner circuits certainly have been hyper-sensitized by the last two years of isolation, caution and chaos.
AUTHOR: LAUREN WARNECKE
PUBLISHED DATE: MAY 10, 2021
LATEST FROM OWEN/COX AN EASTER RACHMANINOFF SURPRISE
OVERLAND PARK, Kan. — I thought I knew Owen/Cox Dance Group. Turns out, a 10-minute dance film, released last month on Easter Sunday, changed my perception of this now-seasoned Kansas City-based ensemble. Call it an air of spontaneity, maybe, or perhaps a sense of reverent rebellion. Honestly, I can’t quite put my finger on what’s different about “And the darkness has not overcome it,” the latest in what Owen/Cox is calling “an unconventional 14th season” of all digital works.
In a collaboration with Kansas City Chorale, “And the darkness” is danced to two movements from the Chorale’s recording of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s All Night Vigil. Co-founder Jennifer Owen, the company’s main choreographer, is routinely drawn to multi-disciplinary collaborations with the city’s various cultural institutions, and is heavily influenced by clean, classical lines—so much so, one could venture to call Owen/Cox a contemporary ballet company. Musically adventurous, thanks in large part to co-founder Brad Cox, a composer, Owen is unabashed in her affection for orchestral scores and jazz. (Her suite set to Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, specifically, got a lot of play on the road.)
Filmed onstage at the Carlsen Center at Johnson County Community College—which has become a wellspring for the greater Kansas City dance scene since launching its annual New Dance Partners series in 2013—”And the darkness has not overcome it” overlays footage of three dancers performing solo. It was most likely a pragmatic decision to film Winston Dynamite Brown, Emily Mushinski and Laura Jones Wallner alone, maximizing safety during the pandemic, though it resonates here as a deliberate choice.
Consider the subject. In the Catholic tradition, the Vigil is the liturgy held on the night before Easter. As one of the holiest nights of the year, it’s also the time at which adults desiring to become part of the church are baptized and confirmed. Sergei Rachmaninoff’s homage to the occasion, All Night Vigil, is sung a cappella. It’s a work like no other in his catalog. I thought I knew Rachmaninoff until I first heard the All Night Vigil.
Though Owen/Cox doesn’t specially reference any kind of religiosity in the film, “And the darkness” has baptismal undertones. It opens with Brown, shirtless, bathed in purply white light (designed by Eric Morrow), alone onstage as he softly swipes his arms from side to side ahead of gorgeous, almost slow motion pirouettes and lunges. He’s joined by the two women, not together onstage but as a triptych of side-by-side images in saturated blue light on the left, and red on the right. Squint, and it’s the French flag. Mid-way through, the trio change from their dark, ruddy costumes into bright white, ushering in the morning and ending with arms overhead, gazing toward the heavens and basking in warm, amber light. It doesn’t read as salvation, exactly—more like acceptance of our Earthly fates.
Mushinski and Wallner (who could almost be twins) flank Brown for the majority of the film; they all dance at the same time, but not entirely together, by design. Each dancer catches a wave from solo parts in the bass and tenor sections, or echos the underlying hues of the altos, or flies with the airy, stratospheric sopranos. Through the magic of film (directed by Sean Burgman and edited by Alec Nichols), entrances and exits come in the form of boxes expanding and contracting across the width of my computer screen, or swapping one dancer for another, mid-air. But without instrumentation, the dance is quite liberated from strict attention to tempo or melody, pausing as the singers took a breath, sometimes, but feeling no sense of obligation toward this idea, pro forma. It feels a reverie, extricated by both time and space.
For this critic, that is the essence of faith. We walk through life with others, alongside them. Sometimes our paths cross. We find similarities. We sometimes move how they move. But in the quiet moments, it’s just you and God, in whatever form He may take.
Owen/Cox Dance Group
Johnson County Community College Polsky Theatre
Overland Park, Kansas October 20, 2018
In keeping with its mission statement “to create new music and dance collaborations,” Kansas City, Missouri-based Owen/Cox Dance Group’s artistic director Jennifer Owen said in a curtain speech prior to the company’s performance of Morena that when she attended Victoria Botero’s music concert of the same name, she instantly knew she had to make a dance work around it. The resulting music and dance program performed Saturday, October 20 at Johnson County Community College’s Polsky Theatre proved a wonderful symbiotic collaboration that allowed each artistic element to shine
Performed by OCDG’s seven member troupe and an ensemble of folk instruments and voices led by soprano Botero, Morena was delivered in a series of vignettes set to songs curated by Botero that are traditionally sung by Jewish, Muslim and Christian women. The songs, sung in their native languages, told of betrayal, desire and the secret hopes of mothers which Owen interpreted in a mix of folk dance-infused modern/contemporary dance choreography. Broken up into three sections, the program began with a collection of Sephardic songs the lyrics of which Owen and her dancers didn’t so much try to interpret as to capture the emotional content.
The section led off with the full ensemble in “Scalerica de oro,” a lively number that set the tone for the kind of high-armed, side-sweeping movement that would come to define the program’s first half. The dancing had a communal feel with the performers holding hands in a circle and when a featured male/female pair broke off to perform a duet, encircling them.
Next, dancing to the song “Nani, nani” (Lullaby, lullaby), dancers Megan Buckley, Demetrius McClendon and Marlayna Locklear presented a vignette where Buckley in spotlight on the opposite side of the stage to the others worriedly danced about and appeared to cradle an imaginary infant. Opposing that scene, McClendon and Locklear looked like two people in love. The pair clutched each other in tight embraces and moved through various partnered lifts that spoke of their desire for one another. As the vignette progressed and McClendon drew closer to Buckley, it became clear that there was a broken relationship between them and that Buckley was a woman in deep emotional turmoil over it. Her heartfelt, passionate dancing and that of the others was a highlight of the Sephardic section which overall lacked variety in both the music and in the choreography which tended to repeat itself.
The Arabic section that came next included five songs from the 11th through 13th centuries. In it, the music and the dancing took on new tonal dimensions and interest. The second selection in it, “Lama bada yatathanna,” told in the song’s lyrics of the joy a woman felt in seeing her love sway, his beauty amazing her. Owen’s choreography for the group dance evoked a village festival feel with chain dances, twisting and turning movement and vibrant dances for the women and men as groups.
While much of the choreography for the Arabic section contained movement used earlier in the program, Owen’s choreography appeared to connect better with this music than that of the first section. Nowhere was that more evident than in “Man li hä’im” (He who loves me), a wonderfully-crafted and engaging duet danced by Buckley and partner Christopher Page-Sanders.
The unmistakable highlight of the evening was Morena’s closing Armenian section for which Botero and the Zulal Trio, an a cappella trio of Armenian-American women, developed a song cycle that began with a girl imploring her parents to marry her to a man for love and not money and ends with songs written after the 1915 Armenian genocide when the girl is now a widow and mother.
Showcasing the singing of Botero and mezzo-soprano Kristee Haney, the section brought the marriage of music and dance to its peak beginning with the gleeful women’s quartet “Gago mare, garke zis” (Father, Mother, Have Me Married). Dancers Locklear, Buckley, Terra Liu and Yazzmeen Laidler cavorted as if young women dreaming of love and marriage and celebrated the bond they held between each other as friends.
The most moving and poignant moment in the program came in the extended solo “Sareri hovin mernem” (I Would Die for the Mountain Wind) performed by Laidler. Heartfelt and adroitly danced, Laidler seemed to pour everything she had into the solo that portrayed a woman seeking resilience in the face of a devastating loss. Owen’s outstretched and often emotionally wrenching choreography and Laidler’s performance of it were outstanding as was the ethereal singing of Botero and Haney.
For the chameleon-like Owen/Cox Dance Group that works with a rotating cast of dancers and in varying movement styles depending on each project, Morena may have been a bit of an outlier in terms of past projects. Nonetheless, the production, despite its rather one note opening section, had a lot to offer in its blending of cultures, choreography and music and received a standing ovation from the audience at program’s end.
Kansas City Opera Singer, Dancers Revive Century-Old Songs To Fight The Patriarchy
By LIBBY HANSSEN • OCT 18, 2018
Kansas City soprano Victoria Botero found music dating back to the 15th century in which women said things in song that they couldn't say in public..
A new combination of ancient song and contemporary dance draws beauty from the hidden history of women.
“Morena” is a Spanish word meaning “beautiful dark woman.” It is also the name of the latest project between Kansas City soprano and musicologist Victoria Botero, the Owen/Cox Dance Group, and a cadre of international musicians.
Botero compiled secular songs from Jewish, Muslim and Christian traditions, dating from the 9th to 20th centuries, most of them from strict societies in which women, Botero says, “had no agency.” “These were communities where women’s voices were silent in their houses of worship and in the public sphere,” she says. Within the musical sphere, though, “women are allowed to sing things they may not be able to talk about. They can sing about desire. They can sing about inﬁdelity.”
Botero ﬁrst presented the program, for voice and instruments, at the 1900 Building in 2016. Choreographer Jennifer Owen, co-founder of Owen/Cox, thought the material would lend itself to dance. “There are a lot of stories within the songs, so there’s a natural narrative,” Owen says. Her dancers won’t be telling those stories literally, though. “Because it’s not spoken, dance can be more suggestive, more interpretive,” she says. “My goal for each of the songs is to try and present a mood and a story.”
Originally, Botero was interested in the music of the Sephardic diaspora, which spread throughout the world after Jews were expelled from Spain in the 15th century. She learned of an oral tradition passed from mother to daughter, when women would sing together as they prepared feasts for weddings and funerals, away from men.
Botero found an analogous tradition in an early Christian society, and wondered if there was a similar tradition in the Muslim world.
What she found, in fact, pre-dates the Sephardic songs. In a caliphate in Cordoba, the outmost reach of the Ottoman Empire in the 9th century, women developed a special repertory called Ring Songs, or Muwashshah.
“A singer would take a poem in Arabic, but she would pick out one phrase and come back to it, what we now call the refrain,” says Botero.
An irreverent and opinionated guide to jazz in Kansas City.
Monday, October 23, 2017
Review: The Owen/Cox Dance Group with the People's Liberation Big Band at Polsky Theatre
Brad Cox described the sculptures of Linda Lighton as “a little bit provocative” in his opening remarks at the second and ﬁnal performance of “In the Rompus Room” at Polsky Theatre on Sunday. A similar sense of provocation infused the daring collaboration between the Owen/Cox Dance Group and the People’s Liberation Big Band.
The ﬁrst half of the program played to the considerable strengths of both ensembles. Owen’s choreography for seven athletic dancers echoed the lavish exuberance of a Busby Berkeley musical. Portions of the extended suite “In the Rompus Room” resembled the love child of an impassioned tryst between George Gershwin’s
“Rhapsody in Blue” and the jazz standard “Caravan.”
The People’s Liberation Big Band expanded the possibilities of Kansas City’s big band tradition with “In the Rompus Room,” but Cox’s “Letterbox” was a comparatively delicate art-pop song cycle. While portions of the composition were worthy of Stephen Sondheim, the storyline was indecipherable. No matter.
The murkiness of the narrative was offset by inviting elements including the ravishing harmonies of vocalists Calvin Arsenia and Shay Estes and imaginative choreography that effectively conveyed jubilance, melancholy and desire. Enhanced by suggestive mood lighting and superb sound, the production was a beguiling union of music and dance.
BY DON DEGANAIS, KC Metropolis
The Kansas City Baroque Consortium’s artistic director and cellist Trilla Ray-Carter explained before the concert that the theme, “Between Silence and Light,” came from the title of a book by architect Louis Kahn, who strove to achieve “the meeting between the measurable and the unmeasurable,” as he wrote. In that spirit, Carter programmed works ranging from the 17th Century dances of English composer Michael Praetorius to a world premiere of a new work by Liberty resident (but English-born) Ian Coleman.
The Baroque Consortium opened the concert with three movements from the Suite from Les Indes Galantes of Jean-Phillipe Rameau, composed in 1735. During his period, French operas typically contained ballets, and this particular ballet is from an opera Rameau composed in recollection of a trip to North American tribes in the New World, as they journeyed to pay homage to King Louis XV. The sprightly music showed Rameau’s usual French influence, but also displayed some surprising open-octave and open-fifth harmonies, the composer’s apparent attempt to portray the exotic nature of Native Americans. It strikingly reminded this listener of Shaker music from New England, which became well-known a century later.
BY DAN CALDRON, Flatland KC
When you think of chamber music composed hundreds of years ago, “cutting edge” is probably not the first phrase that comes to mind.
Trilla Ray-Carter is hoping to change that.
Ray-Carter is the executive and artistic director of the Kansas City Baroque Consortium, a group of local musicians dedicated to performing and educating the public about music that was part of an artistic style from the 1600 and mid-1700s. The style influenced every art form of its time.
BY BILL BROWNLEE, The Star
The production of “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” by the Owen/Cox Dance Group and the People’s Liberation Big Band of Greater Kansas City is less a heartwarming tale of Christmas than a lusty toy story. A few dozen occasionally fidgety children were among the audience of about 350 at the ensembles’ unconventional translation of the traditional seasonal ballet on Sunday afternoon at Polsky Theatre of the Carlsen Center at Johnson County Community College.
Bill Gale, Rhode Island NPR
After a trip half-way around the world to Kazakhstan, Newport's Island Moving Company is home and holding it's annual Great Friends Dance Festival. Companies from New York to Kansas are on the bill. Bill Gale says it's worth seeing.
Each year IMC invites a number of dance troupes to appear at the old and singular Quaker Meeting House in Newport. The visiting companies than bring IMC back to their home towns, all around – well, after Kazakhstan - the world.
By Calvin Wilson, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Dance is perhaps the most breathtaking of the lively arts. For those who appreciate the art form, its very wordlessness is a blessing in an increasingly noisy world.
But for some folks, dance is a perplexing puzzle. That’s understandable: The movement in modern dance and ballet can be at once exhilarating and indecipherable. But true dance fans would argue that not everything has to be spelled out — especially if it’s spellbinding.