Owen/Cox Dance Group dancers during a ‘Skin’ rehearsal (photo by Steve Paul)
I did not expect that. In a dark theater, as a favorite musician and a troupe of dancers performing on stage, I was assaulted by tides of emotion. Riding a wave was an intimate connection to Helen Gillet’s aching cello lines and the elegant bodies moving through space right in front of me. On the other, my personal history with modern dance. Together they triggered the kind of inner physical response that every artist hopes to achieve.
Earlier in the week, I had spent a few hours watching and hearing parts of this concert develop in rehearsal. It was an arm’s length experience, made even more so by my efforts to capture photographs and video of the procedure. (Yeah, I know, if you really wanna live here and now, put it down
When officially presented in April, the production of Owen/Cox Dance Group‘s “Skin” – a concert sequence of Gillet songs, many sung in French, and his hyperactive, loop-boosted cello inventions – has reached a quite remarkable level.
Dance, of course, is one of the oldest art forms. We can all imagine our ancestors gesturing around the fire, sharing wisdom, making visual poetry in the eons before speech and writing.
I never really learned to dance, except in this free and awkward form of adolescence. But I kind of, years ago, got an appreciation for the modern stream of dance. Watching the Owen/Cox quintet of dancers sent me back to where I calibrate my interest. It was a lecture-concert by composer John Cage and choreographer Merce Cunningham, whose liquid range of motion embodied a kind of magic. I didn’t know anything about their relationship at the time, but I was moved by their mutual elegance and sense of modernity.
It wasn’t much later that I came close to doing something special with a student dancer, but I lost her when she was transferred back home, which left me with a hole in my heart. . (About a week after writing this line, I remembered something this aspiring dancer had told me, something that might have had to do with her leaving the major she was enrolled in. Her breasts were too big to succeed as a dancer, she says. College can certainly be a place of cruel revelation.)
A few years later, a dancer and teacher I knew became a member of our family among our small circle of friends, two of whom are no longer with us. She moved gracefully through the world. Her knees were unforgettable even decades later – you should see the surgical scars!
To add to the inventory of my dance memory the avant-garde films of (the Ukrainian choreographer) Maya Deren; concerts by 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 is a deep recognition.
Dance connects. And often unexpectedly. It’s possible that all of this excitement was sparked by us seeing live performances again. Our internal circuitry has certainly been hyper-sensitized by the past two years of isolation, caution, and chaos.
Curiously, the “skin” turned out to be the subtext, in an unrelated but overlapping way, of another dance performance that arrived in Kansas City just a week after the Owen/ Cox. Nashville Ballet presented their imaginative production of “Lucy Negro Redux” at the Muriel Kauffman Theater as part of the Harriman-Jewell series. The work, based on the poetry of Caroline Randall Williams and set to music by the formidable duo Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi, unfolds like a moving and sensual ballet. The movements were more classical than modern, and Giddens’ music ranged from Elizabethan to Appalachian, but the staging jumped and burned with up-to-date sensibilities. Williams’ project explores assumptions about the character of the ‘dark lady’ of Shakespeare’s sonnets – and if she was in fact a black woman, and possibly a London prostitute? Dancing the enchanting and seductive part of Lucy, Claudia Monja was powerfully memorable.
The Nashville production had up to 13 dancers on stage at a time. The Owen/Cox-Helen Gillet “skin” was constructed on just five nimble and sensual bodies, four of which were brought from elsewhere in town to bring Gillet’s work and music to life.
So “Skin”, in the intimate City Stage Theater, had more of a human scale. The setting was minimal; the sheer skin-toned costumes spoke volumes as the play progressed and the outer layers began to fade. Gillet’s music haunts with its bilingual lyrics, rich cello vocals and percussive improvisations, and its looping accompaniments built mostly on the fly with its own exacting footwork.
The painful moments of the work – Felicia McBride Guerra in the solo “Angelene”, for example – scored wonderfully. Gillet’s new song, “Shepherd’s Lung”, managed to evoke the COVID-19 pandemic with a heartbreaking lead from Sam McReynolds. And “My Friends,” inspired by European history and a patriotic speech against the tyranny of French wartime President Charles de Gaulle, served to remind audiences of the rise of fascism past and present. today and, above all, the worrying Russian assault on Ukraine.
In her address to the public, choreographer Jennifer Owen recalled that the pandemic had forced the cancellation of a tour of the company in Ukraine. For now, Owen/Cox is raising funds for Ukrainian aid.
Yes indeed. Dance connects, even as it gets under our skin.