SNEAK PEEK: Owen/Cox Dance Group

I watched part of the Owen/Cox Dance Group dress rehearsal on Thursday, since I’m unable to make any of their performances this weekend or next. Jack was with me, so I didn’t catch the first number, A Good Missouri Song, since he decided that it was more important to screech and crawl around on the floor of the lobby than let mommy get her dance on.

But while out in the lobby we got to listen to some dude out by the popcorn stand practice his bagpipe chanter down in the Theatre District of Union Station.

Even with the variable of a baby who may or may not cooperate, it was important for me to try to see these works. A Good Missouri Song I’ve seen before, along with The River is Wide, but Bottom of the Big Top I missed the first time around (much to my chagrin), and they had the world premiere of their visual explosion For the Beauty of the Earth.

The ensemble is choreographed by Jen Owen and the music is composed by Brad Cox. They collaborated with NEA Fellow Nate Fors for both Beauty and Big Top. Cox draws heavily from the realm of jazz and Americana and his music has an improvisational flair even if it’s written out note for note. Owen responds to this spontanity with a quirky vocabulary. To make all these elements elide, yet seem unspecified, requires near genuis, a thoroughly grounded philosophy, and an aesthetic of connectivity.

Fortunately, Jack settled down for a snack as Jen Owen began her solo piece, The River is Wide. Sung by Valerie Price, it’s a work that is internal and subtle; Owen dances alone across a bleary, softly lighted floor of an empty stage, not for an audience, just for herself as a sort of movement-prayer. There’s one move that gets me, it’s so unexpected and retroactively perfect. Owen angularly tucks her arms behind her back and in a second position relevé sort of stutters across the stage, like a young bird struggling to take flight.

For the Beauty of the Earth received its world premiere on Friday. The Kansas City Star reviewed it, admitting that this level of creativity is avant to the point of off-putting, but worth the mental tackle. The creative team each took elements from nature and found sources, altering and adapting them to the point of unrecognition into an eclectic, electric panorama.

Later, my husband [who’s in the band] said another artist mentioned at the opening night reception that he didn’t get it, but that “maybe that’s what they want me to think,” which is a very artsy thing to say.

In the opening sequence, the dancers mostly work as soloists, seemingly unbeknownst to each other. Their movement is creepy-crawly, animalistically derived. Even as they start to partner, it’s still with an attitude of separation, tacitly acknowledging and ignoring each other.  This is against the backdrop of Fors’ projection – a video collage of morphing, layered, repeating images that suggest connections between nature, man, and technology, pulling in and out of focus in jumpy, abrupt cuts.

As the work progresses, the otherworldy, disjoint framework slowly resolves into its recognizable sources: movement is less jerky, more fluid across the ensemble and the electronic blips and tweeks straighten into birdcall, a rumble of machinery, and the title’s hymn tune.

They finish off the performance with Big Top, a wacky, balletic send-up of a circus freak-show. Fors designed the costumes of intertube tutus, pom-pomed helmets, neon colors, patterns galore, and body padding for bulbous buttocks for the two dancers en pointe, a comic comment on the traditionally lean, petite ballerina physique.

Elements of stock performance are examined in outrageous zanity: a sad-clown solo, longing for love; two men dual in a goosey cock-fight, buffered by their plastic intertubes; plastered smiles of the females faulter and take on a manic glaze. All this and more make for a rompy, chaotic, good-hearted rumpus.

Because of the performance Saturday, the group is unable to attend The Pitch’s 2012 Artopia party, as one of four winners for creative, innovative work in Kansas City (the award was formerly called MasterMinds). Congrats, OCDG!

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