The story of The Nutcracker has been around for almost 200 years. In the hands of the dancers and musicians with the Owen/Cox Dance Group, the fairy tale takes on a vibrancy of movement that captures tradition and melds it with whimsy and charm. Like ribbons of color and light, the performers find energy and fun in this avant-garde rendition.
The contemporary dance troupe Owen/Cox Dance Group returns to the original E.T.A. Hoffman story dating from 1816 for their inspiration. As with other stories, the Nutcracker comes to life and battles the Mouse King and then whisks the female lead, named Marie in this tale, to the magical kingdom populated by dolls. It was another 76 years when Tchaikovsky turned Alexander Dumas’ adaptation into the ballet.
For choreographer and dancer Jennifer Owen and composer and musician Brad Cox, the strains of Tchaikovsky are always part of their holiday work, but the similarities really end there. Going on its fifth year, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King musically falls into the hands of Cox and the People’s Liberation Big Band of Greater Kansas City. The first act is the battle scene with the second act with the divertissements arranged by different members of the band including bassist Jeff Harshbarger, percussionist Pat Conway and Cox. The costumes are as unique as the modern jazz phrases that run through the show. These numbers are the various dances of the sweets.
The costumes are as unique as the modern jazz phrases that run through the show. Distinctive designer Peggy Noland designed the costuming. Artist Peregrine Honig and Ari Fish’s creations can also be seen in the ballet.
“The costumes really represent her imagination and not a specific historical time period,” Cox says. Owen says the costumes are bright with stripes and checkered patterns that may harken to the harlequins. “It’s a fun project each year,” Owen says. Cox enjoys some of the expectations in rehearsal. “We know the show, but there are always revisions and improvisations,” he says. “That helps keep everything fresh.”
Nine professional dancers and six students from the Paseo Academy of the Fine and Performing Arts along with 16 members of the band will take to the Polsky Theatre at Johnson County Community College Dec. 21 and 22. “The students are often juniors and seniors. I am fortunate this year that I have three returning students. It’s a lot of material and requires an incredible amount of focus.”
The two are serving as artists-in-residence at Johnson County Community College and Owen is working with teachers on how to incorporate movement into lessons.
As with musical improvisation, live performances bring about the unknown. “You are only offering up a few performances, but each time is in that moment and there is often an element of surprise,” Owen says. Horn sculptor and instrumentalist Mark Southerland is also part of the dance. He portrays the Mouse King. The move to the Polsky Theatre has given Owen and Cox a chance to return the musicians to the stage. “They are an important element and we present them visually too,” Owen says. Cox serves as the onstage narrator, playing the iconic Drosselmeier, the mysterious godfather to the children in the ballet.
As far as changing choreography, Owen plans on tinkering with the Russian dance and Cox will alter the overture. Ironically the People’s Liberation Big Band of Greater Kansas City took on The Nutcracker as a musical concert two years before dance was added. Then Cox says the first three years had an almost workshop like atmosphere. “Nothing really is ever static,” he says.
Owen says she has a difficult time identifying her favorite piece in the production. “However, I really like the waltz of the snowflakes. I love the music for the section. I also like that all the characters are involved. It is a section that builds and resolves. It’s definitely a highlight of the production, and I never get tired of listening to it come to life onstage.”
The ballet has been performed at such venues as the Folly Theater and Union Station. “With the move to Johnson County, we can expand our audience. We are serving as the artists-in-residence there,” Cox says. Owen is part of the continuing education at the community college and works with teacher on the use of movement in class.
As with Cox playing the narrator, Owen dances. However, her roles have been diverse. “My favorite role to dance is the role of Fritz, who also gets to do the dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy in Act 2. It’s simply difficult to choose when dance in the production is my favorite,” she says. “I enjoy watching the dancers put themselves into the work and make each
Those unique qualities are a sort of signature to all that Cox and Owen do, but they still pay homage to the traditional.
“The importance of The Nutcracker is the appeal, that fascination with the fundamental fairy tale,” Cox says. “The trials and tribulations are there and in that regard, it’s similar to a Beauty and the Beast sort of treatment as there is a curse. That curse ends if he gains the love of a woman. He acts nobly and gains the required faith. It is transformative.” Owen agrees, but sees Marie as the character she understands. “This is a girl coming of age. She is passing through childhood and growing.”
In the future, Owen/Cox could tour the productions more. Expansion may be the name of the game as Owen and Cox have been partners not only in creating performing art, but in marriage too. “When you see our version of The Nutcracker, you will see things that you recognize and love. However, you will see many of them through a new filter. That keeps them fresh and exciting,” Cox says. Owens, flowing into her husband’s thoughts, calls their version accessible. “It is entertaining for all ages. There’s not a boring moment with the variety in music and choreography. It’s a thrilling and enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours during the holiday season.”
Other coming programs for the Owen/Cox Dance group include The Sonata Project with another collaboration with the Bach Aria Soloists. The performance April 5 will be at the Folly and look at dances teamed to the music of Maurice Ravel, Mark O’Connor and Sonata No. 2 by J.S. Bach. The Memory Palace is a performance to be scheduled in June and teams Owen/Cox with New Orleans cellist Helen Gillet. Again friends Southerland and Honig will join the performance. Cox is also working on scoring three silent films.•