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How Dance Can Burrow Deeply Under Our Skin

The Owen/Cox Dance Group dancers in a “Skin” rehearsal (photo by Steve Paul)

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
damn camera.)

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.

Helen Gillet and Jennifer Owen in rehearsal for their collaboration, “Skin” (photo by Steve Paul)

Uncannily, “skin” also happened 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 concerts. The Nashville Ballet brought its imaginative production of “Lucy Negro Redux” to the Muriel Kauffman Theatre as part of the Harriman-Jewell Series. The work, crafted from the poetry of Caroline Randall Williams and set to music composed and performed by the terrific duo of Rhiannon Giddens and Francesco Turrisi, unfolds as a stirring and sensual story ballet. The moves were more classical than modern, and Giddens’ music ranged from Elizabethan to Appalachian, but the staging popped and seared with up-to-date sensibilities. Williams’ project explores the what-ifs in the persona of the “dark lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets — what if she were in fact a Black woman, and possibly a London prostitute? Dancing the enchanting and alluring part of Lucy, Claudia Monja was powerfully memorable.

The Nashville production had as many as 13 dancers on stage at once. The Owen/Cox-Helen Gillet “Skin” was built on only five agile and sensuous bodies, four of whom were brought to town from elsewhere to make the work and Gillet’s music come alive.

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 piece proceeded and outer layers began disappearing. Gillet’s music haunts with its bilingual lyrics, its rich cello voicings and percussive improvisations, and her looping self-accompaniments built mostly on the fly with exacting footwork of her own.

The work’s aching moments — Felicia McBride Guerra in the solo “Angelene,” for one — scored wonderfully. Gillet’s new song, “Shepherd’s Lung,” managed to evoke the COVID-19 pandemic with a gut-wrenching lead by Sam McReynolds. And “Mes Amis,” inspired by European history and a patriotic address against tyranny by France’s wartime president Charles de Gaulle, served to remind the audience of the rise of fascism then and now and, especially, the disturbing Russian assault on Ukraine.

In her remarks to the audience, choreographer Jennifer Owen reminded us that the pandemic had forced cancellation of a company tour to Ukraine. For now, Owen/Cox laudably is raising funds for Ukrainian relief.

Yes, indeed. Dance connects, even as it gets under our skin.

CategoriesPerforming
Steve Paul

Steve Paul is the author of “Hemingway at Eighteen” and a forthcoming biography of Evan S. Connell. He has been a writer and editor in Kansas City for more than 45 years.

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