Intimate, sensitive “Skin”: Owen/Cox Dance Group and Helen Gillet collaboration

Five dancers, each with one arm raised and one arm extended.

Dancers perform to music by Helen Gillet: (L-R) Christian Warner, Bella Saclolo, Laura Jones Wallner, Felicia McBride Guerra, Samuel McReynolds. Credit: Lindsay Clipner.

“Skin,” presented by the Owen/Cox Dance Group, was a thoughtful and intimate collaboration with singer/songwriter Helen Gillet. Gillet is a New Orleans-based Belgian-American cellist-chanteuse. This is their second collaboration, following 2014’s “Memory Palace.” 

What, after all, is more intimate than skin? It identifies us; bonds mother to child in the first minutes after birth; informs us of changing temperatures and shifts in the wind; serves as the first line of defense against disease and infection. 

Cellist Helen Gillet, dancer Felicia McBride Guerra in background Credit: Lindsay Clipner

Barefoot, Gillet performed onstage off to one side of Union Station’s City Stage, singing, playing cello, and controlling her loop station. She built each piece in layers, with drones and strums, plucking and drumming her cello to create a vast sonic palette, singing in both French and English. The music was at turns mournful, bluesy, jubilant and unfettered. 

Jennifer Owen, co-founder and artistic director of Owen/Cox Dance Group, choreographed to eleven songs, with input from the dancers, who added their own stylistic flair and impulses. The hour-long performance was an evocative and athletic display: no intermission, few pauses, one song eliding into the next, and though the dancers were given strategic off-stage time, the performance had a complete approach, start to finish. 

It was a small, dynamic ensemble of five dancers, some local, some national. The production included Felicia McBride Guerra, Samuel McReynolds, Bella Saclolo, Laura Jones Wallner, and Christian Warner. 

Rather than forming an ensemble based on a uniformity of body shape, Owen gathers dancers of different sizes, styles, and body types, then choreographs to these strengths. This strategy of celebrating distinctions, rather than conformity, adds sympathetic nuance to each gesture and phrase. Here, especially, the play of differing skin tones was emphasized in lighting and costume. 

The dancers often made eye contact with Gillet, this direct connection between music-artists and movement-artists not always evidenced in performances. Her music has a pulsing, longing element to it, the instrumental layers like water under sand, always present but subtly changing the nature of the piece. 

The choreography played against traditions, pairing women, men, each dancer, at some point in the show, lifted by the rest. This lift motif was an interesting throughline of the work, sometimes dramatic, sometimes more like a hug. But it demonstrated a closeness and vulnerability, to literally support one another as they journeyed through the piece together. 

Dancer Samuel McReynolds lifted by the ensemble in Owen/Cox Dance Group’s “Skin.” Credit: Lindsay Clipner

Little elements returned, too, a shuffling phrase, a strutt, a stomp. McBride Guerra was featured in “Angelene,” her phrases and gestures returning in later sections. Each dancer had solo moments, with organic phrases of wide, whirling movements. Warner, especially, seemed to vibrate, to resonate with the movement, to explode and contract within just a few steps, featured in “Slow Drag Pavageau.” 

At one point, the ensemble gathered in center, each reaching out as though to pluck something–some mote of dust or distant memory– from the air, the gesture in repetition one of attentiveness and near desperation. 

The music featured both covers and original work, including the world premiere of “Shepherd’s Lung,” which featured beautiful solo work by McReynolds. This work was Gillet’s response to the ongoing pandemic. 

Her music ranges through emotions, often mournful and introspective, many from her album “Helkiase.” There were, of course, exceptions, with the inclusion of Jules Beaucarne’s “La Petite Gayole,” a Walloonian anthem, was a sprightly joyous departure, the movement with folk dance energy, sweet and smilingly performed. She also included “I Live Off You,” by female-fronted punk group X-Ray Spex, the dancers climbing up and over each other. In “Tonnerre,” there was also an added element of a scratchy recording of speech, the cello frenetic above it. 

Gillet revels in improvisation, sometimes labeled a jazz artist, sometimes an electronic music artist. Though these works were solidified for the sake of the choreography, that improvisational quality was retained, each piece laced with that feeling of spontaneity. Even when the movements synced, the feeling was as though the dancers were responding emotionally, instead of precisely counting beats.  

Strong side lighting, close, in-shadowed moments, and nuanced transitions were effectively designed by Kyle Greene and Shelby Arndt. Chad Meise was the sound engineer. 

Jennifer Tierney (a dancer who has performed with Owen/Cox Dance Group) designed the costumes, each dancer clothed in close-fitting fabric nearly matching their skin tone. While often an array of sepia-tones give a production a dystopian feel, in this instance not so much, with added movement from the flick and swirl of the edges. Warner, especially, used the tail of his long, open fronted vest for impressive dramatic effect. They shed these layers for the final work, retaining flesh-toned shorts and tops, ending the performance with tender closeness.

Owen/Cox Dance Group has a commitment to performance with live music and this collaboration beautifully demonstrated the value of that mission. 

Reviewed Saturday, April 2, 2022, at Union Station’s City Stage. For more information visit www.owencoxdance.org

Set list: Quand Je March (Camille), Vautour, Slow Drag Pavageau, Le Petite Gayole (Jules Beaucarne), Angelene (PJ Harvey), You Found Me, I Live Off You (X-Ray Spex), Tonnerre, Shepherd’s Lung, Mes Amis, Skin. 

Libby Hanssen

Originally from Indiana, Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She is the author of States of Swing: The History of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, 2003-2023. Along with degrees in trombone performance, Libby was a Fellow for the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University. She maintains the culture bog "Proust Eats a Sandwich."

Leave a Reply