On the Cyclical Nature of Life: Owen/Cox Dance Group Presents ‘aRound & aRound’

Shaina McGregor is one of the featured dancers in “aRound & aRound.” (photo by Kenny Johnson)

World premiere features choreography by Jennifer Owen, music by Brad Cox and Jeff Freling and video design by Nate Fors

“Once upon a time the world was round and you could go on it around and around.” – Gertrude Stein, “The World is Round”

Cycles, it seems, are endless: To everything there is a season (turn, turn, turn); history repeats itself; what goes around, comes around.

This is especially true for the latest project from Owen/Cox Dance Group, originally scheduled for May 2020.

Three years later, OCDG finally premieres “aRound & aRound,” with choreography by Jennifer Owen, music by Brad Cox and Jeff Freling, and video design by Nate Fors.

“As our work on the piece has progressed it has become clear that the piece is very much about the cyclical nature of life,” said Cox. “In that regard, I feel very comfortable with our approach to creating the piece: Have a general plan that is open to change and trust our artistic intuition and the contributions of our collaborators to make something beautiful.”

This closes the 2022-2023 season, which included a collaboration with music group The Black Creatures and choreographer Christian A. Warner as well as a Regional Emmy Award nomination for their work, “and the darkness has not overcome it,” with the Kansas City Chorale, one of the company’s virtual presentations.

This is the OCDG’s seventh collaboration with Fors, a painter and video artist. Fors approached Owen and Cox years ago, after seeing their “Hong Kong Audio Diary” show. “After that performance, I was knocked out. I told them, ‘I’d love to be the Rauschenberg to your Cage and Cunningham, if you guys are game for this.’”

Like many artistic endeavors, the process involves months, sometimes years, of brainstorming, then a month-long push to pull all the pieces together. “It’s wonderful to be able to trust our collaborating partners and know that ultimately the process will lead us in the right direction. It truly is an artistic adventure,” said Owen.

Fors proposed they feature circles, and the ideas just spun off from there.

“There’s a round in dance, and there’s a round in music. And I like circles,” Fors said. “Who doesn’t like circles? They don’t start or stop.”

“I’ve used circles in my art for decades. I’ve used records — 45s and 12-inch LPs — as stencils,” he explained. Fors credited his interest in music and collecting records for initiating his fascination with circles.

The music came first in this show, too. “The music will definitely guide my choreography,” said Owen. “Each song will be a story that’s connected by a thread throughout the entire piece.”

Both Cox and Freling contributed to this set of songs, linked by instrumental sections. They’ve enlisted their usual cohort of dancers and musicians. (Disclaimer: This group includes my husband, Sam Wisman.)

“The songs don’t necessarily relate directly to the circle theme,” said Freling. “The tunes fit into the concept more in a stylistic way than a thematic way. A common element in a lot of these tunes is this sort of circular motion in some of the melodies.”

Some of the works will emulate tape loops, while others use counterpoint, fugues and key changes to imply, rather than broadcast, these cyclical concepts. The lyrics, too, play with this concept indirectly. One song proclaims, “the world keeps on spinning, without you,” while another invokes the image of the ouroboros by repeating “life that feeds on life.”

The music harkens back, in a way, to the pop-rock of the ’60s and ’70s. “I love that time period because things were so weird,” said Cox. “The biggest group in pop music put out an album that contained ‘Revolution 9.’ People were experimenting so wildly, yet at the same time there was this real bedrock of super-strong pop writing.”

Though Freling is well-known for his “antique-pop” duo, Victor & Penny, this is his first collaboration with the company. (Technically, though, his first collaboration with Cox was decades ago, writing songs for a Christmas show when they were pages at the Linda Hall Library, where they worked as teenagers.)

“To me, the music doesn’t feel nostalgic. It doesn’t feel like a heavy presentation of, like, ’60s music; it just has that flair to it,” said Freling. “We’re both modern songwriters that live in these times . . . we’re seeing that music through the lens of everything that’s happened since.

“Nostalgia is a funny word, anyway, because it’s almost an absurd word. You’re obviously on some level misremembering things, and there’s a hint of melancholy, a longing for something that’s not there,” he paused, “but it’s also longing for something that was never there.”

Fors was not looking at this as a throwback piece, either, though he was investigating archival videos. In his work, he typically creates film montages, similar in a way to his collage paintings, often incorporating footage of landscapes and places he’s visited. While in Curaçao, he filmed the sun rising and setting over the sea; in Arizona, he got footage of cacti.

A video projected behind the dancers will incorporate images of paintings by Kansas City artist Nate Fors, who often employs a circle motif in his works, including the two pictured above. (photo by E.G. Schempf)

“I never make anything that’s narrative. It’s always abstract, and sometimes it’s humorous. Sometimes it’s not. It’s more evocative of something inarticulate . . . just like my paintings. I don’t ever make anything that you could exactly put your finger on.”

“He’s not afraid to take risks,” confirmed Owen. “Hopefully, none of us are. I think this is one of the more risk-taking productions we have done.”

Bold choices define their artistic collaboration. “Throughout the process,” said Cox, “we set up all these parameters, and then we ignore them all,” he laughed. “It’s great. There’s something about setting some guardrails . . . that you can bump up against and then occasionally spill over.

“You want to introduce the correct amount of fear and randomness to the performance,” he said. “If we wanted everything to go exactly as planned, we wouldn’t even play live.”

“As with any Fors/Cox/Owen (and now Freling) collaboration,” said Owen, “you can expect some humorous moments,” but “there will also be some darker and serious moments that reflect on today’s reality.”

“We usually throw in a few thoughts to ourselves that are political,” Fors said, “but never really come across in the work as overt.

“‘Around and around’ could refer,” he said, “to the never-ending cycle of political changes — and God knows we hear enough about that.” He continued, “. . . or climate change. After all, the Earth rotates around the sun, so there’s another example of a circle or circling. And then you can consider dizziness, or the inability to cope with all the (stuff) that’s hitting us. You know, it’s enough to make your head spin.”

Owen/Cox Dance Group presents “aRound & aRound” March 31 and April 1 at 8 p.m. and April 2 at 2 p.m. at City Stage Theatre, Union Station. For tickets and more information, www.owencoxdance.org.

CategoriesPerforming Visual
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."

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