Worldbuilding Enflamed: Owen/Cox Dance Group presents “She Breathes Fire”

Dancer Emara Neymour-Jackson during Stacy Busch’s “She Breathes Fire” with Owen/Cox Dance Group. Credit: Lindsay Clipner

Creating new music is the work of any composer, but few go so far as to invent entire new worlds. In “She Breathes Fire,” Stacy Busch conceived a fantasy realm, brought to life by vocalists and dancers of Owen/Cox Dance Group. 

The mesmerizing 50-minute work was composed by Busch and choreographed by Jennifer Owen, co-founder of OCDG, presented at Union Station’s City Stage Theatre. Busch created the world of Shey as the setting for the work, an imaginary land ruled by women, as well as a complex backstory for each of the characters. 

It was a story of conflict and reconciliation, sisterhood and sorcery.

Mia Steedle, Henry Steele, and Marian Faustino in a pensive moment during “She Breathes Fire.” Credit: Lindsay Clipner

The music and sound design was made entirely from the human voice, sometimes pure, but often electronically manipulated into a range of sounds, from percussive effects, bass lines, rising pitches like an accelerating car, and even mystical tones of wind.

Busch brought together an ensemble of soloists, each with a distinct vocal quality and style including jazz, opera, folk, and musical theater. The work was written for women and non-binary voices. She worked with the singers to develop the work, too, each solo role individualized. The seven vocalists—Katelyn Baron, Adee Dancy, Kelley Gant, Erin Keller, Sarah Rosales, Emily Stott, and Sam Wells—performed live and Busch added her own voice in the recorded mix to form an octet. They were directed by Neal Long.

The vocalists were the characters of the story: queens, warring soldiers, wizards, wiccans, and wanderers. Busch incorporated many different styles and influences in her music, which sometimes made the music shift drastically from piece to piece.

Owen had five dancers, four women and one man (a medical emergency forced her second male dancer to withdraw): Marian Faustino, Emara Neymour-Jackson, Mia Steddle, Laura Wallner and Henry Steele. They served as chorus, emphasizing the text and embodying the action, without being specific characters themselves. Owen always brings together a tremendous group of movers in a variety of body types, adding nuance and interest to every gesture. For this performance, they included gymnastic elements from some of the dancers along with the modern steps. 

This was an interesting concept, the production full of excellent performances. However, as the theater was too dark to follow along the program, more narration could have helped track the action and characters. Printed lyrics, too, would have been welcome. 

Of particular interest was the movement “Eastern Wizards,” featuring Adee Dancy and Henry Steele. Dancy’s delivery as a long-lived wizard exasperated with human foible matched Steele’s angular, scurrying, frantic movements, the entire ensemble collapsing in frustrated disbelief. 

Dancer Henry Steele and vocalist Adee Dancy take center stage in “Eastern Wizards.” Credit: Lindsay Clipner

At times, the vocalists were called on to do choreography, which detracted from their complex vocal work. It wasn’t overly complicated, per se, but caused blend to suffer a bit and not everyone looked comfortable with the theatrical elements. 

Each vocalist wore an elaborate neck piece, some also with headdresses and bracelets, by designer Clarissa Knighton. Some had bone or shell incorporated into them, others mossy fabric and woody pieces, and one, for the warrior, more metal elements, signifying the different characters’ roles in the story. They were dressed in different colored sheer shifts, over black tops, leggings, and socks. The simple shifts didn’t fit the various body types very well and either needed to be more fitted or dispensed with in lieu of all black. The dancers were in earth toned tops and leggings, designed by Zainab Alkhazraji. 

This isn’t the last of Shey. Busch plans to expand this concept and visit the realm in upcoming pieces, worldbuilding on stage and off.

Reviewed Sunday, October 8, 2023. “She Breathes Fire” was performed by Owen/Cox Dance Group at Union Station’s City Stage Theatre. For more information visit www.owencoxdance.org

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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