Owen/Cox Dance Group
Johnson County Community College
Polsky Theatre
Overland Park, Kansas

October 20, 2018
Morena

Steve Sucato

In keeping with its mission statement “to create new music and dance collaborations,” Kansas City, Missouri-based Owen/Cox Dance Group’s artistic director Jennifer Owen said in a curtain speech prior to the company’s performance of Morena that when she attended Victoria Botero’s music concert of the same name, she instantly knew she had to make a dance work around it. The resulting music and dance program performed Saturday, October 20 at Johnson County Community College’s Polsky Theatre proved a wonderful symbiotic collaboration that allowed each artistic element to shine.

Members of Owen/Cox Dance Group in Jennifer Owen's "Morena" Photo by Elizabeth Stehling

Members of Owen/Cox Dance Group
in Jennifer Owen’s “Morena”
Photo by Elizabeth Stehling

Performed by OCDG’s seven member troupe and an ensemble of folk instruments and voices led by soprano Botero, Morena was delivered in a series of vignettes set to songs curated by Botero that are traditionally sung by Jewish, Muslim and Christian women. The songs, sung in their native languages, told of betrayal, desire and the secret hopes of mothers which Owen interpreted in a mix of folk dance-infused modern/contemporary dance choreography. Broken up into three sections, the program began with a collection of Sephardic songs the lyrics of which Owen and her dancers didn’t so much try to interpret as to capture the emotional content.

The section led off with the full ensemble in “Scalerica de oro,” a lively number that set the tone for the kind of high-armed, side-sweeping movement that would come to define the program’s first half.  The dancing had a communal feel with the performers holding hands in a circle and when a featured male/female pair broke off to perform a duet, encircling them.

Demetrius McClendon and Marlayna Locklear of Owen/Cox Dance Group in Jennifer Owen's "Morena" Photo by Elizabeth Stehling

Demetrius McClendon
and Marlayna Locklear
of Owen/Cox Dance Group
in Jennifer Owen’s “Morena”
Photo by Elizabeth Stehling

Next, dancing to the song “Nani, nani” (Lullaby, lullaby), dancers Megan Buckley, Demetrius McClendon and Marlayna Locklear presented a vignette where Buckley in spotlight on the opposite side of the stage to the others worriedly danced about and appeared to cradle an imaginary infant. Opposing that scene, McClendon and Locklear looked like two people in love. The pair clutched each other in tight embraces and moved through various partnered lifts that spoke of their desire for one another. As the vignette progressed and McClendon drew closer to Buckley, it became clear that there was a broken relationship between them and that Buckley was a woman in deep emotional turmoil over it. Her heartfelt, passionate dancing and that of the others was a highlight of the Sephardic section which overall lacked variety in both the music and in the choreography which tended to repeat itself.

The Arabic section that came next included five songs from the 11th through 13th centuries. In it, the music and the dancing took on new tonal dimensions and interest. The second selection in it, “Lama bada yatathanna,” told in the song’s lyrics of the joy a woman felt in seeing her love sway, his beauty amazing her. Owen’s choreography for the group dance evoked a village festival feel with chain dances, twisting and turning movement and vibrant dances for the women and men as groups.

(l-r) Yazzmeen Laidler, Terra Liu and Marlayna Locklear of Owens/Cox Dance Group in Jennifer Owen's "Morena" Photo by Elizabeth Stehling

(l-r) Yazzmeen Laidler, Terra Liu
and Marlayna Locklear
of Owens/Cox Dance Group
in Jennifer Owen’s “Morena”
Photo by Elizabeth Stehling

While much of the choreography for the Arabic section contained movement used earlier in the program, Owen’s choreography appeared to connect better with this music than that of the first section. Nowhere was that more evident than in “Man li hä’im” (He who loves me), a wonderfully-crafted and engaging duet danced by Buckley and partner Christopher Page-Sanders.

The unmistakable highlight of the evening was Morena’s closing Armenian section for which Botero and the Zulal Trio, an a cappella trio of Armenian-American women, developed a song cycle that began with a girl imploring her parents to marry her to a man for love and not money and ends with songs written after the 1915 Armenian genocide when the girl is now a widow and mother.

(l-r) Megan Buckley, Yazzmeen Laidler, Marlayna Locklear, and (center) Terra Liu of Owen/Cox Dance Group in Jennifer Owen's "Morena" Photo by Elizabeth Stehling

(l-r) Megan Buckley, Yazzmeen Laidler,
Marlayna Locklear, and (center) Terra Liu
of Owen/Cox Dance Group
in Jennifer Owen’s “Morena”
Photo by Elizabeth Stehling

Showcasing the singing of Botero and mezzo-soprano Kristee Haney, the section brought the marriage of music and dance to its peak beginning with the gleeful women’s quartet “Gago mare, garke zis” (Father, Mother, Have Me Married). Dancers Locklear, Buckley, Terra Liu and Yazzmeen Laidler cavorted as if young women dreaming of love and marriage and celebrated the bond they held between each other as friends.

The most moving and poignant moment in the program came in the extended solo “Sareri hovin mernem” (I Would Die for the Mountain Wind) performed by Laidler.  Heartfelt and adroitly danced, Laidler seemed to pour everything she had into the solo that portrayed a woman seeking resilience in the face of a devastating loss.  Owen’s outstretched and often emotionally wrenching choreography and Laidler’s performance of it were outstanding as was the ethereal singing of Botero and Haney.

Members of Owen/Cox Dance Group in Jennifer Owen's "Morena" Photo by Elizabeth Stehling

Members of Owen/Cox Dance Group
in Jennifer Owen’s “Morena”
Photo by Elizabeth Stehling

For the chameleon-like Owen/Cox Dance Group that works with a rotating cast of dancers and in varying movement styles depending on each project, Morena may have been a bit of an outlier in terms of past projects. Nonetheless, the production, despite its rather one note opening section, had a lot to offer in its blending of cultures, choreography and music and received a standing ovation from the audience at program’s end.