“To be read, played and danced,” the original instructions for Igor Stravinsky’s “A Soldier’s Tale,” are not usually how it is presented nowadays. So it was a tremendous undertaking for Owen/Cox Dance and NAVO to present a lean, new production of the 1918 work. Together with actor Robert Gibby Brand, they brought their interpretation to Johnson County Community College’s Polsky Theatre on Saturday.
They reframed the work, originally for three actors and one dancer, for one narrator (Brand) and four dancers, and adapted Jeremy Sams’ translation of C.F. Ramuz’s original French text.
Many performances eliminate both text and dance elements, the music considered challenge enough, its fluctuating meters requiring exacting cohesion. In its inaugural season, NAVO performed the complete score conducted by Shah Sadikov. The septet featured violinist Véronique Mathieu in an assertive lead role, although she could not wholly compensate for weaker players.
Spotlighted near the ensemble, Brand was a force of energy even while standing still, imbuing each character’s voice (Narrator, Soldier, Devil, Princess) with individuality and humor and unleashing an astounding clarity of diction, especially in the torrent of descriptive colors. Nabbing him for this role was brilliant casting.
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Jennifer Owen, co-artistic director of Owen/Cox Dance, choreographed with attention to the quirks and spontaneity of the music, energetic solos distinguishing each character. Demetrius McClendon (Soldier) leaped powerfully and trudged despondently. Dmitry Trubchanov (the conniving, demanding Devil) gave a forceful, feverish performance. Holly DeWitt (Princess) brought a complementary tender grace. Betty Kondo (Peasant) was a welcome addition.
Additionally, Owen created a gorgeous, sensual pas de deux for the soldier and the princess, as well as inventive trio sequences.
One concept that did not succeed, however, was the decision to play down extensive pantomime during narrative passages. The dancers looked uncomfortable in their distracting pseudo-acting and low-level, vague gestures, and should either have been posed and still or instructed with some abstract movement.
The lighting was another odd point of confusion, with missed cues or bizarre levels that neither showcased nor hid.
While these collaborative projects are potentially useful financially and artistically, it would be refreshing for Owen/Cox Dance to get back to its origins (pairing contemporary movement with specifically composed music) or perhaps present a retrospective of its earlier works, works worth revisiting with its established fans and that new acquaintances would benefit from experiencing.