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A Conversation with John-Mark Owen about his newest work “Requiem”

September 10, 2012

John-Mark Owen’s Presents, Photo by Kokyat

Exacting corrections, those given before a performance, the notes given by the choreographer either during or after rehearsal are sometimes the most difficult for the dancer. It requires meticulous attention to detail, where the head is in regards to the arm, the port de bra transitions not through first but a low sweeping from the hip into fourth. These were the corrections given during the rehearsal I witnessed for John-Mark Owen’s newest work, “Requiem”, which will premiere at Manhattan Movement & Arts Center, Sept. 13-15 at 8p.m.

Mr. Owens, inspired by the theories of Carl Jung’s Archetypes explains “Requiem” as “an exploration in dance, of how masculinity is defined in societal terms. As a gay man, and a product of a community that does not accept homosexuality, mine has always been the search for truth in all aspects of living.”

In order to dance the choreography of John-Mark Owen, lyricism has to come naturally. It must be as intrinsic as breathing to the dancer, needed is the smooth flow of movement to movement that blends with a musicality that is seamless. His steps flow, suspend, fall and slide into each other.

“Requiem” is a continual selection of arcs that suspend and rebound, continuous lines in space that are accented by a breath that exhales into the next moment of movement. There is an excitement to the work that leans to an unknown expectation of what’s next.

It has a romanticism that is evident, but not overt. There are visual references to the great paintings of the Renaissance masters such Raphael or Michelangelo. But this beauty is interspaced by defiance and rebellion. There is a determination of spirit, but yet a resignation due of presence of violence.

After the rehearsal I asked John-Mark if he would speak of his newest work

What is the inspiration or ideas behind “Requiem”?

There are three things I wanted to do with the piece, first I wanted to make a full length ballet, and secondly as a gay man I wanted to explore the idea of equality, what separates the straights from the gays. I was reading Carl Jung’s writings, especially those that dealt with the Archetypes and found that if we were to examine those concepts of the Archetypes, reexamine the concepts of what is feminine and what is masculine, then equality might begin to exist. That masculinity could be redefined from über- straight “hunter-gatherer” and instead become something akin to courage and conviction that would define masculinity. Thirdly is the idea of sculptural evocation, so the shapes provide evolution of the narrative for the ballet. It becomes not so much a literal translation but rather visual, as if a series of paintings, a series of sculptures that are transitioned melodically by the music.

You imagery in almost Renaissance, especially in your groupings…

Certainly classical or early classical, yes, the contortion and play of light and shadow…one of my visual references was the William Bouguereau painting, “Dante and Virgil in Hell”. That imagery came along at the same time as the music (Mozart’s “Requiem”) came to me. I found them at the same time and they seemed to play off one another. What spoke to me was the contortion of the figures, the eroticism mixed with a bit of violence.

William Bouguereau “Dante and Virgil in Hell”

Tell me about the music, who did you come across the music?

I came across it in Grad school. My professor had us (the class) going to different concerts to hear different types of music. Something I did anyway and still do, I love going to musical concerts to hear them live. So I went to a Mozart concert. I have always had a strong proclivity for choral music, so I went to hear Mozart’s “Requiem”, I had never heard it before. When I did, it just hit me over the head, “how have I not have heard this before?” I find it hauntingly powerful as well beautiful .

There is imagery of battling homophobia with in the ballet, can you speak of this?

It boils down to this idea of Archetypes. Speaking as a gay man myself, I came from a community that was strongly adverse to homosexuality. I was continual told I was bad, that I was an abomination which was going to Hell. It was those ideas that come from an Evangelical Christian background. It was those doctrines that told, even in writing, that your life was not worth living unless you were saved. That stuck with me for a long time, not that I thought my live was not worth living, but those voices stuck with me, they have lessened, but they were there.

Your work seems to have Romanticism also, are you a Romantic?

A fool of a romantic! I’m a romantic, a passionate individual; this is evident in my work and in my interactions with people. I seek a meaning in my encounters, that my encounters with another is just not casual, but meaningful.

You have a villain that walks around during the dancing, what does he symbolize in the work?

He is a multi-dimensional character.He is a character that is binary, he is and he isn’t. His view is black or white, it is or it is not, it’s good or bad, it’s feminine or masculine. He’s there to keep those ideas present, that anything outside those ideas are uncomfortable. In any painting, music or architecture there are always two opposing ideas that create tension, in painting, for example, its light and shadow, death and life, in dancing its movement and stillness.

Who inspires you choreographically?

There are many. The American choreographers like Paul Taylor and Jerome Robbins for sure. Then there is Jiri Kylián, I love Jiri Kylián. Nacho Duato, Pina Bausch, I love Pina Bausch. I think her ability to shape a group, to pull out such raw emotion is amazing.  She has the ability to command humanity, it touches people.

Written into my mission statement is the idea that if we can combine these structures, dance-theater and ballet, If we can enhance the balletic line so it’s not just a line in space but an actually evocation of something, the body as language, the body as sculptural language and vocabulary. Who my main inspiration choreographically would be, I cannot say. But I am certainly influenced by these people’s work, what they did, what they achieved choreographically.

John-Mark Owen Photo by Kelsey Coventry

One more question and I’ll let you go. What do you think of the deconstruction of technique that’s going on, where it’s no longer about the body confirming to technique but the technique conforming to the body’s needs.

Wow, I never thought about it like that, but I know what you mean. I can say that I am discouraged often in the state of dance, the state of technical dancing in New York because there is a sense of it being lost. There is often athleticism and dynamics, tricks if you will, that are championed over technique or artistry. Like the exact placement of fifth position, the more subtle points of technique are being lost, the exquisite beauty of a tendu, things like épaulement.

It just the American culture in general, everything must be bigger and faster, stronger, higher. It certainly permeates into dance with such shows as “So You Think You Can Dance”, “Dancing with the Stars” or “Dance Moms”.

I know the dancers are waiting on your notes so I will let you go but thank you so much for speaking with me and NYC Dance Stuff. I’ll see you at the Manhattan Movements & Arts Center on Sept. 13-15 at 8 p.m.

John-Mark Owen Presents will present his 13-member company in the premiere of his Requiem, set to Mozart’s “Requiem”, September 13-15 at MMAC

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