From a farm in Forsyth, GA, to a dance studio in Macon, and, finally, to Manhattan’s dance Mecca, John-Mark Owen’s life and career has an artistic spirit uniquely his own. He discovered his affinity for movement in 1994, when Jean Evans Weaver of Macon’s Dance Arts Studio asked him to be the prince in her annual production of The Nutcracker. It was the beginning of one of Owen’s most “cherished” relationships in his dance training. Eventually, he went on to perform with the Nashville Ballet, Ohio Ballet, American Repertory Ballet, Ballet NY, and Dances Patrelle, among others. Now, he’s honing his artistic voice as a choreographer, using movement as a vehicle for self-expression and a reflection on humanity.
There’s a lot on the horizon for this ambitious choreographer, including an upcoming performance of his newest, and perhaps most evocative ballet to date, Requiem. Owen was generous enough to take some time out of his busy schedule and share a few words with Dd.
Dd: When did you start dabbling in choreography?
JMO: I started to choreograph the minute I started dancing…My first piece of choreography was for the Christmas Show at the church I attended as a child called “Come Celebrate His Birth.” I was a toy soldier trying to explain the special nature of the particular night the baby Jesus was born. “Oh Holy Night” was the music that I danced to and it entailed a lot of interpretive sign language…a lot of running, pas de bourrees, hitch kicks, sissone, and plenty of emoting. I still have the video…somewhere. But I will say the first [formal] piece that I made…was set to Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. It was for 12 girls and very Balanchinian, black leotards, pink tights, pointe shoes, and buns. I made it on the Middle Georgia Youth Ballet in 1997. I always wanted to choreograph more than dance but was encouraged to continue dancing so I could build my ‘street cred.’
Dd: How would you describe the aesthetic of your movement?
JMO: The aesthetic of my movement can be summed up in my tag line, “Moving Imagery.” I like to think of myself as a painter, who happens to be working with bodies…my work is quite sculptural. I like to build an atmosphere compelled by the score where emotions are implied rather than literal. To do this I use the body as my language tool. Sculptural shapes evoke the particular emotive states that I want to draw out. Instead of literal dance steps, I use those steps in the service of the larger picture to capture a particular cinematic narrative. Thus, eliminating a literal story and concentrating on the essence of the story, whatever that may be. I think of my work as a series of the same painting… a diptych, triptych, etc.
Dd: How would you describe your in-studio creative process?
JMO: I go into the studio with a particular goal that I want to achieve like an idea, an image, etc. However, I do not have steps planned immediately…I do not like to prescribe things before they even exist. I challenge myself to trust the moment and the music…as long as I show up with an open mind and heart…the work will get done…All I ask from myself and my artists is to show up, take chances, and be present. The rest takes care of itself.
Dd: Please share about your recent residency at the Silo.
JMO: What an incredible time! [It’s] unprecedented for me to have my dancers in the same place, at the same time, concentrating on the same goal without the distractions of…NYC. [I earned the honor of having the residency at the] Dancenow Festival last year at Joe’s Pub. [I took 14 dancers]…Everyone pitched in to cook, clean, entertain etc. It worked beautifully.
Our days were full. We would start with a Feldenkrais class at 9:00, [followed by] a ballet class at 9:30, then a 4 hours of rehearsal…we’d break for lunch and return [for 3 more hours of rehearsal]. I was able to draft all of Requiem…It was truly an incredible time. The seclusion of the space enabled everyone involved to hone in on the work and dedicate themselves fully to the process. It provided the [sense of] community this ballet needs and we were able to bring that [feeling] back with us to the city. These dancers are great people in addition to being great artists.
Dd: Tell me more about Requiem. How long has this piece been in the works?
JMO: Requiem has been in the works for 5 years. I am a lover of classical music yet I am embarrassed to tell you that until 2007 I had never heard Mozart’s Requiem…I am a Beethoven man. I like to say Mozart is the mountains and Beethoven the ocean. Both are wonderful and majestic but the sea is essential to me so I always flocked to Beethoven and left Mozart for the parlors…then Mozart slapped me over the head with his hauntingly beautiful [music] in Professor Moulton’s class at NYU. I cried, I laughed I had never heard anything so powerfully compelling. I immediately set out to work on a little excerpt from a larger idea that was growing. IT WAS TERRIBLE! I had no idea what I was doing I just wanted to make something to this music that was haunting me… literally keeping me up at night sometimes because the beauty was inescapable. I needed to organize my thoughts better. So I started to write out a libretto to the score. It started as an all male cast dressed neoclassically, but with lots of skin. I believe the word centurion was used in the libretto if that gives you any idea where the story was headed. I let that sit for a long time and would revisit it here and there. Slowly the story shifted as I began reading Carl Jung’s Theories of Archetypes. I knew I wanted to deal with pressing societal issues in the ballet, but I wanted it to be modern and not a classical pageant of Athenian dresses, leather, and brass—he does love his mythology. I started to write about the societal issues…I wanted to address, which are the redefining of archetypes. My theory is thus: equality between the gays and the straights can never truly exist as long as the established archetypes dictate otherwise; namely gay men, who are seen as less [manly] because of our sexual proclivities. There is an effeminate nature implied that separates us from real men. For society at large to understand and be comfortable with us, we have to be assumed as less [masculine] so as not to threaten the ‘real’ man, rendering us characters of ourselves: be it clown, bitch, fierce, queen, fag etc…if we look at men through the lens of courage of conviction being the definition of masculinity as opposed to…hunter/gatherer then perhaps equality could truly exist. [If] the defining barrier of real man, or not, could be broken down…we would no longer fret over someone’s sexuality. Of course this serves as a metaphor for all minorities, but this happens to be the one I know personally. I was rejected from the community I grew up in because of my coming out. So I’m building the ballet dealing with archetypal themes. I transition them melodically through a series of ‘paintings,’ which are compelled by the score cinematically.
Dd: How is it different from past ballets you’ve choreographed?
JMO: I have always made intimate work that revolves around imagery. However, Requiem delves deeper into that idea with a larger cast and a sense of transitional continuity. I’ve never worked with 13 people before and I’ve never made a feature-length before. All of this is coming together out of years of thought and writing. I take credit for only a little of it, the rest willed itself into being because I remained open to its incarnation. It is thrilling to witness and be involved in this marvelous momentum.
Requiem receives its premiere on September 13-15, 2012 at Manhattan Movement and Arts Center. Click here for tickets and more information.