Kansas City Collaboration Brings Stravinsky's 'A Soldier's Tale' To Life With Dance

Mar 17, 2016

Story of a Song is a monthly segment on KCUR's Central Standard, in which local musicians tell the story behind a recent song, and explain how it was constructed musically. 

The project: Igor Stravinsky's "L'Histoire du Soldat," or "A Soldier's Tale."

The artists: Dancer Jennifer Owen and composer Brad Cox are co-founders of Owen/Cox Dance, a Kansas City based dance company that strives to create contemporary music and dance collaborations. About a year ago, local musician Shokhrukh Sadikov, director of new music ensemble NAVO, proposed teaming up with the company to produce "A Soldier's Tale."

The piece features four dancers: Holly DeWitt as the princess, Demetrius McClendon as the soldier, Dimitry Trubchanov as the devil, and Betty Kondo. Musicians for the production include Kim Krutz on bassoon, Mark Lowry on percussion, Veronique Mathieu on violin, Michael Averett on trumpet, Kristin Pisano on clarinet, and Gordon Lewis on double bass. Local actor Robert Gibby Brand will narrate. 

The story: "A Soldier's Tale" is based on a Russian folk tale, in which a young soldier makes a deal with the devil. Though he gains great wealth and an ability to see into the future, he loses his happiness, his freedom, and his beloved violin. He realizes he wants his old life back, so he plays cards with the devil, bets all of his money and throws the game, effectively ending the curse and his obligation to the devil.

With his violin, he wakes a princess from a coma. They marry, move into a castle, and live happily, until the devil places another curse over him: If he leaves the castle, he will spend the rest of his life in hell. He and the princess leave the castle, and indeed, he falls once again under the devil's power.

The process: "My approach was really to bring the personality out of the dancers into the characters," Owen says. "Each of the dancers is very charismatic." 

Both Owen and Cox agree, the score is very complex. Owen had to make up her own counts in order to start choreographing with her dancers. But, she says listening to the music inspired great imagery, which made it fun to translate the story into dance.

"The devil, when he's having his big fit, he collapses on the floor, there's a lot of jumps and turns and stomping," Owen says. "It's really fun to just go over the top with the movement to reflect that."

Working with a small ensemble and a live narrator, Owen says she felt free to be more abstract and creative with the movements.

"When the soldier's opening dance comes in, he's an exuberant soldier off on leave, then as he sort of gradually gets beaten down more and more by the devil and life, the dance shows that," Cox says. "The dances act more as sort of a character development than trying to explain anything in the plot."

The show: Owen/Cox Dance will be performing "A Soldier's Tale" at JCCC's Polsky Theatre, Saturday, March 19 at 8 p.m.

Andrea Tudhope is a freelance contributor for KCUR 89.3. You can reach her on Twitter @adtudhope.