The late writer and literary critic Guy Davenport once wrote of the “strange awfulness” of his native Southern Appalachia, “Its traditions are unconscious and deep in the bone…The world is an allegory and no violence however sickening is ever quite unexpected in the course of a day.” Violence and an eerie, if sometimes enchanting, awfulness are the primary themes behind UNC Charlotte College of Arts + Architecture’s Deep Water: The Murder Ballads, a series of three dance-theater works that premiered for a one-night-only performance at the Knight Theater, Levine Center for the Arts.
Based on three North Carolina murder ballads, Deep Water represents the most recent collaboration between composer John Allemeier and choreographer E.E. Balcos, both professors at the College of Arts + Architecture. American roots musician Riley Baugus, whose accolades include musical direction and performances on the soundtrack for the movie Cold Mountain, narrated the evening. With banjo or guitar in hand, Baugus introduced then sang each original ballad before the performance of Allemeier and Balcos’ contemporary interpretation.
The selected ballads present cautionary tales of love and betrayal, all set in North Carolina high country in the 19th century – the drowning of Omie Wise by the father of her child in “Deep Water,” the shooting of Ellen Smith by her lover in “Poor Ellen,” and the axe murder and dismemberment of Charlie Silver by his wife Frankie in the facetiously titled “Pieces of Silver.” In Allemeier and Balcos’ renderings of these events, the violence is abstracted, and the focus shifts from the literal act of murder to the feelings that the act invokes.
“Deep Water,” the most clearly conceived of the three works performed, conjures an atmosphere best described as mythical. It begins with the three female dancers (Tai Dorn [as Omie Wise], Audrey Baran, and Melissa Jesse) drifting onto stage on their backs, seeming to be carried by a smooth, invisible current. One by one, they float down the river, foretelling Wise’s fate. The dancers reach their limbs upward, and we realize they are under water, watching the light and world above the water’s surface get further away as they sink deeper.
The second part of the work introduces a certain moral ambiguity. Wise expertly seduces her suitor John Lewis (E.E. Balcos) to a sultry section of music. A tango rhythm comes in as the two continue their duet during which the power shifts from seducer to seduced, reversing the perceived roles of victim and perpetrator.
The last section returns us to the beginning, and the female dancers are again under water. There’s an unsettling tranquility to the movement and music, evoking the terror of a peace found deep below the water’s surface. Thoughtful lighting by John P. Woodey enhanced this feeling of serenity in the midst of certain death.
The other two works in the performance were admirable in their reach, and both have remarkable moments that bode well for future iterations. However, overly spare lighting in the early parts of each and a few sections of diminutive choreography made the dancing appear small at times against the expanse of the Knight Theatre stage.
The reels and do-si-dos of folk dance infuse the choreography of “Poor Ellen.” These elements are treated simply, in keeping with Balcos’ economical style of choreography: unfussy and clear in its relationship to the dancer’s space. The petite but potent Audrey Baran played the role of Ellen Smith with a convincing innocence that, as the work progresses, turns to anxious recognition. At various times, Smith pauses to smooth her dress, calmly at first, then with a neurotic urgency that speaks to the emerging realization that things are not as they should be. In one of the more striking and literal moments, Smith and her supposed sisters (Melissa Jesse and Tai Dorn) stop, raise one hand above their heads in a fist, tilt their heads, then turn slowly on stiff legs – the hanging of Smith’s murderer foreshadowed.
Tracie Foster Chan danced the part of murderess Frankie Silver in “Pieces of Silver” with solid technique and easy grace, if sometimes lacking in emotive intention. The drama of the last section, which suggests Frankie’s earthly and divine judgment, was remarkably enhanced by an unsympathetic light from above. Shane Lucas, who danced the part of Charlie Silver, exhibited superb control in the first sections, and remained equally strong in the final as he pulled Frankie off her knees to dance in a place that we can only assume to be the afterlife. By the look of the harsh lighting and otherwise black stage, neither of them made it to anyplace heavenly.
Deep Water: The Murder Ballads speaks to the enduring fascination with violence and death that pervades contemporary media. One era’s cautionary tale becomes our entertainment. Thankfully, Deep Water doesn’t seek to exploit as much as expose this strange awfulness, transcending the violence to explore its affective dimension through new music and dance.
For more on the ongoing evolution of Deep Water: The Murder Ballads, visit the artists’ project site here.