Christopher K. Morgan in Rice Photo Steven Schreiber

Christopher K. Morgan in Rice
Photo Steven Schreiber

American Dance Institute, Rockville, MD
October 10, 2015

Carmel Morgan

Christopher K. Morgan and Artists (CKM&A) celebrates its fifth anniversary this year, and the DC-based contemporary dance company continues to excel. As Morgan (no relation), CKM&A’s artistic and executive director explained to the audience before Saturday’s matinee, in the arts climate of today in the United States, this is a milestone is certainly worth commemorating. I found additional reasons to celebrate in dancers Lauren Christie, Mat Elder, and Gracie Corapi, who all originally hail from my home state of Tennessee and reminded me to be proud of my dancing roots.

Roots was one theme of the concert. Two solos by Morgan, Rice and Pohaku, reflect Morgan’s Hawaiian heritage. Rice, though movement and spoken word, introduces the familiar grain as one that is central to the cultural identity of many people throughout the world. A glass fish tank full of rice sits on stage. Morgan scoops up the rice, lets it run through his hands, and later swirls it with water while discussing facts about rice as well as relating childhood memories about preparing it for a family meal. He is a warm and compelling narrator. As he recalled his bewilderment that his Caucasian schoolmate’s family ate brown rice, while his “brown” family ate white rice, the audience shared his amusement. His confession that he used to fantasize about having white skin while he cleaned the rice, the water turning his skin a paler shade, however, surely resulted in collective heartache.

In Pohaku, the audience was treated to an excerpt from what will be larger work premiering in May 2016. In the preview, Morgan blends hula and modern dance, accompanied by the first verse from the Kumulipo, the Hawaiian Creation Chant. His arms arch upward to the sky as if in the midst of worship. His hips rotate, and he carries the rhythm in his knees. As the work progresses, the movement switches to modern dance and is freer while still projecting reverence and respect.

A third solo was performed by Tiffanie Carson, CKM&A’s assistant director. Although Selling Out was initially created by Morgan as a solo for himself, Carson’s ferocity adds a different dimension to the original. Set to text by Morgan and hard-hitting original music by Monstah Black, Selling Out represents the struggle to stay to true to oneself in the face of adversity. Carson’s energy transforms the work, and the fact that she is female only strengthens the universality of the message.

Inconstancy, choreographed by Morgan for four dancers, exudes a certain amount of charm, but also delves into pain. In the beginning, two couples clad only in underwear look like innocent versions of Adam and Eve. The original score by David Schulman has a country twang. The two couples set up house next to each other and move from shyness, to affection, to jealousy and anger. Matching green rectangles of artificial grass, placed side by side, mark their efforts at building their own happily ever after, and twin colorful fat round piggy banks symbolize their incessant striving. There are sweet moments. A female dancer steps under her male partner’s outstretched arm and rests her head against him. Yet the honeymoon does not last, and slapping and pushing ensue. The piggy banks become the source of battles, and a shower of coins strikes the floor. Is this a cautionary tale about love and debt?

Selective Sync, also choreographed by Morgan, dials down the storytelling and dials up the dancing. Crouched in a diagonal strip of light, a single dancer (the captivating Lauren Christie) scoots backward in silence. During a section in which the dancers move in unison, she alone faces backward. There are interesting juxtapositions and unusual positions. Strikingly beautiful are a group of dancers with their legs spread wide apart, their heads resting on the floor and their arms lifted straight up, making them appear like birds with wings fishing for food under the water’s surface.

Deprivation, a work choreographed by Carson, electrifies at every turn. Christie, in particular, among the piece’s eight dancers, embodied this dynamism. She’s an agile performer with a knack for getting under your skin, and Carson’s choreography is downright hot. Also stunning in Deprivation are the costumes by Sebastian Arango, lighting design by Brian S. Allard, and music by Byetone, Olaf Bender, and original music by Mike Esperanza. Most of the dancers wear socks, and all wear a combination of gray and white. Tall cowl necks are loose yet seem confining. Some wear shrewdly structured shorts with excess fabric that wraps or protrudes in a flattering fashion that conveys a futuristic sense. The lighting design features long thin rectangles that resemble smoky light streaming through a mod leaded glass window. The music smacks of desperation with its repeating beats and growls. All of the elements together give a feeling of coldness yet also impart something sacred.

There is a lot of touching in Deprivation, but there is no longing. Whether a dancer touches a hand to a part of his or her own body or to a part of someone else’s body, emptiness reigns. From head to stomach to hip to toe, hands briefly rest but do not comfort. The dancers called to mind injured souls in a psychiatric hospital, and the choreography hints at abuse. The iciness of the dancers’ stares and the precise execution of their movement weigh heavily on the viewer, but in a manner that keeps one on the edge of one’s seat. Rather than being purely robotic, the stark movement is full of startling vitality. In Deprivation, Carson has achieved a choreographic home run, and in Christie, CKM&A has quite a budding star.

I am eager to see more from both Carson and Christie, and of course from Morgan, too, so I am looking forward to the next five years!