MorDance
New York Live Arts
New York, New York

May 11, 2024
On The Waterfront, Depths Entangled, Echoes of Silence (world premiere)

Jerry Hochman

A couple of years ago, in the course of reviewing a prior MorDance program, I observed that MorDance had advanced to what I labeled “small company big time.” The MorDance program I saw on Saturday, the closing night of its 2024 Season, demonstrates how accurate that description was.

The program, the same for both of its two nights at New York Live Arts and the previous weekend at its new home in Yonkers, NY (which, from what I’ve heard, is a beautiful and easily accessible space), consisted of three dances choreographed by the company’s Founder, Artistic Director, and Choreographer, Morgan McEwen. One of the dances was a world premiere, but I’d not previously seen any of them.

The program, which was performed to a near full house audience, began with On The Waterfront, McEwen’s tribute to Leonard Bernstein. Created in 2018, the dance has all the earmarks of structural command and musicality that McEwen and her company would continue to demonstrate thereafter.

Emily Cardea and David Hochberg
in Morgan McEwen’s
“On The Waterfront”
Photo by Kelsey Campbell

On The Waterfront isn’t profound, nor does it break any choreographic barriers. But its intricate and seamless evolution displays McEwen’s choreography and her dancers in an ever-expanding movement kaleidoscope. The costumes for the ladies are very black-and-white New York-ish, their vertically-striped black lines on a white top gradually narrowing downward toward the waist, with black bottoms (designed by McEwen, who designed the costumes for all the dances on this program) are vaguely evocative of Art Deco. [The men are bare-chested, with black pants.]

Although I’m not familiar with the score for the celebrated 1954 Elia Kazan film, a crime drama that won oodles of awards and is considered one of the best films of all time, it was Bernstein’s first, and only, original score for a film that was not adapted from a prior production. Bernstein’s score evokes the stormy crime melodrama, and although I’d not heard it previously, it’s unmistakably Bernstein, with multiple changes in tempo and intensity throughout the course of the score.

The dance has nothing whatever to do with the subject or any parts of the film. Rather, it’s a celebration of Bernstein, one of many that commemorated the centennial of his birth. The dance tells no story; rather, it makes the relatively unfamiliar music Bernstein composed for the film come to life. The choreography itself doesn’t break any new ground (or try to), but it demonstrates McEwen’s facility with moving dancers to a variety of musical tempi, gradually increasing the ballet’s complexity and growing more expansive in the process – at all times choreographing to the music’s beat without being bound by it. It’s a very fine dance, and a well-chosen evening opener.

Depths Entangled is a dance of a different color. Black.

McEwen initially choreographed Depths Entangled in 2014 for six dancers, and reportedly reimagined it in 2018 for nine dancers. It’s as dark as On The Waterfront is bright, with all action seemingly taking place in an unspecified dark location (perhaps underground, under a darkened sky, or metaphorically as the nonspecific depths of one’s mind or of group consciousness). The darkness is the important factor, not the specific location.

(front to back) Claire van Bever
with Isaiah Newby,
and Lauren Treat with David Hochberg,
in Morgan McEwen’s “Depths Entangled”
Photo by Kelsey Campbell

On the company’s website (the program – which, mercifully, did not require access via QR scan – contained no description of this or the other dances), McEwen describes Depths Entangled as an artful exploration of “the intricate tapestry of human relationships…[delving] into the connections we cultivate, intertwining emotions, thoughts, and personal growth…”  I saw none of that. What I did see was a marvelously intricate and engrossing dance.

Let me elaborate. If Depths Entangled has to do with the dancers’ choreographed entanglements, that sort of thing permeates the piece. But if it’s more specific than that, like maintaining connections between or among certain dancers, I didn’t follow that. What I did see was an exceptional dance without any particular subject matter, which, for all its darkness, reaches the heights of movement to music within an ominous albeit non-specific atmosphere. It would be an exceptional dance for any company to pull off as well as this one did.

Joe LaLuzerne in Morgan McEwen’s “Depths Entangled”
Photo by Kelsey Campbell

The piece is choreographed to unspecified music by Venetian Snares, the primary pseudonym for Canadian electronic musician Aaron Funk, who began producing music at least as early as 1992 (according to Wikipedia), and has released 24 studio albums, one live album, two compilation albums, 19 extended plays (EPs), eight singles, four promotional singles, one remix, and one music video. To the extent he specializes in any particular musical form, nebulous as that form may be, it’s called “breakcore,” an offshoot of “hardcore.” His studio albums carry such endearing titles as: “Songs About My Cats,” “Winter in the Belly of a Snake,” “Winnipeg Is a Frozen —-hole,” “Filth,” and the groundbreaking “My Love is a Bulldozer.”

For a time, Funk was known for combining breakcore with classical music and/or orchestral sampling, though I don’t know how long that period lasted or if it continues, or whether McEwen drew from it here. Suffice it to say that at the outset the score sounded like cats trying to mate with metal garbage can covers, thereafter mellowing at times to embellished stringed instrument scratches.

(l-r) Lauren van Bever, Emily Cardea,
Laura Perich Villasmil, and Ayaka Kamei
in Morgan McEwen’s “Depths Entangled”
Photo by Kelsey Campbell

It’s a credit to McEwen’s choreography and the dancers’ skill (augmented by the interestingly crafted lighting, designed by Becky Heisler McCarthy) that the score and the choreography fit together well. On one level, the dance suggests (based on the lighting and score) an alien environment – or certainly an alienating one – within which the dancers must learn to exist. It may be a metaphor for a generally uncaring environment, but the specific environment, like its specific location and subject matter (if any) doesn’t matter except to isolate or emphasize particular movement or sequences.

(front) Laura Perich Villasmil
and Tevin Johnson,
in Morgan McEwen’s “Depths Entangled”
Photo by Kelsey Campbell

As the dance begins, only the dancers’ faces and bodies appear; everything else is black – including the costumes, which for all the dancers consists of various textures of black. Later in the piece, dancers “magically” materialize from the upstage dark depths as if emerging from some lower room (as opposed to the “heaven’s anteroom” in Twyla Tharp’s “In the Upper Room”). This lends the piece a mysterious sense of urgency that the pace of McEwen’s choreography emphasizes. That is, in between musical episodes the dancers would often run unseen, but at breakneck speed, to reach their positions for the next episode seconds later. I know this because I could hear pointe shoes pounding the floor like the sound of thoroughbreds in a horse race. I haven’t seen such rapid-fire movement executed so cleanly and efficiently since, well, Balanchine, who’d routinely have his corps dancers race to get to their positions for the next choreographic phrase – except there, it’s usually done on an illuminated stage.

Don’t take this the wrong way – I don’t mean to equate what McEwen and her dancers have pulled off here to be equal in depth and complexity to Balanchine and New York City Ballet, but for small company big time, it’s quite an accomplishment.

(front to back) Lauren Treat
with Joe LaLuzerne,
and Emily Cardea with Isaiah Newby,
and Kira Metcalf (upstage)
in Morgan McEwen’s “Echoes of Silence”
Photo by Kelsey Campbell

Echoes of Silence, the piece that completed the program, was the evening’s world premiere (the specific premiere was a week earlier in Yonders). The dance is choreographed to unspecified popular songs composed by Randy Newman, Emitt Rhodes, Judee Sill, Elizabeth Cotten, Fred Neil, Mentor Williams, and Stephen Stills. They’re largely folk songs of the ‘60s and early ‘70s, and I recognized many of them. The music was performed live, on guitar and with vocals, by Kira Metcalf, who was stationed upstage audience-left. Metcalf has an unusual vocal presence that’s both powerful and intimate – so much so that I initially thought I was listening to a recording by a popular folk recording artist of the ‘60s whose voice I couldn’t quite recognize.

Echoes of Silence is another dance that exemplifies McEwen’s facility with moving groups of dancers around the stage such that little looks the same as what was seen before, with, to me, more of a sense of community. Again, McEwen here provides substantial variety of movement and skillful maneuvering on, off, and while on stage so that it’s a successful piece even without figuring out what’s happening here. But I think it’s more than that; it seemed apparent that something was happening here. So I apologize if I address this piece, rightly or wrongly, as sort of a puzzle.

The use, and order, of the songs as background, I thought, had to have had a purpose.

MorDance in Morgan McEwen’s “Echoes of Silence”
Photo by Kelsey Campbell

Randy Newman’s song (“I Think It’s Gonna Rain Today”) sets a sad, introspective mood for the piece as a whole, which continues with Rhodes’s “Lullabye.” And in “Lullabye” (which includes the lyric “Tears that angels cry”) is the first appearance (at least the first I saw) of what was to become a recurring motif – the staccato/ incremental dropping of hands down the face, as if crying. It takes seconds, and as I recall, is executed concurrently by all, or most, of the dancers.

Lauren Treat and Tevin Johnson
in Morgan McEwen’s “Echoes of Silence”
Photo by Kelsey Campbell

I was unable to decipher the songs authored by Sill or Cotton, but it soon became evident that the “tears” motif could also do double duty as a “laugh” motif. By the time that Metcalf sang the Neil song (“Everybody’s Talkin’ At Me,” popularized by Harry Nilsson), the dancers were smiling broadly and that “tears” motif had morphed into a “laugh motif.” I thought to myself that something was wrong. There had to have been some cause to advocate, some lesson to teach, some warning to society, that as I recall was evident in one form or another in most of MorDance’s prior programs.

Things began to change again – or change back, with Williams’s “Drift Away,” one of the saddest songs of the period. It was as if the “happy” motif was losing out to not just sadness, but misery. The transition became complete with the final song, Stills’s “For What It’s Worth.” And then I got it – or think I did.

MorDance in Morgan McEwen’s “Echoes of Silence”
Photo by Kelsey Campbell

The song isn’t anti-war or anti-violence song per se, but it’s definitely a “stop, children…look what’s happening” song, applicable to 1966, when it was written, and to too many societal situations since then – including to events happening while this dance was being choreographed. As used in the piece, it appears to me to have been the vehicle by which McEwen says the same thing: “stop, look what’s happening” as the country hurtles toward confrontation between a current set of clashing true believers.

MorDance
in Morgan McEwen’s “Echoes of Silence”
Photo by Kelsey Campbell

Seen this way, the “introductory” tears provide a sort of a back-looking reaction to a tale of paradise ultimately lost – or at risk of being lost; the angels’ tears and Still’s observations of conflict bookending that temporary “paradise.” And it’s as applicable today as it was when the song was written.

Moreover, I think the title of the piece, Echoes of Silence, might be another side of the same cautionary tale that McEwen tells, and an unstated nod to another significant song of the 60s: Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence.”

I may be completely wrong about McEwen’s intent here. Echoes of Silence may simply be choreographed movement to music – in this case an assortment of folk songs. I’ve been wrong once or twice or a few dozen times before. But even if that’s the case it wouldn’t change my evaluation of the choreography, or of the quality of all the dancers’ performances here. This is a high-quality group, deserving of individual recognition: the company dancers are Ayaka Kamei, Emily Cardea, David Hochberg, Tevin Johnson, Isaiah Newby, Joe LaLuzerne, Laura Perich Villasmil, Claire van Bever, and Lauren Treat.

I look forward to, and will get my overthinking cap ready for, whatever McEwen has in store next year. Something’s definitely happening here.