Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College
New York, New York
April 28, 2023
Albatross (world premiere), Stabat Mater, Emily (world premiere)
Bear with me here for a couple of paragraphs while I mini-rant.
I intensely dislike over-the-top program notes that gush about a choreographer’s work, whether self-proclaimed puffery or the equivalent created by the company’s representative. Don’t tell me what a great piece it, and for sure don’t label it a masterpiece.
There were no program notes per se for the program that MorDance presented last Friday for a two-night run at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College, a few blocks from Lincoln Center, but there was a document accessible via QR code that audience members were directed to if they wanted further information about the program beyond the bare credits in the paper program. That’s where one finds that description of one of two of Morgan McEwen’s world premieres, the final piece in the program, titled Emily. So … I was prepared to dislike Emily for that self-congratulatory excess.
From the dance’s first moments, however, I saw that McEwen’s self-evaluation might have been right. If Emily isn’t a masterpiece, at least one appropriate to my description of the company after its last New York season as having entered the ranks of “small company big time,” it’s pretty close: it’s the finest McEwen-choreographed dance that I’ve seen to date, fitting for a program that commemorates and celebrates MorDance’s Tenth Anniversary.
And it’s not only the choreography. Every component of Emily works: its lighting and costumes, its set, its score, and its execution. And Emily fulfills McEwen’s intended purpose – to illustrate the challenges faced, and efforts made by, Emily Dickinson to be accepted and acknowledged as a writer of poetry with the same respect accorded male poets, and without being limited by what others considered more proper subject, style, or form for a woman. But, as I’ll explain further below, Emily goes beyond that – and is intended to.
First, however, I’ll generally comment on what I’ve seen of McEwen’s style, and then address the opening dances on the program before returning to Emily.
No choreographer wants or expects his or her style to be pigeonholed into a particular descriptive box. I’m sure that’s also the case with McEwen, who founded MorDance and is now its Artistic Director/ Choreographer. But there are common denominators that are clearly discernible.
Based on those pieces I’ve seen, McEwen doesn’t choreograph to music for the sake of choreographing to music. While her dances may, and usually do, amplify whatever score is being used, they’re more than efforts to visualize it. Her choreography usually has an apparent purpose beyond that, one that she often makes quite clear even before the dance begins. She’s not on a crusade as much as she’s fulfilling a sense of mission. And though angularity and a sense of weightiness (as in “burden”) can be components of a piece for a particular purpose, her overall style is lyrical, fluid, peppered with soaring lifts, and often describable as balletic. Indeed, to the best of my recollection her female dancers often wear pointe shoes, and most of the dances she creates are labeled “ballets.” Aside from her choreography, McEwen’s dances are marked by a commendable attention to detail.
McEwen’s choreography in all three of the dances on this program displays her facility with group movement, resulting in dances that usually are interesting and highly enjoyable to watch. However, where her choreography is limited by its subject matter (or where her sense is that it should be), no matter how well-crafted it is (and it always is), there’s a sense that something is lacking. Where she goes beyond the boundaries of her limited subject, and there’s greater image variety, as in Emily, the result can be a masterwork.
The first two pieces on the program were the evening’s other world premiere, Albatross, and a dance she created in 2018, Stabat Mater.
Albatross is McEwen’s salute to the bird with the huge wingspan whose existence is threatened by ocean pollution, particularly by the plastic that gets dumped into the ocean every day, eventually breaking down into small-sized plastic residue that albatrosses eat. The problem isn’t limited to the albatross – all ocean birds and other ocean wildlife are similarly impacted – but that doesn’t really matter here: the fate of the albatross is certainly a legitimate concern. [Using the albatross as the object of this argument is somewhat ironic: the albatross’s potential extinction is an environmental albatross that human society wears around its neck.]
In addition to its size and ability to soar for days without resting on land, the albatross is also known for mating for life, prior to which the pair dance until they find each other mutually acceptable – an action that’s not uncommon but which, with respect to the albatross, has reached a pinnacle of wildlife choreographic brilliance.
I anticipated the same here, but, noble as McEwen’s intent is, most of what I saw were dancer/ birds with long wingspans gliding in various numbers across the stage in various directions. It’s too much of the same or similar imagery. There’s more to Albatross than that, but not enough to take it to a higher level. As I see it, the problem is described in the first sentence of this segment of the review: Albatross is more of a salute to, or celebration of, the albatross than a documentation of its endangerment. That’s a worthy subject too, but not as dramatic.
Albatross begins, and ends, with an image of a dancer/ albatross being held aloft by other dancers/ albatrosses, then suddenly falling to the stage floor (into other birds’ waiting arms). It seemed apparent to me that this image references the death of an albatross (and, by extension, potentially the albatross’s extinction). So, it appeared, McEwen structured her dance as a flashback to trace developments leading up to death by plastic.
But as the dance evolved I didn’t see anything like that. Maybe it just glided by me, but what I saw was a dance of albatrosses – certainly pleasant enough to watch and from time to time even quite lovely, with a sense of flow from one point to another – but I didn’t see the movement trajectory, some gradual diminution of ability leading to death, that I’d anticipated by the dance’s opening image sequence. If it was there, it was too subtle – subtlety might be appropriate for a visualization of slow, gradual extinction, but not for a call to arms. Or wings. Nor did I see what I expected to be an easy sell, especially in a piece that celebrates the albatross – something resembling that mating dance, at least not with the clarity I would have expected.
The piece is not helped by its score, composed by Josh Knowles. It has a sense of airiness, but that airiness is corrupted, perhaps intentionally, by an electronic overlay that makes the sound come across as somewhat artificial, and that diminishes the sense of freedom that the airiness is supposed to connote. I sensed this from the dance’s outset. Had that overlay been added gradually as the dance evolved it might have sounded more appropriate. If the score’s emphasis did change at some point in the piece, it, like other applicable factors, was too subtle.
That having been said, at some point during the course of Albatross, maybe half way through, the score was interrupted by an ugly cataclysmic-sounding cacophony of electrified noise. It was so contrary to the rest of the score that I thought at first it was an equipment failure – but the score continued afterward, seemingly as before the interruption. After revisiting it in my mind afterward, my guess is that the sound is intended to represent unseen “garbage” vessels dumping plastic waste into the ocean, resulting eventually in its cataclysmic impact. Even if that’s correct, I didn’t see a commensurate, or sufficient, change in avian behavior, no visual sense of injury or suffering for the audience to sympathetically tap into until the dance’s final moments, when the opening image is repeated and the dance ends. If it was there, as with other factors, it too might have been expressed too subtly. [I’m aware of the argument that plastic poisoning is insidious, and the albatross may not be “aware” that its slowly dying, or show visible signs of it, until it’s almost dead. But even if that’s true, visualizing potential extinction that way, which is what McEwen may have been doing here, unfortunately limits the effectiveness of the dance.]
Make no mistake: McEwen presents imagery of the albatross compellingly, perhaps the finest example of bird or flight simulation that I’ve seen, visually as well as choreographically. [All company dancers wore unitards that progress top to bottom, reverse ombre style, with white bodies gradually yielding to gray legs and feet.] There’s just too much of it; the soaring bird-in-flight imagery dominates the dance, overwhelming any imagery that there may have been visualizing its eventual, and literal, downfall.
A similar absence of impact applies to the second dance on the program, albeit on a smaller and very different scale.
McEwen choreographed Stabat Mater to Arvo Part’s 1985 musical adaptation of the much-revered 13th Century hymn to Mary, sadly standing by the cross as her Son dies. The hymn begins as an expression of Mary’s grief, subsequently converting that into a call for equivalent individual grief and mourning, expressing this expected (and, essentially, demanded) equivalency dramatically as well as fervently. [The hymn’s first stanza translates as: “At the Cross her station keeping, Stood the mournful Mother weeping, Close to Jesus to the last.” By the seventh stanza, however, its focus shifts: “Can the human heart refrain From partaking in her pain, In that Mother’s pain untold?” In its final stanzas, the hymn concludes with a plea to Mary to enable the one who chants the hymn to mourn with her, to share in her grief and tears, to feel every wound that led to Jesus’s death, and to be inebriated (the hymn’s literal word) with Jesus’s blood, so that the supplicant’s soul may escape damnation and go to Paradise. (Quoted translation by Edward Caswell in 1849; unquoted lines are a good faith summary of its final stanzas.)] So the hymn essentially is a challenge, a spiritual gauntlet tossed at the faithful to emotionally walk the walk rather than just talk the talk.
McEwen apparently places the dance where it should be given its origin and nature, inside a church. [“Apparently,” because the set doesn’t clearly replicate the interior of a church.] Instead of church pews, she has worshippers move from one smoothly painted rectangular white or black seat/ bench to another (all of which I’ll subsequently refer to as “pews”), seemingly representing either multiple churchgoing visits over time or one in which the parishioner seems compelled to change positions as he/she wrestles with the burden being assumed.
Showing the process of internalizing grief, with little more until the dance concludes, can be visually ponderous unless it’s accompanied by images that move the viewer’s heart. There are dances that do that successfully with respect to the death of a child (e.g., Antony Tudor’s Dark Elegies), or combatants /civilians in war, or by illness (the examples are too numerous to mention). Here, the situation is different. It’s a problem that McEwen tries to overcome with occasional images of one congregant consoling another, or group movement indicative of some level of animation (as seen in some of the photos provided), but my overwhelming memory is of dancers sitting individually at their pews or circling around briefly in apparent despair with their arms raised like … albatrosses. But, even understanding that the process is supposed to be an internalization, there are still too many stoic faces, with little palpable emotion sufficient to motivate a viewer’s heart.
With a subject like this, and a score like Part’s, and the inspiration of the medieval hymn, the lack of commensurate overwhelming visible passion and the drama that goes with it diminishes the dance’s impact. The grief doesn’t become clearly visible until the dance’s end, when, representing supposed complete internalization of the Mother’s grief and Christ’s suffering, the dancers individually and sequentially pound their fists onto the pew tops, the sound of which continues as the curtain falls. The dance needs more than that. Like Albatross, Stabat Mater can be beautiful to watch, but here there seemed to be more pondering than passion.
Now back to Emily, where every facet of the dances comes together brilliantly.
Dickinson was little known during her life. She was born into a strict Calvinist family in Amherst, MA, where she remained through most of her life. Reportedly she rarely communicated with anyone except via writing. Other than close friends, those who did know her considered her primarily as a gardener – and as one who always wore white. Later in life, she was considered a recluse. She never married, and died in 1886 at age 55.
But Dickinson, mostly in secret, was an impassioned and prolific poet, now recognized as one of America’s finest and most significant.
During her lifetime, Dickinson’s only published material were 10 of her roughly 1500 poems, and a letter (per footnoted references in Wikipedia). After her death, her younger sister found the poems, some of which were subsequently made public in 1890. A complete set of her poetry wasn’t published until 1955, nearly seventy years after her death, though groups of her poems were published between those years.
It’s not clear whether Dickinson’s poetry failed to get published during her lifetime because the poems were explicitly rejected, or because Dickinson wasn’t sufficiently confident in the merit of her work to try. But her hesitation, if that was it, was doubtless created with the expectation that her poems would not meet then contemporary standards, which was an accurate assessment. Indeed, even after her death, until the “complete” compilation in 1955 her published poems were heavily censored, substantively in some cases, in what may have been an effort to hide a suspected romantic relationship with her sister-in-law, but more frequently by altering Dickinson’s style to conform to some rigid norm.
One of those poems, the one that McEwen writes inspired her to create Emily, is a brief (three stanzas, four lines each) poem titled “They shut me up in Prose,” which was first published in 1935. [I’ve found nothing to indicate when it was written.] The poem is a clear expression of Dickinson’s sense of being “shut up” in the commonplace, or constantly lectured or sermonized about what was or was not appropriate for a woman to do, or even think. [The poem doesn’t mention or limit its thrust to poetry; the “They” refers to the patriarchal society into which she was born and within which she lived – although it could also include compliant women enforcers.] Her independence of spirit, as well as her unusual and clever poetic style, is apparent. And the poem validates the belief that Dickinson indeed felt restricted as to what she could write and get published.
McEwen’s dance is clearly structured, as is the score (composed by Polina Nazaykinskaya and played live at the performance by Nazaykinskaya’s associates, Konstantin Soukhovetski on piano and Jesus Rodolfo on violin), into five movements, corresponding to five solos McEwen choreographed for the company’s women dancers. [Actually, these “solos” are primarily segments during which the featured dancer – the “soloist” – interacts with the other seven dancers.]
As much as I gushed over the three earlier Nazaykinskaya dance compositions I’ve heard (the first, “Nostalghia” for Rioult Dance NY – a very unfortunate Covid casualty – some five years ago, was her first composition for dance; the second, “If I Had One More Day” for Alison Cook Beatty Dance; and the third, “Encounter,” last year for MorDance), her score for Emily is a step, or a note, above: it’s an intriguing, entertaining, and melodic piece of contemporary classical music; a summation of the argument McEwen is making; and a work that complements and enlivens McEwen’s choreography.
At the outset, the company dancers [four men (David Hochberg, Dustin James, Tevin Johnson, Joe LaLuzerne) and four women (Emily Cardea, Camila Rodrigues, Claire van Bever, and Lauren Treat)] are gathered on stage, each woman wearing a white corset-like costume crisscrossed tightly up the back, with a little fringe-like gathering around the waist; each man bare-chested in tight-fitting white short pants and rows of what appeared to be white-colored compression tape above their waists. Behind them is a minimal but striking construction hanging centered in front of the upstage black scrim, which occupies a significant part of the stage width (maybe 10-12 feet) and is maybe 3 or 4 feet in height. It appears to be a multi-angled mosaic of mirrors (or glass) that reflects and focuses the muted lighting, thereby amplifying the lighting but also scattering it in different directions due to the angles of the individual tiles /shards. [As was the case for each of the program’s dances, the costumes were designed by McEwen, as was the set; the lighting was designed by Becky Heisler McCarthy.]
As the dancers begin to move to the score, one woman, Treat, emerges (from the group or the audience-right wings, I’m not certain) and attempts to push past boundaries of other dancers, but very quickly she gets nowhere. She returns to the pack. Shortly thereafter, another woman, Cardea, becomes the central figure. As she tries to advance, she’s pushed around (literally) by the rest of the cast (including the other women) who set themselves up as impenetrable barriers. Thereafter another, van Bever, attempts the same, but more fervently and with an apparent higher level of frustration. Every time she attempts lyrical, flowing movement, she’s barred by dancer/barriers that stop her. But the audience now glimpses the type of movement flow that van Bever is trying to assert (as opposed to the rigidity aligned against her), and there’s a sense that the tide is turning.
The next solo woman, Rodrigues, is fitted by the dancers with one of two skirts that had been pre-set downstage. Like the other women, Rodrigues attempts to penetrate barriers, but this time the borders yield, and as the scene proceeds one can finally see how fluid and refreshingly breezy her movement is, and how much better-looking it is than the constricted movement seen earlier. And McEwen obviously selected her solo order carefully: Rodrigues seems the most obviously balletic of the bunch; every move she makes looks smooth and liquid. Part of that is McEwen’s choreography, but part is also Rodrigues, who stood out in each of the dances on the program as the most naturally lyrical and ethereal in the way she moves and carries herself on stage. That’s not to say that the other MorDance dancers were in any way inadequate – they weren’t. On the contrary, the entire group executed McEwen’s choreography capably and with utmost commitment to communicate McEwen’s intent.
After this extraordinarily lovely and thematically groundbreaking segment concludes, and Rodrigues ditches the dress and returns to the group, Treat, who bears an uncanny resemblance to a picture of Emily Dickinson that I found online, emerges from the audience-right wings wearing what appeared to be a full-length (or longer) dress. White, of course – like all the other costumes in the piece. [If it’s not sufficiently apparent, Treat is both the first, and the last, Emily.] Having achieved her goal, she now walks regally diagonally across the stage, as if finally fulfilled; any obstacles either fall aside or pave her way. It’s not clear whether at this point this Emily (Treat) is already dead or just surveying the extent of her triumph. Maybe it’s a little of both.
Part of the structure of the dance, as should be apparent by now, is a linear visualization of both the passage of time and Emily’s growth. The five solos represent Emily at different stages in her life, and/or as depicting five different women serving as Emily surrogates. Providing visual confirmation of this, even though I didn’t notice it initially, is that each of the Emilys who follow the first one wears a skirt /dress of gradually-increasing length atop those constricting corsets (with the fifth Emily wearing what appears to be a “jacket” that replaces or covers the crisscrossed straps).
What makes Emily shine more brightly than the other program pieces is that in addition to representing Emily Dickinson’s struggles and growth, it takes the opportunity to make broader statements. First, her subject here serves as a metaphor for all women’s struggles. Other than wearing white and addressing Dickinson’s challenges and ultimate triumph, Emily applies to all women’s struggles. For example, I didn’t see it this way as I watched it, but what I saw as a mirror or glass mosaic set that amplified and also fractured the available lighting was intended to be more than that. At a post-performance discussion McEwen said that her intent was that the set represent the glass ceiling … broken. And second, although I suspect McEwen might disagree, Emily also can be seen as representative of every-person’s struggle against seemingly insurmountable obstacles. The male dancers also wear confining costumes; and as the Emilys gradually succeed, the men on stage eventually encourage that growth and see the beauty in it. Emily’s success is a liberating event for them as well.
Most important, however, is that Emily is a lovely dance that grips the viewer immediately and never lets go. There’s a pulse and flow to it, a consequence both of the music and choreography, that’s reflected in the visual dynamic of every company member. This is true for the other two dances on the program as well, but not as consistently, and not with the same impact.
The audience’s exhilaration upon Emily’s conclusion was palpable, and the standing ovation it received was well-deserved.
When Emily is performed again, as I’m sure will be the case, it’s well worth seeing. I hope to see more such small company big time masterworks when MorDance returns.