Choreographer E.E. Balcos turns to dark subject matter as inspiration for many of his dance creations, so when composer John Allemeier approached him with a project focusing on North Carolina’s murder ballads, he welcomed the opportunity.
At 8 p.m. Friday at Knight Theater, seven dancers from E.E.Motion and 11 local musicians will present “Deep Water: The Murder Ballads,” a contemporary account of North Carolina’s gruesome history told through Balcos and Allemeier’s choreography and music.
One of the most distinct musical genres contributing to North Carolina’s rich folk history, murder ballads tell stories about love gone wrong. In the 19th century, the news of a jealous woman or vengeful man killing their partner often spread through song, but the music was typically set to jocular melodies and rhythms appropriate for dancing.
Perhaps the best-known murder ballad is about Tom Dula (transformed in song to Tom Dooley) of Wilkes County, who murdered Laura Foster: “Hang your head, Tom Dooley, hang your head and cry/ You killed poor Laurie Foster, and you know you’re bound to die.” The juxtaposition of buoyant tune and gruesome tale is part of what drew Balcos and Allemeier to the ballads.
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“The polarity opens the audience up a little bit more for us to provoke some sort of emotional response,” Allemeier said. “There are these touching beautiful things they perceive, but that’s layered with this horror.”
Balcos and Allemeier chose to focus on three murder ballads for Friday’s show: “Poor Ellen Smith” from Winston-Salem, who was shot through the heart; “Omie Wise” from Randolph County, who was drowned; and “Frankie Silver,” who murdered her husband with an ax in Burke County. Each piece clocks in at around 20 minutes.
Before each of the three pieces, folk musician Riley Baugus will perform the traditional murder ballad that inspired the contemporary works. Baugus’ playing and singing represented authentic ballads in the film “Cold Mountain.”
Balcos and Allemeier have worked together for approximately six years, both serving on the arts faculty at UNC Charlotte. Previously, Balcos choreographed music by Bernard Herrmann, who wrote the scores for many of Alfred Hitchcock’s films. Balcos’ first collaboration with Allemeier, “Dark Dances,” also sprang from a morbid place.
“Mystery and crime are intriguing,” Balcos said. “It’s those kinds of stories that have repeated themselves over centuries, and they really attract a lot of people. That’s why people are attracted to “CSI,” “Bones” and scary movies. They live vicariously through that – maybe their dark side gets to have a cathartic moment.”