POSTCARD: Morgan McEwen, Founder and Director of Mordance, on Motherhood and Searching for Speeches by Female Trailblazers
A ballet is never created overnight.
When I began the process of generating ideas and new movements in 2019 for what would have been our 2020 Spring Season, I never thought that work would remain unfinished and unseen until now, the Spring of 2022. In the span of time between my conceptualization of the work to its presentation later this month, I quite literally have become a different person – I’ve become a mother.
I never thought becoming a mother would change me as an artist.
As a ballerina, I was always mindful to keep my ballerina self and my personal self quite separate, and somehow believed that in becoming a mom, I would be able to do the same. I am so happy to say that this has not been my experience. The birth of my daughter has changed me in ways I cannot describe. She has not only made me a better human, but she has made me a richer artist in so many ways.
Morgan McEwen, founder of MorDance, in the studio
When I set out to reimagine this upcoming season, I was moved by what it meant to be human. My perceptions of the process, of existence, of life and of death had become different now. Creating a precious life, I felt my choreographic voice shift, reflecting humanity through a new lens.
Terry C. Riley’s In C was a score I had stockpiled and had hoped to use one day, but I always felt that the timing wasn’t quite right yet. The minute I first heard my daughter's heartbeat was the moment I knew I was ready to create something real and authentic. To my ears, the continuous C note that's played throughout the score is the beat of human life within us all. The layers that flow freely in the score, produced by various instruments, mimics so clearly the beauty and chaos of life. In February of 2020 I remember sitting in the studio with this music playing. My daughter, in utero, flailed wildly inside of me — true inspiration coming from within. When the work was put on hold by the pandemic, I continued to pour over the score and then when Josephine was born, this chaotic music would hypnotically sooth her. There are so many layers of inspiration with all of this, and I can truly say that my daughter is very much in this work.
MorDance artists in rehearsal
The development of the second piece on our program, Encounters, was also curtailed by the pandemic, but has in the end, become one our most collaborative pieces yet. Every aspect of it, including the title and concept, emerged collectively. During our original meeting, composer Polina Nazaykinskya proposed the idea of having her longtime colleague Konstantin Soukhovetski, an accomplished pianist, perform the score on stage and play an active role in the ballet’s choreography. She described Konstantin’s gestural interactions with the dancers as "encounters" — a word that immediately resonated with me. My grandmother had recently passed away and I was pregnant. The dichotomy and proximity of life and death made me interested in exploring the idea of being connected to people whom we have lost and those whom we have yet to meet. Encounters became a way to encapsulate and expound upon this connection between our world and theirs.
This is also the first ballet I’ve choreographed from the ground up. That is to say, it’s the first time I’ve developed choreography in tandem with the development of a score. Having the freedom to direct the dancers while simultaneously providing input on the music with the composer, pianist, and dancers in the studio, all together, is an extraordinary environment for artistic exploration. Polina’s receptiveness to choreographic detail and Konstantin’s willingness to experiment in the moment has created an inherent fluidity in the work with a complete integration of movement and sound.
The final work for the program entitled Humanism was also begun before the pandemic and continued during the NYC Open Culture program where we created the work during a rehearsal process on 6th Avenue and Spring Street. Like all artists, my dancers and I were starved for a creative outlet and studio spaces had yet to really open in NYC. Dancing outside was the best alternative for us to safely gather and create at the time. Só Dança generously donated dance sneakers to keep the dancers safe since we did not have a typical studio space and floor to work on, and we were contending with city concrete and the harsh summer sun.
Being a female founder in a field that is primarily dominated by the male voice, it has always been one of my goals to celebrate and support underrepresented voices and perspectives. Dance — and art at large — has the great potential to express and negotiate complex contemporary issues surrounding race, gender, and the environment because of its power to transcend language. Now, with incredible uncertainty in the world that has escalated in the last two years, this season feels like an urgent opportunity to use our platform for dialogue, education and awareness. These past two years turned up the volume of the voices that have been silenced throughout history.
Humanism shines a light on the spoken words of civil rights activists with sound bites of resonant speeches spanning across the globe and throughout time. Contemporary in its movement language, the work highlights the voices and causes that both called for change and justice throughout history, while bringing to life a vision for the future generations. Again, through the birth of my daughter I have begun to see the world through a different lens. The value of a breath, the miracle of creation, and a better, more just world I wish for my child to live in are all inspirations that have led my choreographic and collaborative process in a real way.
There are so many incredibly powerful figures in history, and selecting speeches to represent our mission proved to be an unexpectedly difficult task. I struggled for about six months to find audio recordings of several speeches I was interested in using by women like Rosa Parks and Josephine Baker only to find out they were not available anywhere in their entirety. I had learned that ABC was the only outlet that had an archive recording of Rosa Parks’ speech at the Freedom March in 1965, and with the help of the Recorded Sound Research Center of Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division of the Library of Congress I was given a contact who has been monumental in my search. Once I had my foot in the correct door at ABC, I felt I had found a comrade in my search for these recordings and someone equally floored by the fact that these speeches weren’t readily available to the public. At present, my contact at ABC has passed me Josephine Baker’s speech at the March on Washington in 1963. I was overwhelmed with emotion when I finally heard Josephine’s voice. My months of work had paid off and I hope that Josephine is smiling down on me from somewhere. We are still working to find Rosa Parks' speech, but I am hopeful it will come in before our shows. If it doesn’t, I will remount the ballet with a new movement in future seasons — it will certainly be a worthwhile and critical addition to the work. The most mind blowing thing to me was that the speeches given by men at these events are quite readily accessible, yet it took me emailing libraries, foundations, historians, and schools across the country to try and bring these women’s words to stage. It was never an option to acquiesce to the challenges that arose, because I believe that every little girl should hear the words of these women who were fearless trailblazers.
During the unpredictable times of the last two years, one thing has always been certain: the healing, inspiring, and unifying power of art remains. I am thankful for the opportunity I have had to breathe life into these ballets with our team of talented dancers and collaborating artists, and I am thrilled to present this work at Symphony Space on April 29-30, 2022.
We hope to see you there!
All images courtesy of MorDance