The Murder Ballad
Reviewed by Devin Weil
Poor Dog Group at REDCAT
The audience watched entranced as performer Jessica Emmanuel took the stage. With its white floor and white screen backdrop, the stage was almost bare, except for a desk, a tape recorder, and a lone chair (Set Design by Efren Delgadillo and Jesse Bonnell, Lighting Design by Adam Haas Hunter).
In a matter of seconds Emmanuel ignited the rage and rapture expressed in Jelly Roll Morton’s bluesy 1938 “The Murder Ballad.”
After pressing play on the tape recorder, Emmanuel dove into the antiquated tune whose words still resonate today: words that weave adultery and violence into the solemn reality of a so many human relationships.
Emmanuel’s moves mirrored the mournful words of Morton’s ballad: moves that were morbid, and grotesque. She married paradoxically jagged and graceful movements, with swaying, swirling, slithering and pounding. (Sound Design by Andrew Gilbert, Technical Sound Design by Martin Gimenez). Her movements were magnified by her facial expressions that spoke legions beyond Morton’s words, and even his music.
Emmanuel crafted emotion with each feigned smile and glaring scowl. In addition, male dancer Jesse Saler joined Emmanuel towards the final beats of the show, mimicking her moves, yet with his own dark and powerful aura.
Poor Dog Group has been developing this piece for about five years now. (It was first performed at the Hollywood Fringe Festival in 2010 and then at REDCAT in 2012).
The performance is consistent with co-director Jesse Bonnell’s claim that Emmanual’s dance techniques allude to Butoh, a Japanese dance form that emerged from the horrors of World War II. The philosophy of the dance underlies a theme of communing with the dead, a reflection upon personal and national trauma.
There is grotesqueness to the dance, rendering The Murder Ballad as a gaze into the past. In that gaze, one finds the scars of history that cease to heal. Our past haunts us, like luggage we cannot unpack.
In word after word of the song, the storyline delves deeper into the unraveling of a woman’s gritty malevolent act and its consequences. The production company, Poor Dog Group, leaves you lingering in the darkness of the history, in a kind of death, disturbed yet enraptured.