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NPR Arts & Life

Dancing Out True Tales Of Murder

Not all love stories have a happy ending. Consider one of the most famous ballets of all time, Swan Lake. The story ends with two lovers drowning themselves when they can’t be together.

But then again, that is fiction. A dance performance this weekend portrays true stories from our region. We already know how these relationships end: with murder in the first degree.

We like to hear a good love story, but we’re fascinated by love gone wrong.

Consider the case of Jodi Arias, the 32 year old woman found guilty of killing her boyfriend in Arizona.

“We're sort of fascinated by it,” says local composer John Allemeier, alluding to the Arias case, “What does this person look like how did they behave?”

This fascination with murder is nothing new. Before mass media, these stories of murder often gained prominence through song. Passed down through generations, many became staples of folk and bluegrass music, like Doc Watson’s rendition of Omie Wise.

These songs about real murders inspired UNCC professors John Allemeier and E.E. Balcos to produce the dance theater work, Deep Water: The Murder Ballads, showing Friday, May 31 at the Knight Theater. The performance retells the story of three North Carolina murders through contemporary classical compositions by Allemeier, and modern dance choreography by E.E. Balcos.

So true, gruesome crimes, set to beautiful music and dance.

“There’s this sort of dichotomy between this beauty and this horrible side of it,” says Allemeier. The subject puts the audience on edge, he says, forcing them to watch closer, and he hopes, get more out of it. “We’re taking the audience from both sides - oh wow this is very pretty but oh wow this is very aggressive. We can pull and push them across this range of emotions.”

The murders portrayed the work all occurred in 19th century North Carolina, in Morganton, Winston Salem, and Asheboro, where eighteen year old Omie Wise was killed. Legend has it she was drowned by her lover in the Deep River. The ballad about Wise inspired the performance, with the line, “He hugged her and kissed her and turned her around, and threw her in deep water where he knew she would drown.”

And that sort of image ended up being the whole picture”, Allemeier says, “these people getting into really horrible situations, the idea of just being in deep water.”

If you’re looking for an old time sound, you won’t find much in Allemeier’s compositions.  The modern classical compositions stray from the original tone, which was something of a moral tale. This work explores the history and emotions of the people within these soured relationships.

The story of Omie Wise starts out on a blue lit floor. Several dancers slide across on their backs, as if floating down a river. Drowned, a dancer playing Omie Wise floats by, too. The bodies become, agitated, rise, and live again. Omie Wise fights once again with her lover and murderer - played by Balcos.

“One thing about these murder ballads, a lot of them have to do with women getting killed, the murder ballads the folk ballads,” Balcos says. “That’s not our message. But in Omie wise, at the very end of the piece she actually gets up and walks off stage. So there’s sort of hope, there’s hope for the woman, she’s not always going to be beat down.”

Deep Water: The Murder Ballads will be performed on Friday, May 31 at 8pm at the Knight Theatre.


  This story is produced through the Charlotte’s Arts Journalism Alliance, a consortium of local media dedicated to covering the arts.