Dance and music reanimate N.C. Murder Ballads

Call it morbid curiosity – true crime murder plots fascinate modern audiences.  But even before the cases of Jodi Arias, Nicole Simpson and Lizzie Borden, North Carolina newspapers carried some of the most tragic “love gone wrong” stories of the 19th century.

The performance is Friday, May 31, at 8 p.m. at the Knight Theater, 430 S. Tryon St.

The performance is Friday, May 31, at 8 p.m. at the Knight Theater, 430 S. Tryon St.

Balladeers have memorialized in song the sad tales of “Poor” Ellen Smith and Omie Wise, both murdered by lovers, and Frankie Stewart Silver, hanged for killing her husband with an axe.  Now the stories of these women will be re-told in a new creation from the University of North Carolina’s at Charlotte College of Arts + Architecture called “Deep Water: The Murder Ballads,” a collaboration of modern dance choreographed by E.E. Balcos and contemporary music written by John Allemeier.

Performed by professional dancers and musicians, “Deep Water: The Murder Ballads” will take place at 8 p.m. on Friday, May 31, at the Knight Theater in Center City Charlotte.  Tickets are $18 and available online at  For a sneak peak at the creative process and to learn more about “Deep Water: The Murder Ballads,” visit

“Modern North Carolina relates to the folk tradition, where stories are handed down from generation to generation,” said Balcos, associate professor of dance at UNC Charlotte, who has toured with professional companies and worked with many renowned choreographers.  “We are passing these stories down again in a special and exciting way.”

The performance of each woman’s story is organized into a triptych: three independent pieces of art that work together as a whole.  Before each piece, the audience will hear the original ballads and stories performed by North Carolina native and recording artist Riley Baugus, a roots music and banjo specialist who has been featured on the “Cold Mountain” motion picture soundtrack and “Raising Sand” by Alison Krauss and Robert Plant.

“The audience will get to see the inspiration and then the finished product,” said Allemeier, associate professor of composition at UNC Charlotte.  Allemeier is nationally recognized; his compositions have been performed all over the world and at national music festivals.

The inspiration for “Poor Ellen” starts with the true story of Ellen Smith who lived in Winston-Salem.  In the early 1890s, Smith had a love affair with Peter DeGraff that resulted in a child who died shortly after birth.  DeGraff later lured Smith to a secluded area and shot her in the chest.  He denied his crime but confessed at the gallows before he was hanged for her murder.

“(The composition is) modern but influenced by folk and Appalachian music,” said Allemeier, who scored the piece for a string quartet with original fiddle tunes and “a lot of strumming and plucking.”

“Hearing certain musical motifs John has drawn and looking at the original song lyrics helps inform the dance,” said Balcos, who based the characters conceptually and sometimes literally in research.  “What did they do in real life?  How were they perceived?” he asked.

The individual dance titled “Deep Water” tells the story of Omie Wise, an orphaned young woman who fell in love with a man named Jonathan Lewis. Her body was found in 1808 in a river near Asheboro.  She had been beaten and was pregnant.  Though Lewis spent a month in jail and escaped, years later he was brought to trial and found not guilty.  He confessed to killing Wise on his deathbed.

The music Allemeier wrote for “Deep Water” is darker and more dramatic as played by a timpani, piano and wind instruments. Balcos’ choreography focuses on movement of bodies in water.  While the plot plays out in dance, the recurring motif of women gliding across the stage harkens back to the romanticized view of death and fatal attraction these stories assume.

“The murder ballad is relevant to modern culture; the place makes it relevant to modern North Carolina,” Balcos said.  Both he and Allemeier appreciate the uniqueness of presenting their new artistic ideas on this “local testing ground,” with professional talent while maintaining academic freedom through UNC Charlotte’s College of Arts + Architecture.

In their six years of collaboration, Balcos and Allemeier have found a unique partnership that truly integrates their individual creative processes.  Allemeier feels “Deep Water: The Murder Ballads” is truly the best of both artists.  Hopefully the audience agrees it’s to die for.

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