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BWW Dance Interview: Morgan McEwen

Morgan McEwen, ballerina turned artistic director, launched MorDance in January of 2013. This young organization, with dancers from some of the world's most prestigious companies, has playfully leapt to The Edge of the classical ballet world. MorDance explores the use of athleticism in its aim to modernize and innovate, while honoring the grace and beauty of classical ballet. MorDance premiered at Manhattan Movement and Arts center on May 3, 2013. That same year, Ms. McEwen was selected to choreograph on MorDance at Socrates Sculptural Park and again at the Counterpointe Project, which celebrated female choreographers creating dances on pointe. In 2014, MorDance helped the Sheen Center open their doors by being the first company to perform in their new black box theater. The following season the Sheen Center named MorDance their resident Dance Company. MorDance has also been granted space residencies at the Silo at Kirkland Farm and Mana Contemporary. Ms. McEwen has been commissioned to create works on Columbia Ballet Collaborative and will create a new work for Eglevsky ballet in 2017. She has also had a successful career as a ballerina dancing with the Richmond Ballet, BalletMet, the Metropolitan Opera, and freelancing across the country.

Q. When did you first become interested in dance?

A. I took my first dance class at age four. Most of my spare time was spent in the studio learning and absorbing etiquette, technique, terminology, determination--a work ethic that transcends all aspects of my life now. I was so lucky to have teachers who valued all aspects of dance forms they were teaching, whether ballet, modern, tap or jazz.

I have such a wealth of knowledge when it comes to dance, despite not having a degree. I learned what it was like to work as a team during corps work, how to push myself in soloist work, and that giving anything less than my very best wasn't going to make me happy at the end of the day. Things like musicality and artistry--I don't think I really developed until later in my training and am still honing today. I believe those two skills are really just imitated as a young student and become more genuine with experiences both in and out of the studio.

Q. You were faced with an injury early in your career. Can you tell me about it?

A. During my sophomore year in high school I became injured. I developEd Morton's Neuroma between the 3rd and 4th metatarsals in both of my feet. Basically the nerve forms a cyst, developing into really bad cramping pain when I would point my feet. My right foot was a bit worse than the left, but after having several injections of cortisone in both feet over the period of about a year, I couldn't take it anymore. Typically, over holiday breaks from my ballet school, I would go in and give myself a little class in the studio and work on exercises. I remember the Christmas holiday break before deciding to have the surgery and not being able to get through a barre without excruciating pain. At the time we were living in Connecticut, and I went to a specialist who operated at Mount Sinai. I remember fighting back tears during the prep for the surgery. All went well; the biggest concern with this particular surgery is that the doctor has to cut your transverse metatarsal and reattach it--if they make it too loose or too tight you can run into some big problems afterwards. I was in a wheelchair for about ten days. After that it was a couple weeks on crutches, then just in surgical shoes, then I started therapy and was allowed to do barre and gradually back to full class and then pointe. I remember the worst part of it all was the loss of sensation at the bottoms of my feet and loss of strength from being inactive. Best of all, I wasn't in pain anymore. The time span of that all was surgery the week before the Superbowl, and then I was back to be Swanhilda in Coppelia for my school's production by Mother's day weekend. Honestly, I am so lucky that up to this point it has really been my worst injury.

Q. Ballet or modern, which appealed to you, or both?

A. Ballet was, and continues to be, my greatest love. I took all forms of dance growing up to help supplement my ballet training, and I enjoyed them all except modern. I had a pretty big aversion to modern dance. I didn't really come to appreciate it until I started dancing professionally. I didn't like floor work or the release or the breath. Now I couldn't imagine life without those things, and I wouldn't be the ballet dancer or choreographer I am without them. Again, being a type A personality, especially as a kid, I loved the structure of ballet and modern didn't have that. But now you need that training. The authenticity and release of the movements and vocabulary of modern dance not only feel amazing as a dancer, but they open so many doors as a choreographer.

Q. Who were your influences?

A. When I started receiving serious training at age 12, and through my start with a profession company, I had teachers who had all trained and danced at NYCB under Balanchine. So I would have to say, via training and learning rep, he has had a huge influence on me as a dancer and a choreographer. In my opinion, his musicality is magical and to have such an extensive body of work that is still so relevant is astounding, I hope this doesn't sound cliché, but "Serenade" is my all-time favorite ballet. I have loved it since I saw it. Hearing the first note from that Tchaikovsky score gives me chills. To have dancers one minute doing barely anything on stage and be just as moved then as you are when they are all a blur of blue tulle is amazing. All of his work with Stravinsky is musically fantastic, "Apollo" and "Agon" being favorites. "Pavane" is another favorite.

As far as direct influences, I've been lucky to have had some amazing teachers in my life.

Patrick Hinson and Michael Tevlin were my first real ballet teachers, and I credit them for really instilling the love of ballet in me and encouraging me to not be afraid of failing and to always dance beyond myself. Patrick danced for NYCB and was a huge fan of Stanley Williams and his teachings. Michael Tevlin was RAD.

I have been taking class from Deborah Wingert since I was 13. Deborah began her training at the Central Pennsylvania Youth ballet under Marcia Dale Weary and then moved on to the School of American Ballet. At the age of sixteen, she was selected by George Balanchine to join New York City Ballet, where she danced for fifteen years with the company. I still take her class today and look to her for guidance and advice as a dancer, teacher, choreographer, and person.

Maria Calegari was also a huge influence in my training and taught me such a great deal.

Q. When did you first begin performing?

A. I did recitals very early on and then "Nutrcracker" with my ballet school when I was 7 or 8 and living in Texas. (My family was a military family so we lived all over). Julie Kent and Paloma Herrera came in as guest artists, and they were the first real ballerinas I ever saw. They really lit a fire in me to work hard. They were spectacular, and I wanted to be just like them. I particularly remember Herrera's legs and feet. Her knees went one way and her feet the other (her hyperextended knees and amazing feet). Everything was done with ease and grace. I was the smallest cook (Our production had cooks that danced during the prologue to Act Two and during the reenactment of the battle.) I had this special role of popping out of the oven at one point, and the Sugar Plum escorted me over to her throne where I got to sit for most of Act II. I just remember being in awe of Herrera as she floated across the stage.

Q. What was the first company you joined? Tell me about it in detail.

A. I first joined Richmond Ballet as a trainee. I attended their summer intensive between my junior and senior years of high school, and they asked me to stay for the year as a trainee. I moved to Richmond and finished high school via correspondence. I spent a year with the company and they wanted me to stay, but it just didn't feel like it was the right fit for me. I attended several open call auditions in NYC and was offered a job with BalletMet in Columbus, Ohio, finding a home at for several seasons.

Q. Tell me about BalletMet, your repertoire, the company, artistic directors.

A. BalletMet was such a great company. The repertoire was great my first year. We did everything, Giselle, Stars and Stripes, Nutcracker of course, and then contemporary mixed rep with pieces by Stanton Welch, John McFall among others

I learned so much from our ballet mistress, Rebecca (Becky) Rodriguez. I can still hear her saying things like "ever so slightly tip your ear a little more left." It was all in the details for her. Our corps work there was immaculate. Becky also had every ballet precisely notated. There was never any doubt or question when things were being reset this way. Now dancing with the Met Opera, everything is relearned from videos, which really dilutes the integrity of the original choreography and leaves opportunities for things to be reset according to different interpretation by dancers performing the roles.

Q. Why did you found MorDance?

A. After spending my early career in traditional ballet companies, I moved to NYC to be closer to my family and dance for the Metropolitan Opera, as well as freelancing. When you are in a ballet company there are typically opportunities for dancers to choreograph on company members for smaller showcases and festivals, such as Houston Ballet II and BalletMet II and companies with large apprentice groups. Dancing at the Met Opera and as a freelancer did not give me those opportunities. In the fall of 2012, I participated as a dancer in the Counterpointe Project, a festival for female choreographers creating experimental works on pointe. Norte Maar, the organization responsible for curating, always does a nice job of getting variety among choreographers. It is a great platform for unestablished female choreographers. After this I told myself that the following year I would present a work in the festival, and I did. I wasn't feeling fulfilled, so I made my own opportunity to do so by forming MorDance.

At this point, I had been dancing for the Metropolitan Opera for several seasons, through some difficult union negotiations that cut full time dance contracts. The job that I had started with had changed. I still am at the Met and do a lot of guesting and freelance work on top of that, but my goal was to create. I remember sitting in my friend Kimberly Gianelli's office in the Rose building at Lincoln Center--at the time she was doing PR for Lincoln Center--picking her brain about raising money to pay a group of dancers to choreograph and video some work to submit to projects and competitions--and she looked across her desk and said that I should start a company. I thought she was slightly crazy, since founding a company at that moment seemed way more than I could handle, but after sitting with it for a bit I knew it was what I wanted long term.

I then, via an indiegogo campaign, raised $12,000 and, with the help of my dad, applied for 501c-3 status for the business. I then formed a board of directors, and began the business side of MorDance. I have been so fortunate along the way to come across people who have been nothing but supportive. I owe them a great deal.

Also, as a female choreographer I think it's important for us to have our voices and visions heard and seen. I know the divide between the amounts of male vs. female choreographers that has been a hot topic in the ballet community. It's my belief time that we as females are responsible for getting our work presented and need not sit idly by waiting for opportunities. I admire Tamara Rojo and the "She Said program" that English National presented. From the clips that I have seen it looked like a truly remarkable program.

However, this is not the norm for our community. Growing up in non ranked ensemble ballet companies as a female, we are constantly doing corps work and being asked to blend in. As we progress, we then get opportunities to shine in soloist work, while still doing corps work. Often our male counterpoints aren't doing extensive corps work and haven't been drilled to blend in and look just like the man next to him. Additionally, the guys tend to not have fully booked rehearsal days, due to less corps work. This offers them time to spend creating and working on projects outside of their own company rehearsals. I really believe that the lack of female presence among choreographers is just a result of ballet culture and environment. We just need to stand out and not hold ourselves back. There is something slightly terrifying about choreographing and presenting a new work, as you are completely exposed and vulnerable to audience approval and a critic's pen. As a female in the ballet world we spend our lives seeking approval from directors, teachers, and choreographer. To then put yourself out there for more criticisms as a choreographer seems daunting.

Q. Tell me about your first ballets and critical response. How did you feel?

A. You know, during our first three seasons I felt like I was living in some sort of bubble, just waiting for it to pop and have someone rail me. I read reviews all the time, and they can be really harsh. We received multiple reviews each season and nothing was really negative in the first three years. I know that not everything I'll be choreographing is going to be liked by everyone. Our second year we attained the Holy Grail, a review by the New York Times that was about half of a page. Again, my friend Kim Gianneli, who I mentioned previously, was the one who got them to the performance and she made sure I knew that even though they were coming, nothing may end up in the paper. She called me up the minute she knew it was out online, giddy with excitement for me. I definitely shook as I read it. For a young choreographer to make it into the Times is quite a shock. Siobhan Burke was the reviewer and gave constructive and positive feedback that accurately described the work that I presented. There were things she liked and things she didn't, and I respect and appreciate everything she said. In the moment right after reading her review, my tendency was to dwell on the things she hadn't liked so much, and that has been and probably will always be my tendency with any review.

You know, I've been in this line of work for almost my whole life, either as a dancer or a choreographer, and striving to be the best you can be is open to criticism that challenges us and makes us think. Bad reviews will always be a slightly terrifying thing for me, but as long as a review is factually accurate, I just have to remember that it is one person's opinion and try to learn from it.

Q. What is the mission of MorDance?

A. We are a non-profit company, striving to be an innovator in the ballet community. We look to celebrate ballet that is modern and inspires, but also maintains the integrity of classical ballet. MorDance aims to broaden the base of support for the art form, foster a greater appreciation for ballet, and develop future audiences through live performances and programs that service schools, families, individuals, and community groups.

My personal inspiration behind the company is to make ballet accessible by creating inspiring, moving, and engaging new works in more casual environments. I felt like there was a period when so many were saying ballet was a dying art form. I really think there has been such a resurgence and energization of ballet, thanks largely to people like Misty Copeland. She has drawn in a new audience to the art form and made it culturally popular and relatable.

Q. Do you have a permanent roster of dancers?

A. Because MorDance is a part time freelance job for dancers, we don't have a permanent roster, but I have a core group of dancers I draw from when they are available. Since I am still an active dancer I usually find dancers by either having worked with them personally, recommendations from colleagues, watching dancers in open classes around NYC, or seeing them in performances.

Q. Tell me about your partnership with Art Start?

A, It's giving back to the community through our outreach programs that we truly fulfill our mission of making ballet accessible to all. Most of our outreach programs focus on at risk and underserved youth in the five boroughs. Our work, specifically with Art Start, has brought us to homeless shelters and schools for court involved youths. We typically work with these groups for about an hour and a half, and they consist of a mini performances and some sort of interactive component. These events are truly the most rewarding part of running MorDance. My dancers and I can help a child escape whatever difficulty they are in for a portion of their day and see them smile and laugh and dance. Words can't describe how rewarding that is. We also invite organizations, including Art Start, to our dress rehearsals and some performances to give these children the opportunity to attend a real dance performance.

Q. What works have you choreographed? How do you go about choreographing?

A. My choreographic approach is one that visits dance in its purest form, exploring the athleticism and precision that exist in classical ballet, but welcoming in an uninhibited musicality and movement that blurs the lines between the classical and contemporary genres. When I am in the studio setting new movement, I try to give the dancers the opportunity to explore timing within choreographic perimeters. I love pushing dancers to reach outside of themselves to achieve new goals and grow. I find inspiration within each dancer I work with and taking pleasure in developing choreography to suite their body and movement qualities. My work has been noted for its quick, petite allegro and angst free partnering, as well as my unique musical selections. So far I have choreographed to djembe music, classical music, popular music, electronic, static sounds and rhythms. I traditionally find such inspiration within the music while not letting it dictate the movement of the work. Let me give you an example: if the music is really heavy and percussive, perhaps the movement can reflect that at moments, but the juxtaposition of lighter staccato movements and a splash of adagio can have a really aesthetically appealing and interesting feel that gives a work depth. I may be inspired by the heavy percussiveness of the music, but to have the movement fall right in line with the music makes it fall flat and feel monotonous to me.

When in the studio, I am pretty direct in my approach. I traditionally start a rehearsal with several movement phrases that I then develop and build on the dancers into the space and with the music. I am very efficient and have a clear sight as to what I want when I walk into the studio at the start of the day. I pride myself on meticulously molding the overall plot and theme of a new work, while maintaining the utmost attention to every detail. It brings me such joy to collaborate with costumers, lighting designers, composers, musicians, and of course, dancers.

Q. You are a small company now. How do you plan to grow?

A. We are still a small company and have continued to grow steadily over the last four years on the artistic side and on the business/finance side. The MorDance board of directors is consistently working on strengthening and growing the company's budget and network. We have recently brought in a marketing director, who is helping to grow our audience. Artistically, I am constantly honing my craft as a choreographer and seeking the best dancers in NYC. With additional funds, I have additional time in the studio with dancers to develop choreography, thus presenting the highest caliber work to our audience. We are looking to bring on other business minded people to help further our growth with festivals, residencies, and other performance events to reach a broader audience. I personally am being asked more and more to choreograph works on outside companies and schools, which furthers the awareness and audience of MorDance.

Q. What can we expect from you in the future?

A. We will have a creative residency at The Silo at Kirkland Farm. Our fifth season will be full of collaborations, live music, guest artists and more performances than previous years. I will continue to push my boundaries and develop my voice as a choreographer and artist. I am so proud of this company, from the dancers, to the board of directors, to all who have volunteered and continue to show their support. We are and will continue to be a company presenting inspiring and moving work.

Photograph: Kelsey Campbell

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