In Autobiographical Show, Alicia Hall Moran Experiments with Song, Storytelling, and Ice-Skating

“Experimentalism” can mean different things; it doesn’t have many rules, except that tradition must be eschewed. When mezzo-soprano, composer, and performance artist Alicia Hall Moran took the floor at National Sawdust on Sept. 15, she gave no indication of where we were going, or how we would get there. Her evening-length work COLDBLOODED, billed as an “indoor ice skating show,” was filled with wonderfully strange and unexpected transitions and invited a host of collaborators to experiment with ideas of genre, narrative, and storytelling.

Moran wandered into the performance space wearing all blue: a form-fitted short dress and matching-length cape, tights, and legwarmers, with a pair of ice skates in her hand. Playing over the speakers was a crushed loop of an ice cream truck jingle. Evoking images of little children, Moran sang a mixture of “I scream” and “ice cream” and “you scream.” When the jingle stopped, she breathed heavily, like a child out of breath who ran after the ice cream truck but didn’t make it in time.

Moran picked up a Black Barbie doll and kneeled on the floor, pulling at its hair, still breathing deeply as the recorded music stopped. “I like ice fishing videos, when they pull that fish out through that black hole,” Moran said in the silence. Percussionist Jacqueline Acevedo emerged from backstage, drum under her arm and wooden shingles dangling from her wrists as a recorded R&B vamp took over. “I used to think my feet would take me wherever I wanted, but I was wrong. I used to think my hands could grant anything I wanted. But I was wrong,” Moran sang, her voice full and wailing, then flexing between smooth and shaky, then choked. “What if I fall?” she asked as the melody cascaded down, before climbing with “I get up, get up, get u—”

The sequence abruptly churned into Moran’s humming, Acevedo giving way to accordionist Nathan Koci of The Hands Free, a quartet that also includes Caroline Shaw on violin, James Moore on guitar, and Eleonore Oppenheimer on double bass. The ensemble re-oriented Moran into the Negro spiritual “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” another surprising shift, and the last musical transition before she intentionally spoke to the audience.

The Hands Free (Caroline Shaw, James Moore, Eleonore Oppenheimer, and Nathan Koci)

The Hands Free (Caroline Shaw, James Moore, Eleonore Oppenheimer, and Nathan Koci)

Throughout the night, it was hard to ascertain whether Moran was pausing to give the audience context and backstory, or whether her chattiness was part of the performance. This disconnect also appeared several times when Moran broke mid-sentence to capture thoughts that were seemingly unrelated to the narrative, sometimes abandoning one discourse altogether for a new one. With a lack of clear structure and no program books, it took the audience time to go with the flow, but everyone eventually felt free to release laughter and applaud when it felt right rather than on cue.

When Moran’s extended dialogue began, it seemed the concert had finally started, with everything that came before as a prelude to what amounted to a memoir. “I grew up in Connecticut, in the suburbs,” Moran began. A recorded piano came over the speakers, disjointed as it filled in the spaces between her words. Moran revealed that the piano recording was of herself, because her fingers are shaky in live performance. In the disorienting span of just a few sentences, she moved from a poem about her home (“Red brick house/sometimes I see/brown deer outside/my family’s brown eyes/my house”), to travel songs about the Great Migration, to Margaret Bonds’ setting of Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”

Margaret Bonds -- Public domain image via the Library of Congress

Margaret Bonds — Public domain image via the Library of Congress

The Hands Free teased their instruments, only tickles of inflection passed between guitar and bass while the accordion and violin serenaded one another. Moran was flirtatious; her voice fluttered like eyelashes, only lightly bouncing on each note before moving to the next.

After establishing her hometown — the woods, cold, snow, ice, frozen lakes — Moran moved to the main attraction of COLDBLOODED: her past as an ice skater. This was a pivotal moment of her aural memoir where she recalled finding pieces of her identity as a young girl, a confluence of people, place, and dreams.

She spoke about two figure skaters: Debi Thomas and Katarina Witt, both Olympic medalists who competed against one another in the 1988 Winter Olympics using Bizet’s “Habanera,” now dubbed as the historic “Battle of the Carmens.” Moran said that she saw herself in Debi Thomas, literally — noses big in the same place, eyes with the same shape, same muscles in the legs. The role of Carmen, often played by Black mezzo-sopranos, specifically sat at the center of COLDBLOODED, Moran’s dream accomplished. Accompanied by guitarists Thomas Flippin and Brandon Ross performing the “Habanera,” Moran spoke, rapped, and sang, while dancer Olivia Bowman-Jackson embodied Carmen.

Alicia Hall Moran -- Photo by Renaldo Davidson

Alicia Hall Moran — Photo by Renaldo Davidson

The Hands Free took over, transposing the Habanera into something wacky with scratches on the fingerboards, sliding up and down the strings like ice. Moran laced up her skates, and without warning, climbed atop a previously unnoticed block of ice to skate with ice dancer Sarah France.

National Sawdust is a venue dedicated to experimental artists — and with its unmatched acoustics, paired with stellar sound and lighting, many artists have been able to show astounding new experimental works. But Alicia Hall Moran flipped the script, using her voice for both speech and song, and experimenting with the audience by calling us to readjust how we experience non-linear narratives through music — and how we define music overall.


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