Friday, March 9th, 2012 6:00 AM
A whole lot of Memphians are converging on PlayhouseSquare this weekend. While the Palace Theatre continues to play host to the Broadway musical "Memphis," the Ohio Theatre a few doors to the west is about to welcome Ballet Memphis.
Huh? A ballet company from the city that gave the world Elvis, Jerry Lee, Roy, Otis, Isaac and B.B.? (Do you really need last names?) It turns out -- forgive the ballet more › pun -- that Memphis has been home to Dorothy Gunther Pugh's admired troupe for 25 years.
"We do things our own way, thank you very much," says Pugh, the company's founding artistic director.
"It's interesting that such a small city, and what in some ways is a depressed region financially and in other ways, would actually have so much creative spirit. It's kind of friendly to start-ups with an interesting idea."
Along with soul, rock, blues and other styles that long have flourished in Memphis, the city has opened its arms to Ballet Memphis' refined and vibrant artistry. Part of the reason is the feisty, vivacious Pugh, who recognized from the start that her company would have to reach out to a diverse community.
"I just knew with a European-based art form we could quickly dance ourselves into meaninglessness and irrelevance if we didn't find ways to appeal to as many people as possible," she says.
With Pugh at the helm, Ballet Memphis has never lived in a classical-ballet vacuum. Along with iconic dance works, including story ballets, its repertoire bulges with contemporary pieces inspired by the musical and literary culture of its hometown and region.
Many of these creations are part of the company's Memphis Project, which reflects Southern sensibilities in works set to music by local legends (such as Trey McIntyre's "In Dreams," danced to songs by Roy Orbison) or based on celebrated stories (Julia Adam's "Curtain of Green," a treatment of Eudora Welty's "A Curtain of Green").
The company will perform both pieces this weekend during its Cleveland debut, which also includes Jane Comfort's "S'epaniour," Robert Battle's "Takademe" and Steven McMahon's "Being Here with Other People."
Pugh says audiences around the country are eager to discern the Southern touch in Ballet Memphis' offerings.
"They want our viewpoint from where they are and what they see as our historicity," she says.
Identity entwined with its region
McMahon, a Scottish dancer and choreographer who joined the company in 2004 after studies at the Ailey School in New York, is still trying to figure out how Ballet Memphis' identity is so entwined with its region.
"I'm not from the South," he says. "I'm not even American. I discussed with my mother what it means to be Scottish. I haven't really arrived at an answer because I'm not sure there is one.
"But there's something about the South that's very nesting. People want to make a home here. Talking about the company, we're a family. A lot of us have been here eight years plus."
For Memphis Ballet, choreographic associate McMahon has created everything from "Cinderella" to a full-length version of "The Wizard of Oz" danced to music by some of his favorite British composers (Britten, Holst, Vaughan Williams).
He chose the last movement of Beethoven's Violin Concerto for "Being Here With Other People" (the title is drawn from "On Beauty" by British writer Zadie Smith), which he created in 2009 to accommodate the season's theme, "Joyful Noise."
"It was quite a lofty decision to do that," says McMahon of the Beethoven. "It's big music, and you're having to compete with something that's kind of already perfect. That piece has eight dancers. It's very athletic, and they're jumping around and it's cute and quirky and different from other things I make."
Building stories from feelings
Pugh, a fourth-generation Memphian who majored in English in college, says she seeks out choreographers who -- big breath -- "are not afraid of the written word and will really parse it and live with it and find actual nuggets and what the solid-gold themes are and can build a story."
The company has presented "Romeo and Juliet" and "A Midsummer Night's Dream," for example, but not in massive productions. The Memphis versions are tailored for the troupe's 18 dancers.
One choreographer who shows up often in Memphis is Julia Adam, the company's artistic associate. She was a member of National Ballet of Canada and San Francisco Ballet before she devoted herself to the creative realm.
Several years ago, Pugh handed the Canadian choreographer Welty's short story about loss and told her to make a dance. The result, "Curtain of Green," is set to piano music by Philip Glass.
"This one is deeply emotional, but there's not a lot of story," says Adam. "It's mostly feeling. How do you talk about a grieving woman who lost a husband and went catatonic, in a sense. How do you relay that in a physical way?
"I haven't really grieved hugely in my life. I still have my parents. But I know that obsessive thing where you can't let go or move on."
Adam is among the choreographers Pugh has engaged for an upcoming River Project focusing on the Mississippi. McMahon's section (about Memphis) and Adam's piece (New Orleans) will be previewed next month during an anniversary gala.
"I'm trying to find some authenticity, being a Canadian girl," Adam says. "Ottawa is 40 percent French, so I might go back to colonial New Orleans and tie in old French-Canadian music. It has to resonate with me. I can't just make it up."
Pugh had no idea she would make a ballet company when she returned to Memphis after dancing in Nashville to start a performing arts group for children. It grew into a civic company and, at the urging of donors, soon became the professional Ballet Memphis.
"I said, 'Oh, well, I'll give it a try,' " says Pugh. "I can't say it hasn't been fun. I meet the greatest people. I've gotten permission to do some works by people who are big shots, but when it doesn't work out with the budget I say, 'Sorry, I can't afford you at that price.' "
Ballet Memphis, which has a budget of $3.3 million, is holding its own "by being cautious but maintaining quality," Pugh says.
As part of this effort, she'll head to the West Coast this week to hold auditions (with Adam giving master classes), even though the company has no openings at the moment. Pugh regrets not being able to travel to Cleveland with her dancers.
"I won't see the rock and roll museum," she says. "To think we could have had that museum. Of course, we think we deserved it."
RELATED COMPANY: Ballet Memphis
Sunday, February 26th, 2012 12:00 PM
Ballet Memphis will present FREE Master Classes!
Professional, pre-professional, middle and high school dancers are encouraged to attend.
Friday, March 9th
Ohio Dance Theatre
39 South Main Street #241
Oberlin, OH 44074
Please RSVP to Denise Gula at firstname.lastname@example.org
For Middle School and High School Students
Thursday, March 8th
1375 Euclid Avenue
Cleveland, Ohio 44115
Please RSVP to Sarah Hricko at email@example.com
ABOUT THE COMPANY: Ballet Memphis is now in its 25th anniversary season and is recognized for its close ties more › to the region's rich musical and literary heritage through dance, production and training, including its lauded Memphis Project works. Ballet Memphis has staff and facilities of the highest caliber, and partners with artists from around the globe for collaborative and original works. The Ford Foundation lauded Ballet Memphis as a "national treasure." The company has received grants and high praise from other foundations and national media alike, including the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the National Dance Project, the New York Times, The Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, The Huffington Post, Fast Company, Dance magazine, Pointe magazine and others. It has performed to excellent reviews at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., at the Joyce Theater and the Sylvia and Danny Kaye Playhouse in New York City, at Houston's Dance Salad, at the Festival des Arts de Saint-Saveur (Canada), Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival in Massachusetts, among others.
Don't miss Ballet Memphis in their Cleveland debut!
Saturday, March 10 at 8pm
Sunday, March 11 at 3pm
Ohio Theatre at PlayhouseSquare
Visit www.dancecleveland.org for full repertory and additional information.
Tuesday, February 21st, 2012 10:00 PM
On my recent trip to Minnesota, you might recall, I stopped in for a Saint Paul City Ballet performance and lamented Cleveland's lack of ballet. I was overlooking, it seems, Dance Cleveland's presentations bringing the acclaimed Ballet Memphis to Cleveland for two performances on Saturday, March 10th (8p) and Sunday, March 11th (3p) in PlayhouseSquare's Ohio Theater
While Cleveland hasn't had a company in residence since San Jose Cleveland Ballet more › dropped Cleveland in a dozen years ago -- preceding my arrival in Cleveland -- Dance Cleveland is promising that "If Northeast Ohio still had a classical ballet company in residence, it might look and feel like Ballet Memphis"
The company, now in its 25th year, is headed by Memphis native Dorthy Gunther Pugh has been said to serve as a cultural ambassador for that city's unique cultural heritage.
During their brief stay in Cleveland, the troupe will be presenting a bit of that heritage with a nod to another famous Tennessean: Roy Orbison's voice and six of his most popular songs provides the musical backdrop for Trey McIntyre's "sometimes dark, always passionate" In Dreams, described by the New York Times simply as "Exceptional".
Choreographed by Jane Comfort with music by Memphis saxophonist Kirk Whalum, S'epanouir comes to an end "with a hand-clapping gospel celebration". Though the piece "tells the story of a woman in the depths of an emotional crisis" aided in a transformation by community it is said that the piece has a more joyful quality than is typical for that choreographer's works.
Featuring the rondo finale from the rondo finale Beethoven's Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in D Major, Op. 61 dancer-choreographer Steven McMahnon's Being Here With Other People is said to be an expression of gratitude for the "'home-away from home' atmosphere that Steven McMahnon finds in Memphis"
Rounding out the announced program, Curtain of Green by Juila Adam is inspired by Eudora Welty's story of the same time and is an "abstract retelling of lost love, fear, and madness" revolving around a widow who obsessively tends to a tangled garden and whose rage nearly boils over.
I'm certainly looking forward to the unique expression of ideas that only dance offers.
Ticket prices range from $30-$45 and can be purchased at playhousesquare.org, via phone at 866-546-1353, or to avoid fees in person at the PlayhouseSquare Box Office on Euclid Avenue.
RELATED COMPANY: Ballet Memphis
Monday, February 13th, 2012 12:00 PM
Ballet Memphis Makes Cleveland Debut March 10-11 Company recognized for ties to South's rich musical, literary heritage
Spring will arrive in Cleveland early this year when Ballet Memphis heats up the stage at the Ohio Theatre March 10-11 for the company's debut appearance in Ohio, presented by DANCECleveland.
Tickets for this groundbreaking troupe can be purchased by calling 216-241-6000 or online at www.playhousesquare.org for the Saturday evening performance on March 10 at 8 pm and the matinee on Sunday, March 11 at 3 pm. For the more › matinee, DANCECleveland has a special ticket offer – a Family Four Pack for $60. Purchasers can use the code FAM4 online or by phone to receive the discount.
Known for its thought-provoking repertory, Ballet Memphis will present a program featuring acclaimed work by four choreographers, including the award-winning ballet S'Epanouir by Jane Comfort, set to a gospel tradition score by Kirk Whalum, an eight-time Grammy nominated musician. In Dreams, by Trey McIntyre (former resident choreographer of the company) is set to a score of Roy Orbison love songs. Being Here with Other People, a joyous romp set to Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D Major, was created by company dancer Steven McMahon. Curtain of Green, inspired by the short story of the same name by Eudora Welty, was created by Julia Adam, the company's artistic associate and former dancer with San Francisco Ballet.
Founded in 1986 by Dorothy Gunther Pugh, who continues to serve as artistic director, the establishment of Ballet Memphis was a bold move to redefine the city's cultural landscape. It has evolved into a nationally renowned ballet company performing original dances and classics with a fresh face.
Identified as a "national treasure" by the Ford Foundation, Ballet Memphis has performed in such prestigious locales as Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, the Joyce Theatre in New York City and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., among others.
"If northeast Ohio still had a classical ballet company in residence, it might look and feel like Ballet Memphis," says Pam Young, DANCECleveland executive director.
DANCECleveland is one of a handful of presenters nationally that are dedicated solely to the presentation of modern dance. The centerpiece of DANCECleveland's programming is its annual performance series that is always surrounded by an array of educational outreach events designed to break artistic boundaries and provide community access to the dance aesthetic and dance luminaries that DANCECleveland brings to northeast Ohio.
EDUCATION AND OUTREACH: DANCECleveland educational and outreach programming includes master classes, residency programs, student matinees and pre-performance lectures and post performance Q&A sessions.
For more information about Ballet Memphis, visit www.balletmemphis.org
ELECTRONIC PHOTOS AVAILABLE FROM PAM BARR AT 216-932-5060 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Wednesday, February 1st, 2012 1:00 AM
When Pam Young, the Executive Director of Dance Cleveland, went to Tel Aviv, Israel, to attend the International Exposure in Dance, she had an ulterior motive. Young was looking for companies for future programs. There were 40 dance troupes from 30 countries present. Young was drawn to Inbal Pinto and Avshalom Pollak Dance Company, an Israeli group. She set her sights on bringing them to Cleveland. Young not only succeeded more ›
in getting them to come, but to open their 2012 United States tour at PlayhouseSquare's Ohio Theatre.
Besides Dance Cleveland's usual corporate sponsors, the logistics of bringing in the troupe was provided by the newly formed Cleveland Israel Arts Connection, Jewish Federation of Cleveland, Mandel Jewish Community Center of Cleveland, and the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage.
An Israeli dance troupe. That translates to Klemzer and cantorial music and Sephardic and Ashkenazi folk dances. Right? Wrong!
The Inbal Pinto and Avshalom Pollak Dance Company blew away the capacity audience with the one-act, hour-long production of OYSTER, an ingenious creation which gives the illusion of a circus-world of wandering street people whose intimate artistic vision speaks of truths.
The full-length work is filled with dreamlike qualities which reminds the viewer of the works of Fellini and Tim Burton. It is set to the music of Piazzola, Leoncavallo, Harry James, Yma Sumac and the Tuvan throat singers. The latter is a variant of overtone singing practiced by the Tuva people of southern Siberia. The effect is mesmerizing and lends itself to an almost mystic-like involvement.
The troupe has 13 dancers who range in age from very young to 75 years of age, and are of diverse nationalities and backgrounds.
OYSTER is a series of scenes which are done with amazing fluidity. The movements require great physical control. It is both dramatic and comedic. According to the choreographers, the presentation is constantly being updated through rehearsal, performance, polishing and cast changes.
It's almost impossible to give a blow-by-blow description of OYSTER as it contains ballet, modern dance, gymnastics, mime, acrobatics, flying figures, illusion, dramatic lighting effects, shadow movements and the unexpected - all blending into a fascinating whole.
The printed program contained a column entitled "Dance Matters" by former Plain Dealer dance critic Wilma Salisbury. It was an interesting discussion, not only of Pinto/Pollack, but of why dance is important.
Capsule judgment: It's too bad that the Inbal Pinto and Avshalom Pollak Dance Company was only at the Allen for two performances. The positive word of mouth would have sold out many, many concerts. Let's hope that Dance Cleveland brings the company back… sooner, rather than later.