Donald Rosenberg | March 09, 2012
Ballet Memphis' Southern roots nurture a distinct style of creative storytelling
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 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."