Ballet Memphis Wants its New Home to Make Connections

August 24, 2017

When a dance company builds itself a new home, the typical goal is more space and better amenities. But with the right architecture and location, the building itself can serve another purpose: great exposure.

That’s what Ballet Memphis had in mind when it built its new $21 million home right on the hottest corner of the city’s midtown entertainment district. “If you’re going to survive, you need to be seen,” says the company’s founding artistic director and CEO Dorothy Gunther Pugh. “You have to make contact with people’s lives.”

Along with the usual dance-company necessities inside this 38,000-square-foot facility are five versatile studios and a corner café. Large, street-level windows give the public a close-up of works in progress. They can interact with dancers on break, watch a rehearsal or have lunch in a courtyard surrounded by movement.

A rendering of Ballet Memphis’ new facilities. Photo courtesy archimania/Ballet Memphis

For Pugh, the building represents more than artistic and financial success. It’s a philosophical shift in the company’s direction. For two decades, Ballet Memphis was headquartered in the suburbs. “Our dance school enrollment doubled,” Pugh says. “But we were out in ‘Big-Box Land’ next to a Walmart. Our professional dancers lived in the city. There’s no public transportation. It wasn’t the place for us to sustain or be connected.” Pugh also wanted to forge a stronger relationship with Memphis’ diverse dance community—a spirited amalgam of jookin’, hip-hop and contemporary dancers. The building is primed to host festivals, performances and community-wide events. “The world is constantly changing, and we can’t freeze,” Pugh says. “We’re always moving into unknown territory.”

Ballet Memphis hopes that its new building flips an old local narrative and shows that ballet is not a rarefied import from the ‘burbs, but a vital part of the urban conscience. Getting the community in step is the final piece of this architectural choreography.