Dancers Trending

The Diversity Experiment at Ballet Memphis

As much as everyone talks about diversity in ballet these days, the barrage of Misty Copeland coverage can sometimes make it seem like she's the only person fighting to break barriers. Just today, Glamour named her one of its Women of the Year for "blazing her own path."

Kudos to Misty, but there many other path-blazers out there, too. Earlier this week, I got to see the work of one I've long admired: Dorothy Gunther Pugh. For over 25 years, the Ballet Memphis director has been committed to leading a company that truly reflects and serves her city, which is over 60 percent black. She's an idealist who's determined to do more than pay lip service to diversity. Ballet Memphis has multiple black, Asian and Hispanic dancers, plus several administrators, teachers and board members of color. Pugh regularly commissions ballets by non-white, non-male choreographers, and invites them to dig into themes not normally seen on the ballet stage—whether that's life in a Baltimore housing project or the relationship women have to their clothing. The company has collaborated with Rennie Harris, Chuck Davis and, recently, female jookers. Like many directors, Pugh gives her dancers opportunities to choreograph, but I met a pair at the Dance/USA conference who told me that she also encourages them to engage with the larger dance community so they can think critically about today's big issues in ballet, like how a company can be a relevant part of its community.

Ballet Memphis and local jookers in Rafael Ferreras' Politics. Photo by Ari Denison, courtesy Ballet Memphis.

So what's the result of this deliberate diversification? An eclectic company bursting with energy, judging by the program at The Joyce Theater this week. The performance was less polished than what you'd see at major companies, but it was also far more idiosyncratic—in a lovely way. Alastair Macaulay wrote in The New York Times about the evening's pieces, "All four are odd; only one proves a complete work of art—Matthew Neenan’s The Darting Eyes—and it’s every bit as odd as the others. But the mood blowing through all of these dances is generous, imaginatively breaking rules."

Virginia Pilgrim Ramey and Jared Brunson in Neenan's The Darting Eyes. Photo by Ari Denison, courtesy Ballet Memphis.

The company boasts some outstanding performers, particularly Virginia Pilgrim Ramey and Jared Brunson. At the same time, a couple of the dancers looked like they could benefit from another year in school. Were they pushed ahead intentionally simply to make the company more diverse? Are the less successful pieces in the repertoire a result of insisting on a range of voices, no matter how green those voices might be? Maybe, maybe not.

Some people argue that pursuing diversity for diversity's sake risks watering down our art form, that it could lead to promoting those less talented on the basis of race and gender alone at the expense of more sophisticated artists who've had greater access to the kinds of resources that come with privilege. (Basically, the affirmative action debate, now with pointe shoes.) I argue that there's far more at stake than sophistication. We have several ballets that are sophisticated. I also want to see ballets that are interesting. I want to be told stories I haven't heard before. I want to be brought into new worlds I don't understand. As much as I loved Matthew Neenan's piece, he would never have made what, for example, Camille Brown created on the company in 2009—and she wouldn't have made his piece. We need more places where both of these artists can share their personal perspectives and work with dancers who bring a variety of different backgrounds to the movement.

Hideko Karasawa in Julia Adam's Devil's Fruit. Photo by Ari Denison, courtesy Ballet Memphis.

By fearlessly taking risks on less-established artists, Pugh is championing examples that can be inspirations for future dancers and choreographers. What's more, she's creating something different from the same-old same-old you find on so many ballet stages. It may not be perfect, but it sure is exciting.

 

Get more Dance Magazine.

Show Comments ()
Cover Story
Alice Sheppard photographed by Jayme Thornton for Dance Magazine

It can be hard to focus when Alice Sheppard dances.

Her recent sold-out run of DESCENT at New York Live Arts, for instance, offered a constellation of stimulation. Onstage was a large architectural ramp with an assortment of peaks and planes. There was an intricate lighting and projection design. There was a musical score that unfolded like an epic poem. There was a live score too: the sounds of Sheppard and fellow dancer Laurel Lawson's bodies interacting with the surfaces beneath them.

And there were wheelchairs. But if you think the wheelchairs are the center of this work, you're missing something vital about what Sheppard creates.

Keep reading... Show less
Breaking Stereotypes
Omar Román De Jesús in rehearsal with Joffrey Academy trainees. Photo by Todd Rosenberg

So far, the fervor to create diversity in ballet has primarily focused on dancers. Less attention has been paid to the work that they'll encounter once they arrive.

Yet the cultivation of ballet choreographers of color (specifically black choreographers) through traditional pathways of choreographic training grounds remains virtually impossible. No matter how you slice it, we end up at the basic issues that plague the pipeline to the stage: access and privilege.

Keep reading... Show less
Get the print edition!
Dancer Voices
Yuka Oba, Ednis Ariel Gomez Mallol and Connie Flachs in Swing by Olivier Wevers. Photo by Ryan Jackson, courtesy Flachs

"I'm sorry, but I just can't possibly give you the amount of money you're asking for."

My heart sinks at my director's final response to my salary proposal. She insists it's not me or my work, there is just no money in the budget. My disappointment grows when handed the calendar for Grand Rapids Ballet's next season with five fewer weeks of work.

Keep reading... Show less
Dancers Trending
"Off Kilter" has real dancers playing dancers. Still courtesy CBC Arts

"It just...always looks better in my head."

While that might not be something any of us would want to hear from a choreographer, it's a brilliant introduction to "Off Kilter" and the odd, insecure character at its center, Milton Frank. The ballet mockumentary (think "The Office" or "Parks and Recreation," but with pointe shoes) follows Frank (dancer-turned-filmmaker Alejandro Alvarez Cadilla) as he comes back to the studio to try his hand at choreographing for the first time since a plagiarism scandal derailed his fledgling career back in the '90s.

We've been pretty excited about the series for a while, and now the wait is finally over. The first episode of the show, "The Denial," went live earlier today, and it's every bit as awkward, hilarious and relatable as we hoped.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance on Broadway
We suspect it will be...a thriller. Giphy

Christopher Wheeldon is going to be giving Michael Jackson some new moves: The Royal Ballet artistic associate is bringing the King of Pop to Broadway.

The unlikely pairing was announced today by Jackson's estate. Wheeldon will serve as both director and choreographer for the new musical inspired by Michael Jackson's life, which is aiming for a 2020 Broadway opening. This will be Wheeldon's second time directing and choreographing, following 2015's Tony Award-winning An American in Paris.

Wheeldon is a surprising choice, to say the least. There are many top choreographers who worked with Jackson directly, like Wade Robson and Brian Friedman, who could have been tapped for the project. Or the production could have even hired someone who actually choreographed on Jackson when he was alive, like Buddha Stretch.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
Stagestep's Encore hardwood flooring for full-service broadcast production facility, dance center and venue, Starwest, in Burbank, CA.

What is the right flooring system for us?

So many choices, companies, claims, endorsements, and recommendations to consider. The more you look, the more confusing it gets. Here is what you need to do. Here is what you need to know to get the flooring system suited to your needs.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance on Broadway
In rehearsal for Dreamgirls. Photo Courtesy DM Archives.

Broadway musicals have been on my mind for more than half a century. I discovered them in grade school, not in a theater but electronically. On the radio, every weeknight an otherwise boring local station would play a cast album in its entirety; on television, periodically Ed Sullivan's Sunday night variety show would feature an excerpt from the latest hit—numbers from Bye Bye Birdie, West Side Story, Camelot, Flower Drum Song.

But theater lives in the here and now, and I was in middle school when I attended my first Broadway musical, Gypsy—based, of all things, on the early life of the famed burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee. I didn't know who Jerome Robbins was, but I recognized genius when I saw it—kids morphing into adults as a dance number progresses, hilarious stripping routines, a pas de deux giving concrete shape to the romantic yearnings of an ugly duckling. It proved the birth of a lifelong habit, indulged for the last 18 years in the pages of this magazine. But all long runs eventually end, and it's time to say good-bye to the "On Broadway" column. It's not the last of our Broadway coverage—there's too much great work being created and performed, and you can count on hearing from me in print and online.

Keep reading... Show less
Get the print edition!
It's already on its way to legendary status. (screenshot via YouTube)

Let's start with the obvious: Over the weekend, Beyoncé and Jay-Z released a joint album, Everything Is Love. Bey and Jay also dropped a video for the album's lead track, which they filmed inside the actual Louvre museum in Paris (as one does, when one is a member of the Carter family). And the vid features not only thought-provoking commentary on the Western art tradition, but also some really incredible dancing.

So, who choreographed this epic? And who are the dancers bringing it to life in those already-iconic bodystockings?

Read the full story at dancespirit.com.

Popular

Travis Wall draws inspiration from dancers Tate McCrae, Timmy Blankenship and more.

One often-overlooked relationship that exists in dance is the relationship between choreographer and muse. Recently two-time Emmy Award Winner Travis Wall opened up about his experience working with dancers he considers to be his muses.

"My muses in choreography have evolved over the years," says Wall. "When I'm creating on Shaping Sound, our company members, my friends, are my muses. But at this current stage of my career, I'm definitely inspired by new, fresh talent."

Wall adds, "I'm so inspired by this new generation of dancers. Their teachers have done such incredible jobs, and I've seen these kids grown up. For many of them, I've had a hand in their exposure to choreography."

Keep reading... Show less
News
MADBOOTS DANCE in MASC. Photo by Scott Shaw, Courtesy Richard Kornberg & Associates

This week, New York City's Joyce Theater presents two companies addressing LGBTQ+ issues.

Keep reading... Show less
Dance Training
Kerollis and students in his 8-week Absolute Beginner Workshop at Broadway Dance Center

When most people think of dance students, they imagine lithe children and teenagers waltzing around classrooms with their legs lifted to their ears. It doesn't often cross our minds that dance training can involve an older woman trying to build strength in her body to ward off balance issues, or a middle-aged man who didn't have the confidence to take a dance class as a boy for fear of bullying.

Anybody can begin to learn dance at any age. But it takes a particular type of teacher to share our art form with dancers who have few prospects beyond fun and fitness a few nights a week.

Keep reading... Show less
Get the print edition!
News
Gina Gibney's organization has grown invaluable to the NYC dance scene. Photo by Scott Shaw, Courtesy Gibney

New York City–based dancers know Gibney. It's a performance venue, a dance company, a rehearsal space, an internship possibility—a Rubik's Cube of resources bundled into two sites at 280 and 890 Broadway. And in March of this year, Gibney (having officially dropped "Dance" from its name) announced a major expansion of its space and programming; it now operates a total of 52,000 square feet, 23 studios and five performance spaces across the two locations.

Six of those studios and one performance space are brand-new at the 280 Broadway location, along with several programs. EMERGE will commission new works by emerging choreographic voices for the resident Gibney Dance Company each year; Making Space+ is an extension of Gibney's Making Space commissioning and presenting program, focused on early-career artists. For the next three years, the Joyce Theater Foundation's artist residency programs will be run out of one of the new Gibney studios, helping to fill the gap left by the closing of the Joyce's DANY Studios in 2016.

Keep reading... Show less
Health & Body
Jay Sullivan Photography, courtesy Julie Granger

Dancers crossing over into the fitness realm may be increasingly popular, but it was never part of French-born Julie Granger's plan. Though Granger grew up a serious ballet student, taking yoga classes on the side eventually led to a whole new career. Creating her own rules along the way, Granger shares how combining the skills she learned in ballet with certifications in yoga, barre and personal training allowed her to become her own boss (and a rising fitness influencer).

Keep reading... Show less

Sponsored

Viral Videos

Sponsored

mailbox

Get Dance Magazine in your inbox

Sponsored

Giveaways