The Memphis Beat

December 19, 2010

It is a city that finally, and seemingly all at once, has sunk its hooks into the American psyche. Flip through the cable channels and you might see a cop show called Memphis Beat starring Jason Lee, or reruns of the reality series Police Women of Memphis, or the new cheerleading drama Hellcats, set at a fictional Memphis college. Stroll down Broadway in New York and you’ll run into Memphis, the Tony-winning musical with an interracial love story. Playing nearby is Million Dollar Quartet, a show about the city’s rock ’n’ roll juggernauts: Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and legendary producer Sam Phillips.


Gritty, soulful, Southern-fried, rebellious, conflicted. It’s no wonder that the city’s oldest and largest dance company, Ballet Memphis, wrestles constantly with its sense of purpose.


“Being a cultural ambassador is an important part of what we do,” says founding artistic director Dorothy Gunther Pugh. “Not just so someone at the Convention and Visitors Bureau can be glad for the national press. That’s not what we’re about. We want to expand the conversations about our entire body of culture.”


With a budget of $3.4 million, and a crop of 18 dancers (including two apprentices) signed to 38-week contracts, Ballet Memphis has quietly commissioned a uniquely “Southern” repertoire over the past 24 seasons. Locals, it stands to reason, hardly recognize the outside appeal. They still get the traditional Nutcracker in December, a classical story ballet in the springtime such as Sleeping Beauty or Romeo & Juliet, and even the occasional contemporary dance by Robert Battle, Mark Godden, or the French-Algerian Abou Lagraa.


But when Ballet Memphis leaves its nest—and there’s been more of that lately—critics have taken a shine to the company’s “Memphis Project” works, which tap into the roiling emotions, the race and gender politics, and the persistent myths of Southern culture.


A Curtain of Green
, a tense and delicate ballet based on the short story by Mississippi writer Eudora Welty, examines race, desire, and lost innocence. The company turned Kate Chopin’s proto-feminist novel The Awakening, set in turn-of-the-century New Orleans, into a dance that captures the frustrations of a woman locked into pre-determined gender roles. Both ballets, choreographed by Julia Adam, intrigued critics when Ballet Memphis made its debut at The Joyce Theater in 2007.


As part of the Kennedy Center’s Ballet Across America II series last June, the company showcased Trey McIntyre’s In Dreams, which channels the aching romanticism in the music of Roy Orbison (“Dream Baby,” “Crying”), who cut his early records in Memphis. Last season, choreographer Jane Comfort, a Tennessee native, collaborated with the Memphis-raised jazz saxophonist Kirk Whalum on S’épanouir, an abstract dance that Comfort described as having a “joyful” quality that is unusual in her work. It concludes with a hand-clapping gospel celebration.


“If part of our mission is to give a voice to our regional culture, then you have to look at the two art forms that this part of the country is really famous for: music and literature,” Pugh says. “You know how they say that a writer should write what he knows? Why shouldn’t you dance what you know? Why shouldn’t we add to the richness of the body of work that is already so important here?”


Capturing the soul of the city isn’t as simple as setting dances to the music of Johnny Cash or B. B. King, though that’s part of it. Some of the “Memphis” connections are weirdly unconventional.


McIntyre’s Pork Songs, originally made to accompany a dish at a fundraising banquet, has stuck in the repertoire. The company had no reservations about performing it at the 2009 Southern Foodways Alliance symposium in Oxford, Mississippi. As much as Southerners love their barbecue, McIntyre’s dance—in which a ballerina portrays a graceful, frightened, and soon-to-be-slaughtered pig—has a curious effect on someone digging into a mess of chitlins.


Numerous food bloggers and even an editor at Gourmet Magazine took note of the feat. “People certainly don’t think of a ballet company dancing about food,” Pugh says. “But we look at it as reaching out to communities that aren’t part of the usual dance world.”


Pugh, now in her 50s, is among a small minority of female artistic directors of similar-sized companies. She never choreographs, but considers her role to be a “nurturer” of dance. She chooses guest artists based on their willingness to discuss ideas on the front end, and accept criticism on the back end. “I like to engage people in the thought process,” she says. “The ones who enjoy conversation are the ones that work well here.”


In college, Pugh turned down a job dancing with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre to pursue a degree in English lit. She also danced with a company that was a precursor of the Nashville Ballet, but moved back home to Memphis, where six generations of her family have lived. She took over a dance school run by her childhood ballet teacher. At the time, there were two small dance companies in the city. After both ultimately folded, she emerged with a small company of her own, Memphis Concert Ballet, in 1986, with just two full-time dancers. At 24 dancers in 2001, Ballet Memphis reached its largest company size, though the budget is larger now.


In 2000, the Ford Foundation called Ballet Memphis a “leader among the country’s outstanding regional ballet companies” and surprised Pugh with a $1 million challenge grant. The recognition caused her to take a fresh look at the company’s “voice.”


“I saw a major ballet company in Europe perform Giselle,” Pugh says. “It was technically beautiful, but the whole performance was a toss-off. I didn’t think the dancers had been coached in the particulars of that story—of stepping where society has told you not to step, of loving who society tells you not to love. When we do a 200-year-old work, I want to do it different. I want to know how it fits into the context of our lives.”


Ballet Memphis has sought new contexts for itself in the city as well. The company recently shifted most of its season from a 2,500-seat venue to a newly built 344-seat space run by the city’s professional theater company. The dancers say that additional performances and the double-casting of roles lets them refine their craft. Other venues this year, outside of schools, include the company’s studio, a community center, and the Memphis Zoo. The change to more intimate spaces has appealed to an increasing number of people in their late 20s and 30s.


The company’s dancers frequently make new works, many of which are influenced by the city’s musical energy and heritage. Former dancer Garrett Ammon has set works to everything from blues to rockabilly tunes.


“You definitely get a music education living in Memphis,” Ammon says. “I left with this deep respect for American music that you don’t really appreciate when you’re there, but then you’ll be in a coffee shop in some other part of the world and hear a song and realize the impact. I think Ballet Memphis is one of the few companies that has taken a big leap by saying that rock or blues music is just as valid as other musical forms.”


Ammon and his wife, Dawn Fay, also a dancer, left Ballet Memphis in 2007 to run Ballet Nouveau Colorado, a contemporary dance company that was a Dance Magazine “25 to Watch” in 2009. Ammon keeps making rock ’n’ roll dances. As a frequent guest choreographer at Ballet Memphis, he says the troupe has a particular aesthetic.


 “There’s incredible cleanness and grounded-ness wrapped around this explosive energy,” Ammon says. “It’s kind of passed on from one dancer to the next. There’s also a kind of ‘Southern’ refinement. It’s very distinctive.”


It’s also a mysterious quality; scant few of the dancers are from the South. In fact, they hail from all over the world, are of wide-ranging heights and complexions, and have varying levels and styles of ballet training. (A third of the company is composed of people of color. However, audiences are still predominately white.)


The company’s current choreographic associate, Stephen McMahon, is a tall 26-year-old from Scotland who graduated from The Ailey School. In his seventh season with the company, McMahon still wonders what that “Memphis” quality is.


“I’m trying to figure it out,” he says. “But I also know that this is my home now. So no matter what, I’m invested in it. Maybe it’s that sense of family that we have.”


The dancers all point out the camaraderie. They live near each other, go out on the town together, give each other notes, and tend to stick around for a while. The oldest hand is Crystal Brothers, now in her 15th season.


“The first thing people learn when they get here is to loosen up and find their groove,” Brothers says. “In a way, you have to drink the sweet tea and eat the ribs. We have a lot of strong women in the company, and it’s run by a strong woman. Dorothy doesn’t expect wallflowers. She’s looking for people with something to say, people who can tell a story.”


Pugh continues to redefine and expand on the idea of what a Memphis company should look like, and what it’s supposed to tell the world.


As the city itself seems to be saying these days—on television and Broadway, in the films of Craig Brewer and the music of popular bands like Magic Kids—Pugh’s best attempt to sum up what she’s reaching for might be this: “I want us to be an ‘American’ company,” she says. “American in the sense that we continue to open doors and windows and invite new ideas in, but also respect the old ones. It matters to me that our programs have a reason for being, and that all our dancers and choreographers are engaged in understanding that mystery.”



Christopher Blank reports on the arts for public radio, newspapers, and magazines in Memphis and the Mississippi Delta.


Pictured: Crystal Brothers is Travis Bradley’s
Sleeping Beauty. Photo by Andrea Zucker, Courtesy Ballet Memphis.