BWW Interview: Ballet Memphis's Dorothy Gunther Pugh

Ballet Memphis, under the artistic direction of Dorothy Gunther Pugh, will return to New York City's Joyce Theater (175 Eighth Avenue) for the first time since 2007 for a limited run this October. Performances begin Tuesday, October 27th, 2015 and run through Sunday, November 1st, 2015.

Ballet Memphis will present six original works in repertory during the run, all commissioned by and created on Ballet Memphis. These works will include Matthew Neenan's The Darting Eyes: Moving Currents (2014) and Water of the Flowery Mill (2011); Julia Adam's Devil's Fruit2 (2013); Gabrielle Lamb's I Am A Woman: Moult (2015); Politics (2014) created by Ballet Memphis Company member Rafael Ferreras Jr; and Confluence (2012) created by Ballet Memphis Artistic Associate and Company member Steven McMahon.

Broadwayworld Dance recently sat down with Ms. Pugh to talk about Baller Memphis, her philosophy about dance, and the company's return to the Joyce Theater on 10/27.

Q. As a native Memphian, where did you study growing up?

A. I studied with a woman named Margaret Smith, who was versed in the Cecchetti method. She may have danced in Italy, but I'm not sure where. She had so much passion and fire and loved teaching dance to children. I felt very cared for in her presence. I then went to Louise Rooke, also an accomplished musician and costume designer, who was a student of Edna McRae, a strong influence on Robert Joffrey. There were no strongly established American' ballet schools such as the North Carolina School of the Arts when Edna McRae was starting out, so she traveled to the European academies, adapting the Royal Academy of Dance syllabus into our curriculum. When Edna retired she gave all her notes on how to teach children to Louise and all her notes on how to teach professionals to Robert Joffrey. At an early age, I was deeply affected by two outstanding female pedagogues who already had hundreds of children under their tutelage.

Q. Was Edna McRae's time in England an impetus for you to study there later?

A. I did ta three week teacher training course in England, where I already had family. The curriculum was very precise: planning, being organized, and not "winging" it. Good ways to engage students. Europe is a very "exam-oriented" culture. I just realized how that world wouldn't work in America, where we are supposed to be more egalitarian. But I also knew that we had a long way to go to really think out the role of classical ballet in our American society and democracy.

Q. Did any major ballet companies come to Memphis during your formative years? Any influences outside ballet?

A. I particularly remember the National Ballet of Canada coming to Memphis with Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn as guests. I saw Fonteyn again when I was in college performing the balcony scene, but once you got eight notes in, you forgot all about that.

Outside ballet my maternal English-born grandmother was a woman ahead of her time and a bit of a renegade. She stepped out of the role that would have been prescribed to her and became a Montessori teacher, later moving to America.

Q.You went to college at Vanderbilt University. What did you study there? Were there any dance programs at the university?

A. I studied English Literature at Vanderbilt. There was a new track where you could write your mini master's thesis as an undergraduate. So I did this and compared rational vs. irrational literature. The approach of head vs. heart was always appealing to me. As a sociology minor, the science of operating as a person in society was always very interesting to me as well. I really struggled with whether or not I would audition after high school for a professional company, but everyone in my family went to college, so I did as well. While I was at Vanderbilt, I went to classes in Nashville, studying with some fantastic teachers. For example, one was an African American man who was teaching at Fisk University and had danced with the Ballet Rambert, Alvin Ailey, and Martha Graham. Another teacher was a woman who had danced with the National Ballet of Canada. It was a wonderful melding of styles. I stayed in Nashville after graduation and taught English in an urban junior high school. I also had the opportunity to dance professionally with the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, but I turned it down to start what would become Ballet Memphis.

Q. What was the impetus behind starting Ballet Memphis?

A. I had been a teacher and loved working with children. My college summer job was directing a day camp in Memphis. I was terribly affected by the civil rights movement and the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as well as influenced by the nuns from Boston who educated me at St. Agnes Academy, an all-girls Catholic school. This all led me to find whatever brings beauty to this world and to present it to as many people as possible; it couldn't be exclusive. We, as artists, should be in service to the world, and this thought carries me to this day. We had to be part of the fabric of progress in Memphis and hence for people everywhere.

Louise Rooke wanted me to take over her school when she retired. So I was faced with the choice of dancing professionally in Pittsburgh or coming home to what I knew needed grow and nurturing. I wanted to be the leader and create. I also knew that I wanted to have an unranked company. It's more American, and even as the company has grown in size we've kept it unranked.

Q. Can you describe the growing pains of the company?

A. I had such understanding supporters who believed in me, and still do. But the growing pains are always there. It's the assumption that so many people have about ballet--that it's not for them, a 'sissy' thing, a white thing. We always have explored and pushed the boundaries of this type of thinking to make what is truly American dance. We started with two dancers and now have more than 30.

Q. What's your repertoire like?

A. I think it shows believing deep down that we as ballet dancers are a living, changing language, and we have to use our language to wrestle with what is good and bad in the world. We need to think, quest, examine who is making our art and why. That is why we commission more original work than any other U.S. dance company our size.

Q. Do you have a school attached to the company?

A. Most definitely. I started a young performers group, which turned into a civic group and then turned into the professional company. We currently have 700 young bodies coming and going into our school each week.

Q. Where has the company been presented?

A. This marks our third trip to New York City, and the second to the Joyce Theater. We have danced at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. We've toured internationally to Paris, Canada, and Guatemala and across the United States. Many of our dancers have competed in prestigious international competitions such as IABC in Jackson, Mississippi and in Helsinki, Finland. Two of our dancers, Hideko Karasawa and Kendall G. Britt Jr., were the only U.S. company representatives at Ballet Asteras in Tokyo.

Q. What's the role of the company in the community?

A. We're the only true, fully professional ballet company in this region. Our standard of excellence is high, and our core value of bringing people to the table is highly appreciated in the community. It is inspirational to many people to see works that are relevant to them and their lives performed in their city. We've danced work about race, about dance, about nature, about gender issues, etc., and all without pounding people over the head. We're a part of that story.

For more than 20 years enrichment and engagement have been core values of Ballet Memphis. We started with school performances in schools and in community centers. We are now focusing on key neighborhoods in Memphis, because research has shown that these underserved children need daily focus and role models. We have always our company reflecting our city's population and how it is increasingly changing. And we want to have many voices at the table. This is called our "I Am: We Are" initiative. It's a multi-pronged effort with a three-year grant behind it to greatly enhance the work we're able to accomplish. For the professional company, it will expand the markets from which we're able to recruit. We believe and practice the concept of "citizen dancer."

Q. You serve on several panels. Can you give me some insight into your work with these panels?

A. I serve and have served on many panels, but the panel that matters the most right now is the EID (Equity Inclusion Diversity) committee for Dance/USA. It speaks to what I have worked towards for years, and it is of absolute importance.

Q. What can we expect from you in the future?

A. A brand-new building in the heart of the thriving Memphis arts district, where a variety of things will happen. We're in the final planning stages, and the property has been purchased. The building itself speaks to our vision and is truly remarkable. We are hopeful that "I Am: We Are" will become a sustained project as well as a pilot for other companies to use should they want to emulate it.

Ballet Memphis runs October 27-November 1 at The Joyce Theater. The schedule is: Tuesday & Wednesday at 7:30PM; Thursday & Friday at 8PM; Saturday at 2PM and 8PM and Sunday at 2PM.

Tickets start at $10. Call Joyce Charge at 212-242-0800 for $10 tickets. All other tickets can be purchased online at The Joyce is located at 175 8th Avenue in New York City.

For more about Ballet Memphis, visit

Photograph: Ari Denison

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