BWW Review: BALLET MEMPHIS Brings Diversity and a Southern Sensibility to a Run at the Joyce
In the wake of the media frenzy about African-American ballerina Misty Copeland, a recent article in The New York Times by Gia Kourlas applauds the fact that the American Ballet Theatre and the New York City Ballet are featuring black, Asian, Latino, and multiracial dancers "where it matters most: Lincoln Center, home base to both companies".
Talk about Big Apple hubris! Diversity in ballet matters just as much in every community across the country as it does in the city once heralded as the "Dance Capitol of the World" -- a title that should probably be retired now that top-flight dance has proliferated in every state in the union. A stellar example of a company committed to diversity is Ballet Memphis with its 29-year history of celebrating the culture of Memphis and the surrounding Mississippi Delta.
The mission was very much in evidence on the evening of October 30th 2015 when I was in the audience at the Joyce Theater -- arguably as important an NYC venue for ballet as Lincoln Center -- for a mixed bill that also demonstrated the troupe's commitment to commissioning new works to explore themes beyond those of its home region. Kudos to Dorothy Gunther Pugh, Founding Artistic Director, for her on-going contribution to the art of ballet as she continues to helm the company that was identified as a "national treasure" by the Ford Foundation.
The most polished and pleasing piece of the evening was Matthew Neenan's 2011 "Water of the Flowery Mill", a fluid little masterpiece that brings to life the painting with the same title by the Armenian-born 20th century abstract impressionist Arshile Gorky. The costumes designed by Bruce Bui reflect the arresting splashes of color and random shapes of Gorky's 1942 work that was inspired by a mill near his Connecticut home, which purportedly awakened his longing for the garden of his childhood. Neenan, an increasingly important choreographer, gave ten dancers inventive yet not strained movements to a pastiche of very danceable music by Tchaikovsky. I was particularly taken with Hideko Karasawa, a native of Japan who is a tiny powerhouse possessed of stage presence to burn.
The program's opener, "Confluence" by Steven McMahon, was created in 2012 as part of the Ballet Memphis "River Project". This collection of new works, according to program notes, used the Mississippi River "as a catalyst in this nation's young history for moving people, ideas, music, art and religion". Musical accompaniment ranged from the Largo movement of Dvorak's "New World Symphony" to stirring gospel songs by Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples. The nine-member cast danced with infectious joy and first-rate technique.
"Devil's Fruit", a tribute to the "mind-altering power of the mushroom", was choreographed by Julia Adam to excerpts from Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" and music by Philip Glass. This was the least impressive offering of the evening. As the young man seated behind me said, in tones dripping with sarcasm, "Trippy, man!". Adam tells us she is "overwhelmed and amazed by the beauty of the fungi kingdom". Yet all that resulted from the combination of muddled choreographic patterns, a huge fungus of a skirt worn alternatley by several of the women, and umbrella-like mushroom props was a sort of hallucinogenic haze that never reached out across the footlights.
The program's closer, on the other hand, was a winner. Choreographer Rafael Ferreras entitled the work "Politics" and costume designer Bruce Bui dressed two groups of female dancers in theatrical versions of business pantsuits. One group, with hair slicked up in tidy ballet buns or twists, wore pointe shoes. The other group, all of them African Americans, had hair unbound and wore white sneakers. The recorded portion of the music was by Bach, but the seven gospel vocalists on stage who sang songs by Moses Hogan nearly stole the show. They were terrific. So were the members of the sneakered group who performed jaw-dropping hip hop and Memphis Jookin' moves, in particular head gyrations, while grinning with consummate charm. The theme of "Politics" is a confrontation between the two groups that is resolved at the end when everybody takes off suit coats and shoes in order to blend together as a harmonious ensemble. That's a welcome message of hope in this era when racial tensions as well as divisive political partisanship so often dominate the news.
The run, from October 27th to November 1st, marked the first time Ballet Memphis has graced the Joyce stage since 2007. I hope we won't have to wait another eight years before this fine company comes back to remind us that diversity in ballet has long been alive and well outside of New York City.
Photo by Andrea Zucker