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Impressions of: Ballet Memphis at The Joyce

Impressions of: Ballet Memphis at The Joyce

Published on November 9, 2015
Photo: Ari Deniso

Program B: Confluence, Water of the Flowery Mill, Devil’s Fruit, Politics

Presented by: The Joyce Theater

Dancers: (company members) Travis Bradley; Kendall G. Britt, Jr.; Crystal Brothers; Jared Brunson; Charles Cooper; Anwen David; John Deming; Jonathan David Dummar; Rafael Ferreras; Eileen Frazer; Alberto Gaspar; Alexis Hedge; Hideko Karasawa; Cecily Khuner; Sergio Masero-Olarte; Steven McMahon; Lydia McRae; Elizabeth Mensah; Julie Marie Niekrasz; Olivia Powell; Lauren Pschirrer; Brandon Ramey; Virginia Pilgrim Ramey.

(guest jookers in Politics) LaShonté Anderson, Ptia Reed, Carmen Savage, Tia Waller

Vocalists: Brock Julian Brown; Wynn Earle, Jr.; Hannaan Ester; Frank Johnson; Sameka Ballard Johnson; Kenya Kanika Nichols; Montanez S. Shepherd

Choreography: Steven McMahon (Confluence), Matthew Neenan (Water of the Flowery Mill), Julia Adam (Devil’s Fruit), Rafael Ferreras (Politics)

Pictured above: Hideko Karasawa in Devil's Fruit

For its second visit to The Joyce in eight years, Ballet Memphis (from Tennessee, not Alabama) brought two evenings of new, somewhat startling American choreography—repertory whose images address large, philosophical issues. Traditional modern dance once purveyed big themes regularly, of course. Just the week before, at The Joyce, the Limón company was giving some powerful demonstrations of story-and-character-driven barefoot dance theater, showcasing moral hierarchies and situations associated with life-and-death choices guided by “Family of Man” humanism. However, a stylistic aspect of the Ballet Memphis works, at least those I saw, is that they aren’t narratives; and, although they offer figures in relationships with dramatic implications—with the suggestion of dramatic backstories—these figures are not characters. A world is presented, then it is explored, or perhaps the word is unscrolled; but its dynamics (its physical and gestural patterns patterns of change) remain the same from curtain to curtain. They're like Medieval or early Renaissance tapestries: highly detailed but also fixed, static, in their iconography. The moral choices that matter have been made before the first footfall.

Steven McMahon in Devil's Fruit; Photo by Ari Deniso

Nor is this a modern dance company.

There was the ballet about social classes, the ballet about the botanical environment, the ballet about the collective sensitivity needed to live local. And I mean “ballet” in a literal sense, with a company of classically trained dancers, the women often on pointe and with turnout and Cechetti placement required of everyone. Even when, as in Devil's Fruit, the subject is (in the words of choreographer Julia Adam) “the science, the pagan mythology and the mind-altering power of the mushroom to initiate one into the mysteries of the divine,” the dancers are speaking the language of the danse d'école for the most part, with a musicality in which the dancing adheres to the accents and, frequently, the bar lines of intricately tessellated musical scores derived from sources that stress meter and melody. (There were also links to the past in the costume designs. Christine Darch's artisanal 19th-century tutus of transparent lace and a Worth-worthy ballgown of silken moss for a mysterious mushroom on the move deserve to be nominated for a Bessie award.) Finally, although the company brought only newly commissioned works to the Joyce on this occasion, it has a much more diverse repertory back home, too—a traditional Swan Lake, for instance; a Romeo and Juliet. As those in the audience for the talkback the night I attended learned from one of the dancers, the Romeos and other European literary inventions are performed by Ballet Memphis artists whose skin tones vary from milk to mocha. If there is a ballet company in the United States that takes racial integration more seriously than this one, I'd love to know about it. 

Crystal Brothers and Rafael Ferreras Jr. in Matthew Neenan's Water of the Flowery Mill; Photo by Ari Deniso

The company’s effort to diversify the dancers’ ranks seems a major aspect of its mission. Another is physical beauty: Olde Style, Hollywood-photogenic faces and long-thighed bodily elegance. Women and men are also physically strong and athletically adept, and they’re well-schooled, or well-drilled, in their ballet, with at least one of the men performing crystalline gargouillades and another tossing a ballerina into double air pirouettes high off the ground on one musical chord then catching her mid-air on the next, as lightly as if she were a Number 2 pencil. The musical precision of the dancers and their attention to clarity are most admirable, although, given its effect of continuous high tension, their unrelieved intensity is also exhausting. One senses just a touch of the cult in the new repertory for Program B. All in all, by the end of the evening I felt as if I had been watching a demo of  “21st-century ballet, American-style”—i.e., groups of well-prepared individuals collaborating to crowd-source choreographic statements on non-dance subjects. 

The fact that the statements themselves are so clear and focused is ultimately attributable to the genius loci of this 29-year-old company, Dorothy Gunther Pugh—its hands-on CEO and founding artistic director, who, by her own observation at the talkback, collaborates on everything with an iron hand in a velvet glove. Ms. Pugh, whose searching intellect evidently enjoys much more than a passing acquaintance with the Great Books of the Western World and the history of theatrical dancing, as well as with current events, wants it all: a meritocracy and fairness to her dancers (thus the Merce Cunningham-like use of large casts deployed as individuals), musicality at least of choreographic phrasing (thus the intricate weave of musical excerpts from various sources for a given score), relevance to the front page as well as to the arts page, and High Art. Water of the Flowery Mill, the Arshile Gorky-inspired work choreographed by itinerant rising star Matthew Neenan (both the title and the abstract painting of the costumes refer to a Gorky painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art) aspires with especially intense energy. Turning to an all-Tchaikovsky score for Gorky, whose Armenian childhood was the stuff of nightmare and whose adult depressions were legion, is quite thoughtful. The ballet's handful of separate sections include a tormented male figure whose variation flings his torso over the lip of the stage, breaking the fourth wall; a mysterious relationship for a trio (a woman and two men); pas de deux and dances for five; a vocabulary that uses second positions on various levels (standing, lying down) for emotional as well as formal expression; a memorable image of a ballerina gamboling over rolling-river male “logs”; inventive leaps for men; brilliant air turns for women. A pas de deux to Tchaikovsky's “Memory of a Place Held Dear” (“Souvenir d'un Lieu Cher”) conveys elements of agony appropriate to Gorky, but that music, for this audience member, is forever associated with Balanchine's setting of it in Meditation, for Farrell and d'Amboise, and I, for one, wish that Neenan had chosen something else for that section (although I do understand that most of the audiences who see this work will never have seen Balanchine's pas de deux).

Cecily Khuner of Ballet Memphis with local jookers in Rafael Ferreras Jr.'s Politics; Photo by Ari Deniso

Ballet Memphis made a signature choice in connection with the performance of its music. For Flowery Mill, it would probably have been affordable to hire string players and a pianist for the Tchaikovsky works, all intimate. But the company used recordings there (plangent ones, though the performers were unidentified, alas) and instead, brought the seven velvet-voiced vocalists from Memphis's Hattiloo Theatre to perform live for Politics, an all-women, social-class ballet, by company member Rafael Ferreras, for four Ballet Memphis ladies and four guest jookers. Company costume designer Bruce Bui dressed everyone in corporate black suits and white shirts, yet the classes weren't distinguished by the terms “black and white” but rather by how they danced. The ballet dancers wore toe shoes and purveyed a low-down version of classical,  the jookers wore sneakers and tied their amazingly flexible limbs into knots. Yet, since everyone on stage was a beauty in terms of face and figure—and were beauties in the same, fashionista way—even body image was not an issue of distinction. The score—Bach (recorded) followed by “Elijah Rock” (live)--also worked theatrically. The only significant pinpointed difference in Politics is between the dance languages and the shoes that make their articulation possible. Although the work isn't a masterpiece, the logic with which it has been crafted is masterly.


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