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Ballet Memphis Flows Like the River That Runs Through It

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The Tennessee-based company Ballet Memphis will be serving up quite a feast, with a three-part program featuring works by exciting North American choreographers Trey McIntyre, Julia Adam and Matthew Neenan this Saturday at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center, presented by Culture Shock Miami.

The company was founded in 1986 by a native of Memphis, Artistic Director Dorothy Gunther Pugh, and has been recognized in and out of the United States as a premier repertory company. The scheduled program relates to the iconic American river that is the heart of that city, flowing with movement of people and music.

Devil’s Fruit is a work by Canadian-born Adam for the River Project series, a Ballet Memphis program focusing on dance based on movement echoing the Mississippi River.

Party of the Year by American Neenan is inspired by the New York Times-best-selling book The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, chronicling stories during the “Great Migration,” when millions of African Americans moved out of the rural South to other parts of the country.

And In Dreams by McIntyre is a work created for Ballet Memphis in 2007 and set to the music of Roy Orbison.

Earlier in April, as the company was preparing to open Swan Lake for the weekend in Memphis, Gunther Pugh took time to share her thoughts on dance in the digital age and her Memphis community.
New Times: In the age of personal mobiles and social media, how do we keep the delivery of live art relevant and continue to attract audiences to live performing arts?
Gunther Pugh: For me technology helps to deliver the meaningful art we create. …I think technology gives us access to a lot of information, but we still have to keep our minds and our imaginations agile. I think of ballet as a delivery form as well, so to speak. We deliver ideas and feelings and thoughts about people and situations and life. To keep the art fresh, it’s important to keep your humanity fresh and curious. It’s also really important to encourage your dancers to be that way too — [and] to find choreographers who think this way as well.
If it is has to be about “me” first rather than “we” first, you may not be right for Ballet Memphis.

Back in 1986 did you imagine that Memphis would be such a welcoming and fertile ground for a ballet company — and could you imagine having created this company anywhere else?
No, I can’t. I’ve been so formed by the richness and the pathos of this community, which has been my family’s home for generations. One thing I love about my peer group of leaders and supporters here is that they have embraced the idea that we’re all in this together, and we all want to make Memphis great while we’re here. I’m really around people who, in general, care more about giving than receiving, and that’s good because we have a city that has a lot of need.
Intolerance, fear of the other — it’s still all around us — but we’ve been ahead of this curve in a lot of ways here in Memphis because of our history. There was such a soul-searching response here many years before I formed Ballet Memphis.

The company’s River Project celebrates the history and culture around the Mississippi River. Miami itself is greatly inspired by it’s surroundings (including water). There might be kinship between our two cities in that aspect. What do you hope Miami audiences appreciate about your company’s work and the repertory of choreographers being presented?
I have intentionally and thoughtfully created a company and a repertory that reflects the world today. Part of that is creating to what you know, and for me it’s the region that surrounds us and infuses us...whether we’re talking literature and music, or flora and fauna or geography. But even though a ballet may be grounded in something indigenous to our area, I think our themes are universal and speak beyond our region. That’s one reason the program we’re presenting in Miami is so popular no matter where we tour it; you don’t have to know our region to feel the heat or hear the music or know the human stories.

– Miguel Angel Estefan, Jr., artburstmiami.com

The company tours with a cast of 10 and will participate in community and education based activities for Miami-Dade public school students prior to the Saturday night performance. On Friday, the company will hold a free performance of its evening program for students. A free master class open to advance ballet dancers will be held on Saturday at 10 a.m. Both events will be at South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center.

Ballet Memphis on Saturday at 8 p.m.; $5 tickets are available to 13-22 year olds and one accompanying guest each, exclusively through cultureshockmiami.com. Full price tickets are $25 to $45; at South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center, 10950 SW 211th St., Cutler Bay; smdcac.org; 786-573-5300.

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