Getting Over the Hump: A Round Table on the Civil Rights Ethos of Ballet Memphis

 In Archives, Dd Exclusive

Since its inception in 1986, Ballet Memphis has been “striving to interpret the South’s cultural legacy through movement.” With Dorothy Gunther Pugh at the helm these last three decades, the company has had a stated goal of creating a conversation about women as artists and leaders, as well as building a company as ethnically and racially diverse as the community for which they perform. On the eve of a tour to NYC’s The Joyce Theater, with a program of five NY premieres by five diverse choreographers, I was able to ask Pugh—one of only a few female artist directors of an American ballet company—and a few of the featured choreographers some questions about how such idyllic goals affect their artistic process and product. Escape the mid-week slump with this inspiring round table discussion…

Candice Thompson, { Dd }: How did you go about picking the choreographers for these six works?

Dorothy Pugh: Over the years in my job, there is a lot of honing and refining your instincts as to what you believe your art form has to do, if you live in your world with cognition and an open mind. You learn who is going to give you a piece of well-crafted work, but you also learn who can beyond that with you. In some ways ballet is open, but it has not always been terribly open in my own mind, so I am always casting a net to see if this person is going to come with us or not. There has to be an understanding that we are temporary creatures in a long, long story and we have the capacity to change the arc of that story in our lives. Some people go there, and some people don’t. Some people come farther than other people, jumping in quicker and easier, depending on how young we start working with them, or what his or her orientation is to his or her life, career, and lives of other people.

Ballet Memphis in Steven McMahon's 'Confluence' © Andrea Zucker

Ballet Memphis in Steven McMahon’s ‘Confluence’ © Andrea Zucker

CT: What do you think it is about ballet that makes it “not always terribly open”?

DP: There are constricting aesthetic principles in ballet that can really hold back what we do with our art form, on both conscious and unconscious levels. If it is painful for me to talk about right now, it is even more painful for the people I am talking about. Sometimes women’s bodies wax and wan, and of course, there are prejudices against people of color…still.

Jared Brunson and Virginia Pilgrim Ramey in Matthew Neenan's 'The Darting Eyes' ©Ari Denison

Jared Brunson and Virginia Pilgrim Ramey in Matthew Neenan’s ‘The Darting Eyes’ ©Ari Denison

I sometimes think about how African American youth are being seen for something they are not, so they are getting killed; and in a smaller way, I can see how that happens in our field too. When I say we are going to do fusion dance and we are going to merge some styles and make a statement—even if there are a couple flaws—so we can broaden our understanding of what it means to move and so move other people…I encounter micro-aggressions. I encounter it a lot. So and so’s feet are turned in a bit. But maybe we are going to put him in boots? And maybe we are going to give him an experience onstage and make a positive effect on tons of children in the audience? I am going through this all the time, even with decisions we have had to make for this tour. Right now we are getting lauded and appreciated for this work but at the same time, I promise you, it is always a struggle.

I still hear people ask, “why are you taking that work on tour? This doesn’t have all our best dancers.” People have different life experiences and they grow in the pot they were planted in. They might not have been watered much. I try to hear them but also forge ahead with my mission. I have been pushing this for a long time. And still people may say, “she is not successful.” The push back is not just internal; we sometimes deal with presenters who don’t always want to engage in the challenging questions. Ballet can be so inspirational. I mean, we use the ground to soar in the air! That is what our technique is about. But the aesthetic we have learned to feel is beautiful–such as fast movements and high kicks–can easily become vapid and hollow work. I happen to think with more thought, better work could be done with our technique. I am just a little idealist in this corner of the world.

CT: How do we overcome it?

DP: First we need to look at the overall beauty of the human spirit in a person who wants to be a dancer and then go from there to build upon it. We have to make places at the table—even at the table in our own consciousness—and then we have to ask questions of ourselves. What is keeping me from being more open? What am I afraid of in stepping out of the prescription handed down from this patriarchal, white, dominating culture that is the history of ballet? We need to do our part in our own language and in how we tell stories with movement.

CT: With this motivating sentiment in mind, does Ballet Memphis have an orientation process for choreographers, to make sure everyone is on the same page and that they are willing to go where you want to collectively go?

DP: Yes. First I build a thematic program inside a thematic season. This particular season has a theme of “Find your place.” Both Steven McMahon (Ballet Memphis Artistic Associate/Dancer/Choreographer) and I speak with each choreographer about the ideas that are behind the theme. For example, I once had Matthew Neenan read The Warmth of Other Suns, a book about the Great Migration, for a piece he was making for The River Project initiative.  I said, “you have to read this book,” and then I would talk to him about the country around here and what people went through during the Jim Crow years. Matthew pulled out one of the characters when he read it and built from there. I didn’t give him music or more pointed notes beyond that, but still I am more hands-on than some choreographers are used to.

CT: How does this artistic philosophy and steering effect the creative process?

Steven McMahon: Dorothy asks that all of her staff, dancers and choreographers observe our city, this country, this art form, and use the inherent beauty of ballet as a tool to elevate everyone who comes in contact with it. My own development as a dancer and choreographer—and in many ways a man—has been given to me through Dorothy’s leadership. Every day I remind myself of my privilege as a white male. There was a time when I never had to think about that, which I understand now to be the very definition of ‘privilege.’ My choreography has been the most successful when I think of how we connect to each other, when I try and listen for the voices that are often unheard. I force myself to ask questions that have often been difficult to answer, but the process is ultimately rewarding.

DP: Years ago, Trey McIntyre told me that I was more involved than any other director in the creative process. At first it bothered him; but then he added that it helped him make good work too. Some people like it and some people, well, I just irritate the heck out of them. But I try to be supportive while gently leading them to go beyond.

Julia Adam: I feel my point of view is truly valued. Dorothy’s continuous support of my choreography over the past decade may be attributed to the fact that she is a woman and seems to resonate and understand my work. I have returned consistently to create new work, and this has clearly helped me develop as an artist. She does not have to curate an evening of female choreographers to promote women’s voices. The diversity of her company is reflected not only by who is creating the work but also in who is dancing on the stage.

Hideko Karasawa in Julia Adam's 'Devil's Fruit' Photo Credit: Ari Denison

Hideko Karasawa in Julia Adam’s ‘Devil’s Fruit’
Photo Credit: Ari Denison


DP: Often times, choreographers will gravitate toward the strongest dancers. I encourage them instead to think of creating something for the future; to take a younger dancer and work with them and give them a chance while expanding their vision. Many of our talented and more senior dancers started with us as young dancers. I can look back on that and see what we have patiently and deliberately been able to accomplish with them.

Gabrielle Lamb: The first time I came to cast a piece at Ballet Memphis, I was surprised at how easy it was to tell the dancers apart.  I saw such a wide range of sizes, styles, personalities, and colors; and since my choreography puts a lot of emphasis on individuality, even within group sections, this suited me perfectly. I like that Dorothy is always searching for meaning within and through dance and that, for her, technique is not an end unto itself.  Everything we do, from the studio to the stage, is done with a sense of generosity towards our audience and a desire to communicate something of ourselves.

Ballet Memphis in Gabrielle Lamb's 'I Am A Woman' ©Ari Denison

Ballet Memphis in Gabrielle Lamb’s ‘I Am A Woman’ ©Ari Denison

DP: The biggest human tragedy in America has been slavery and all of its repercussions. We are still feeling it. And do I feel it as a woman? Do I understand what it means to be slighted, dismissed, not heard? But there were good lessons in that for me. I have a belief and fervor of what our art form could be for more people. And so far, I have done it with the support of citizens in this community. Memphis was profoundly affected by the killing of Martin Luther King, Jr. and we decided that this is the side of justice we are going to be on. If we are considered a dirty, gritty, little river town, so be it. I know we are better than that. Civil rights is at the bottom of Ballet Memphis.

Ballet Memphis is performing works by Julia Adam, Rafael Ferreras, Gabrielle Lamb, Steven McMahon, Matthew Neenan at the Joyce Theater now through Sunday. 

Click here for tickets.

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  • […] DIYdancer spoke to Dorothy Gunther Pugh, artistic director of Ballet Memphis, and some of the company’s choreographers for a discussion of Pugh’s artistic philosophy, choreographing for Ballet Memphis, diversity in ballet, and more. Ballet Memphis performs at the Joyce Theater through November 1. Read the full conversation on DIYdancer. […]

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