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Dazed & Somewhat Confused | Ballet Memphis Program B at the Joyce Theater….

November 7, 2015
Ballet Memphis’ Steven McMahon (front) in Julia Adam’s 'Devil's Fruit.' Photo: © Ari Denison

Ballet Memphis’ Steven McMahon (front) in Julia Adam’s ‘Devil’s Fruit.’ Photo: © Ari Denison

I was excited to hear that Ballet Memphis was to appear for the first time in eight years at the Joyce Theater, Oct 27 – Nov 1, 2015. Being from Mississippi and having dance with Thalia Mara’s Jackson Ballet I wanted to see how ballet was thriving in the Deep South. It was Thalia Mara who was so instrumental in securing Jackson as the host city for the USA International Ballet Competition…

Ballet Memphis was founded by Dorothy Gunther Pugh in 1986 with only two dancers and a budget of $75,000. Now in its 29th year the company employs 32 dancers and has a budget of more than $4.4 million. Ballet Memphis is also preparing to build a new multi-million administrative and studio space in the heart of Memphis’ arts and theater district.

Ballet Memphis in Steven McMahon’s 'Confluence'. Photo: © Andrea Zucker

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

Ballet Memphis commissioned and created all six works shown during its Joyce engagement. I was able to attend Program B which feature Matthew Neenan’s Water of the Flowery Mill (2011); Julia Adam’s Devil’s Fruit (2013); Politics created in 2014 by Ballet Memphis Company member Rafael Ferreras Jr; and Confluence created in 2012 by Ballet Memphis Artistic Associate and Company member Steven McMahon.

The evening opened with Steven McMahon’s Confluence whose score ranged from the Largo movement of Dvorak’s New World Symphony, Mahalia Jackson singing In the Upper Room and Marvis Staples performing Roebuck Staples’ Don’t Knock.

Ballet Memphis in Steven McMahon’s 'Confluence'. Photo: © Andrea Zucker

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

Virginia Pilgrim Ramey is seen standing in silence. With the opening notes of Dvorak’s New World Symphony Ms. Ramey begins to move. First an arm is raised followed by a slight shift of weight in her body.

This is the first of what appears to be 3 sections to this piece. The dancers performed with exuberance and wide smiles which after a minute or two seemed rather forced. I found the work or least the first section of the work a tad bit too saccharine for my tastes.,

Ballet Memphis in Steven McMahon’s 'Confluence'. Photo: © Andrea Zucker

Ballet Memphis in Steven McMahon’s ‘Confluence’. Photo: © Andrea Zucke

Ms. Ramey, who is a tall and lyrically gifted dancer, would quickly enter the stage to weave in and out of the nine dancers, but, just as quickly as she appeared she would exit. She is an exceptional dancer; there is a majesty to her dancing that cannot be denied. I kept hoping for an extended solo in which Mr. Ramey could truly wow us with her dancing…but sadly it was not to be…

Where the piece came alive and really thrived was when the gospel voices of Ms. Jackson and Ms. Staples were heard. The piece quickly lost the saccharine feel from the first section and developed a soul, a voice of its own.

Steven McMahon’s Confluence is not a bad work but it does feel as if it’s two different pieces that have been welded together in order to call it one work. The first section musically is not the least bit relatable to the other two sections. Even the way the dancers performed the first section, with forced smiles a little too no depth of feelings is a complete 180 to the heart-felt and emotional performances the dancers gave the two sections set to gospel music. In total the score is confusing and the sudden transition from Dvorak’s New World Symphony to the gospel vocals of Mahalia Jackson and Marvis Staples is overly harsh and makes evident just how un-related the two styles of music are to each other…

Ballet Memphis’ Crystal Brothers & Rafael Ferreras Jr. in Matthew Neenan’s 'Water of the Flowery Mill.' Photo: ©Andrea Zucker

Ballet Memphis’ Crystal Brothers & Rafael Ferreras Jr. in Matthew Neenan’s ‘Water of the Flowery Mill.’ Photo: ©Andrea Zucker

The inspiration behind Matthew Neenan’s Water of the Flowery Mill was the artwork of the émigré painter, Arshille Gorky. The work’s title comes from Mr. Gorky’s 1944 painting Water of the Flowery Mill, now hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art here in NYC.

Mr. Gorky’s paintings are noted for his use of color and abstraction and Bruce Bul’s costumes beautifully reflected both. The score was three sentimental pieces by Tchaikovsky. Now when you tie all together, Mr. Neenan’s choreography, Bruce Bul’s colorful costumes with the score …well, the end result was a lovely work I would like to see again.

Ballet Memphis’ Kendall G. Britt Jr. (left) in Julia Adam’s 'Devil's Fruit.' Photo: © Ari Denison

Ballet Memphis’ Kendall G. Britt Jr. (left) in Julia Adam’s ‘Devil’s Fruit.’ Photo: © Ari Denison

Julia Adam’s Devil Fruit was just odd but in a fascinating sort of way. Devil’s Fruit is Ms. Adam’s second piece for Ballet Memphis and is the product of the company’s River Project series. In this work Ms.Adam explores the flora and fauna found alongside the Mississippi River, specifically the vast and intricate underground network of mushrooms. Ms. Adam’s was inspired by botanical photos of the fungi and the sheltering quality they possess. Artist Stephanie Crosby created original botanical paintings that were projected throughout the piece.

Christine Darch must be commended on her costumes…At the very beginning of the work Hideko Karasawa is seen lying in awkward position on the floor… she slowly stands and steps into a freestanding but still wearable piece of art or sculpture…it a beautiful white gown with green fauna and foliage flowing down the back. Ms. Karasawa shows unquestionable grace as she glides across the stage.

Ballet Memphis’ Hideko Karasawa in Julia Adam’s 'Devil's Fruit.' Photo: ©Ari Denison

Ballet Memphis’ Hideko Karasawa in Julia Adam’s ‘Devil’s Fruit.’ Photo: ©Ari Denison

According to the program notes, Ms. Adam approached this work as a tripartite positioning of the mushroom, the science, the pagan mythology and the mind altering power of the mushroom to initiate one into the mysteries of the divine.

As I stated previously Ms. Adam’s Devil’s Fruit was an odd little piece but it did have some beautiful imagery with the combination of Ms. Adam’s choreography, Ms. Darch’s costumes and Ms. Crosby’s visuals….

Rafael Ferreras’ Politics was a work that seemed insure of what it exactly its statement was! Eight women wearing black pant suits are seen on stage; four are wearing toe-shoes and proceed to dance en pointe where another four are wearing sneakers and are performing a style of hip-hop known as Memphis jookin’.

Ballet Memphis dancers and local jookers in Rafael Ferreras’ 'Politics.' Photo: ©Ari Denison

Ballet Memphis dancers and local jookers in Rafael Ferreras’ ‘Politics.’ Photo: ©Ari Denison

The score was a mix of Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C Major, the Brandenburg Concerto in C Major and Moses Hogan’s Elijah Rock beautifully performed by Memphis’ Hattiloo Theatre. The only saving grace from for the work was the exquisite voices of the Hattiloo Theatre.

It is unfortunate that even after sitting through Program B I still have no idea of what and/or who Ballet Memphis wants to be. The eclectic grouping of the four works did not help in the least….I still ask myself….is Ballet Memphis saying they are a contemporary ballet company ready to step out onto the world stage…or are they just a very good but still regional ballet company who, though artistically drawn to the contemporary voices of today’s young choreographers, fear giving up their classical identity…I sadly have to go with the latter…

 

 

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