A visiting ballet troupe shows its stuff in four entertaining ballets.
By Joel Benjamin
Ballet Memphis quite literally strutted its stuff at the Joyce Theater in its recent season, the four works on the program sharing a commitment to the new—yet not so new as to alienate their home base audiences. The music choices were sophisticated, as was the costuming and overall direction of the troupe’s Founding Artistic Director, Dorothy Gunther Pugh.
The company’s Artistic Associate, Steven McMahon, choreographed “Confluence” to a score featuring Dvorak and gospel music sung by Mahalia Jackson, a ballet that was gesture heavy, full of reaches and yearning. A somber female soloist opened the work presaging the ending in which this young lady was absorbed into the smooth-moving ensemble of nine dancers who, at first, swept past her in various patterns. There was much reaching, dramatic leg raises and curving low lifts. The leading lady finally is swept into the group, the mood brightening as “Confluence” ended.
The main distinguishing feature of Matthew Neenan’s “Water of the Flowery Mill” was Bruce Bui’s costume designs, brightly splotched with colored patterns inspired by the émigré painter, Arshille Gorky. The ballet’s title, in fact, is the name of a wildly colorful painting by that artist. Neenan used four lightly sentimental Tchaikovsky works on which to create his movement palette. Neenan certainly got the nervous energy of Gorky’s work and his lifts caught the jagged lines that divide Gorky’s colors. The use of stomping point work added to the overall feel of barely controlled splashes of energy.
Julia Adam’s “Devil’s Fruit” took as its inspiration the lowly mushroom in all its forms, with photos of natural scenes—credited to Stephanie Cosby—and beautiful costumes designed by Christine Darch who made very funny use of white umbrellas as symbols of capped fungi. Performed to Vivaldi put through the ringer by Max Richter, “Devil’s Fruit” had a lovely, surreal look, especially when what looked like a mound of leaf-covered earth turned out to be a dress which was worn to great effect by two of the female dancers. Mushrooms never looked better than in Ms. Adam’s sweet, wistful ballet.
The final work, “Politics,” by Rafael Ferreras, was problematical, but definitely the standout work of the evening. The score, which included Bach and a song called “Elijah Rock,” was performed live and a cappella by a seven member choir. Although all the dancers in this all-female cast wore the black suits designed by Bruce Bui, they were divided into ballet dancers in point shoes and hiphop dancers in sneakers. Each group showed off, with the ballet dancers as the “rulers” of what looked like an office. Eventually, the two groups merged and copied each others’ movements, indicating mutual acceptance. Whether the four hip-hop girls were Black on purpose to make a point or whether they were they only dancers who could do the sensational pops and undulating movements on a professional level, the casting seemed a tad backward politically. Surely there are white girls who can do the hip-hop and Black girls who can do the ballet. Despite this slight awkwardness, “Politics” was a rip-roaring success with the audience.
Ballet Memphis has an earnest unpretentiousness that is appealing even to jaded New York City audiences. If anything, the dancers try too hard to please. Their repertory is at least varied and tailored to the technical abilities of the company members.
Ballet Memphis (October 27 – November 1, 2015)
The Joyce Theater
175 Eighth Avenue, at 19th Street
New York, NY
For tickets call 212-242-0800 or visit www.joyce.org
For more information visit www.balletmemphis.org
Running time: one hour 50 minutes including one intermission