October 30, 2012
MEMPHIS — The Mississippi River, famous in song and literature, has also
inspired choreography. At the end of Kansas City Ballet’s “Tom Sawyer,”
new last year, the dancers embodied it. Now Ballet Memphis has taken up
the theme with “The River Project,” a triple bill of new ballets
honoring the Mississippi’s cultural importance.
On paper Ballet Memphis often looks like one of the country’s most
enterprising companies. I wish, for example, that I had been able to see
its 2011 spring program of works, all by female choreographers; and the
company is among the few directed and founded by a woman, Dorothy Gunther Pugh.
Its current season is called “Taking Flight” and Ms. Pugh plans to
follow the “River Project” with other works about the connections
between American culture and the American environment.
An introductory film suggests that the plan for these three new ballets
was to reflect three zones through which the river passes: one ballet
(Steven McMahon’s “Confluence”) on the central area around Memphis, one
on the Delta and New Orleans (Julia Adam’s “Second Line”), and another
on — what? This third ballet (Matthew Neenan’s “Party of the Year”)
proved the least obviously river-connected: its setting was a party in
Los Angeles. This didn’t make it a disappointment, however. Instead, it
was both the evening’s biggest hit and one of the most beguiling new
American ballets of our day.
All three works are set to musical collages, reflecting diverse
heritages and histories. The score for Mr. McMahon’s “Confluence” ranges
from part of Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony to Mahalia Jackson’s
recording of “In the Upper Room” to Mavis Staples’s “Don’t Knock.” The
stage action is introduced by a lone woman (Virginia Pilgrim), whose
role is ambiguous: she may be the river, or the subsequent dances may be
her memory. “Confluence” has lyricism and complexity; it suggests the
passage of time and the growth of a local culture. It’s a little
nebulous over all, but there’s real dance-making skill here.
Ms. Adam’s “Second Line” tries to catch the Delta’s overlap of
historical periods and its changes of civilization. Characters in
baroque attire do some un-baroque things. (Women kneel so that men can
swing their legs over the women’s heads.) Later we have some
bare-chested men and more overtly modern behavior. The music includes
Rameau’s “Fêtes d’Hébé,” a Louisiana folk song and a traditional Haitian
song, and ends with “When the Saints Go Marching In.” At all points,
the result is too diffuse.
Mr. Neenan’s “Party of the Year,” subtitled “Victoria Avenue, CA,
12/25/70,” is a success despite apparent odds. It has seemingly nothing
to do with the Mississippi River; a program note says it’s about a
birthday bash on Christmas 1970 for a person in Isabel Wilkerson’s book “The Warmth of Other Suns.”
This context promises characters and experiences that the ballet
doesn’t give us. But there is a piercing image, first shown in the
introductory film, that becomes a core motif.
The party is on the skids, and the pivotal character, danced by Rachel
Shumake, has had more than a few too many from the start. The repeated
sequence that makes such an impression is when Ms. Shumake slowly,
heavily walks forward on flat feet, her head lifting and her throat
visibly tense; then, with a contraction, her torso lurches right
By the time you’ve seen it twice, it clearly depicts a woman who knows
with alarm that she’s about to throw up. This could so nearly be gross —
but its slightly stylized quality and its choreographic exactness makes
it haunting, like a moment you’ve known yourself. Then, when it
returns, at later stages of the party, it’s shown from other angles. The
fourth and final time it’s given a change of inflection.
This is a party that’s merrily crumbling into near-chaos. The situation
is explored through many different aspects — comedy, shame, poignancy,
anxiety, energy — and a wealth of different characters. The final twist
is that the most drunk character is transformed to a new exaltation of
spirit. This is not at all the ballet suggested by Mr. Neenan’s program
note or Ms. Pugh’s advance announcement — but so what? I loved it.
Straightaway Ms. Shumake seemed detached from the party; she’s present
but alien. The music’s progression is from jazz (Nat King Cole), blues
(Albert King, perhaps the most specifically Memphian music of the
evening) and soul (Ray Charles) to (folk) Joni Mitchell. And, though the
party seems to occur in one place with one set of people, this change
of score takes us on a migration through America. When we reach Ms.
Mitchell’s “California,” Ms. Shumake has survived more than one ordeal:
she looks released and to have found her home.
The party is all dancing and all delicious. Couples and threesomes
succeeding one another, exuberant and socializing and intimate. The
mixture of ballet, social dance and individual tics of behavior is
irresistible, the footwork has point and detail, and the rich tiltings
of torsos are juicy in the extreme. Some women spend some of the time
supporting their men; this is a society in which men and women keep
discovering new things about each other.
The beauty of Ms. Mitchell’s singing brings the ballet to an
extraordinary climax; and Mr. Neenan’s choreography matches it, as Ms.
Shumake becomes expansive. (The other characters, though, grow
increasingly floorbound.) This is the second exciting new work by Mr.
Neenan I’ve seen in three months. (“Switch Phrase,” for Ballet X, was
seen in August at the Vail Festival.) He does not present himself as a
pure-academic ballet classicist, but he is emerging as one of today’s
foremost dance poets of American behavior and society.