They’re the stuff of movies, books & ballets: Families do matter, by Dorothy Gunther Pugh

Our families are at the base of our lives, aren’t they? They influence us more than we ever realize. We experience thoughts and emotions, and engage in behavior patterns and with ideas that we formulated before we even realized we formulated them, learned before we ever knew we learned them. Sometimes we didn’t learn things we wish we had.   

A family’s power is often quiet but sometimes loud beyond bearing. We carry what they give us into other families we form. We carry them into our work situations. They are amazingly rich subjects for artists to explore.  

Trey McIntyre’s piece, High Lonesome, being reprised by Ballet Memphis after first commissioning it in 2001, was sparked by a book that Trey and I had both finished reading around the same time. It’s about the first long-term study of children of divorce. High Lonesome demands careful watching. The movement and music are so accessible that one may be lulled into missing the observations of tension among family members as the young 5-year-old boy tries to figure things out, along with us.   

Crossing, originally created for the Joffrey Ballet in 2001 as Julia Adam’s response to the 9/11 tragedy, was performed by Ballet Memphis in 2003. We learned to love that family in this piece so very much. This ballet is such a powerful, intimate and very parental response to the loss of a child. Its gentleness starkly points to that profoundly deep and incomprehensible horror; at the same time, we never lose the feeling of abiding love for our children that we know will never end, and we are reminded of this great love. Attachment is worth whatever concomitant pain comes with loss, and we all will experience loss through death. But the agony of losing a child? That is the ultimate horror.   

George and Betty, when Ballet Memphis first performed it in 2000, had never been danced by a ballet company. Originally created for Shapiro and Smith, and choreographed by them in 1987 while in residency at Brigham Young University in Utah, this work is a barbed and very humorous look at a “shrunken relationship,” according to creator Joanie Smith. The small furniture expresses this sense of shrinking. “The wife has diminished because she has compromised far too much in her marriage.” The poor clueless husband, after banishing the child they clearly are ineptly raising to become tyrannical, cannot even understand that his wife has just watched a piece of her heart and soul leave her nest, no matter how small and demeaning that nest has become. How different art can be when seen in a different time—how heart-wrenching, given the incredibly traumatic gun violence in our nation recently, is the gesture of the child when he points and fires his pretend gun at his mother. Years ago, this was just a bratty gesture. Now it resonates with a power that most of us cannot even begin to put into words.  

Steven McMahon’s piece, The Royal We, was influenced by Mark Helprin’s novel, Freddy and Fredericka. “Many people like to think about famous families,” Steven says. “And I started thinking about celebrities with public and private lives, wondering how different those lives really are behind closed doors. I liked the idea of stepping into the world of exaggerated personalities.” Though the performance and celebrities’ lives may seem exaggerated, we still get a look into typical family dynamics, even in this version of Britain’s royal family. The crown is heavy, as many of us feel our burdens to be. (Often they are burdens we didn’t anticipate.) There is a son who is not quite ready for the responsibility. The daughter-in-law who wants to do it right and has love to share and give. And the child who truly does not know what is coming to her. It is a romp of a work, uncritical, compassionate and loving. If only all families could cultivate those three qualities the way Steven has as he looks at his subject matter.  

Family Matters shows Ballet Memphis’ deep commitment to work that matters, to work that we can all see parts of ourselves in. It is full of intelligence, of struggle and heartbreak, of sympathy and laughter. This is why we dance with you all.  

—Dorothy Gunther Pugh, Founding Artistic Director

Posted by Susan Moskop at 2:36 PM
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