Moods, movement of the Mississippi interpreted in dance By Christopher Blank

Of all the things a Memphis dance company could think to use as inspiration for new choreography, the Mississippi River may seem like an instinctive choice.For ages, it has inspired artists, writers, musicians and travelers with its power and promise. The river rises, falls, lifts, flows; its very essence is movement.This weekend, Ballet Memphis premieres three new works that use the Mississippi River as their guide.Artistic director Dorothy Gunther Pugh says that even she was surprised at how the company's "River Project" generated such different responses from the three choreographers on the program."I think I've learned in some ways to become more excited about ideas you hand over to other people," Pugh said. "It's a leap of faith. If I stood over people and told them this is what I wanted, I wouldn't get a product that anyone would be comfortable with."Pugh said she spent a long time thinking about the metaphor of the river even before selecting her choreographers."When I look at landscape, I think of how it connects to other ideas," Pugh said. "Here we are, positioned on this great sort of cultural highway. How can it be a metaphorical springboard in the creation of very American dance — dance that comes from the heart of America?"Though a native of Scotland, choreographic associate Steven McMahon has made Memphis his home since 2004. Several of his recent works for Ballet Memphis have explored his personal questions of what makes the place we live in a "home."In his new work, "Confluence," McMahon draws parallels between the river's journey and our own."I started to think of the (human) body as a river," he said. "At least in the sense that it is always moving from one place to another."His dance, in three movements, uses music from Dvorak's "New World" Symphony, Mahalia Jackson's expansive gospel song "In the Upper Room" and Mavis Staples' "Don't Knock."Ballet Memphis' artistic associate Julia Adam looked downriver for input in "The Second Line," which uses the various musical styles of New Orleans to evoke the river's impact.Pugh said that Adam, whose previous work includes last season's "The Little Prince," is atmospheric and moody."Somehow she got hold of the mysteriousness, the suspicion and tragedy that comes with so much of Southern life," Pugh said. "I almost feel like I'm reading a book when I watch it, but not the kind of writing that ties everything up into a nice bow."Matthew Neenan, founder and artistic director of the Philadelphia-based contemporary ballet company Ballet X, returns for his second collaboration with Ballet Memphis.His work, "Party of the Year (Victoria Avenue, CA 12/25/70)," is based on the best-selling book "The Warmth of Other Suns" by Isabel Wilkerson, which chronicles the lives of three people during the heart of the Great Migration of blacks out of the South. One of the subjects, Dr. Robert Pershing Foster, threw himself a huge birthday bash on Dec. 25, 1970, in part to celebrate the reasons he left Louisiana for California.Neenan says his piece "is definitely a departure from the original 'river' idea. But it was while I was reading this book that I had my big 'Aha!' moment."From Louisiana Red to Nat King Cole, Neenan's musical choices allude to the migration of music as it left the rural South for northern urban areas of Chicago and Detroit.Pugh said that she plans to invite future choreographers to make "River Project" dances."This is a project we want to work on long term," she said. "The more you do, the more ideas you get. With the Mississippi River, there is so much to tackle. There's still a lot to engage in."
Posted by Ballet Memphis at 8:59 AM
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