Ballet Memphis does lovely work with the classics — “Nutcracker” and the upcoming “Swan Lake” attest to that — but the company soars when it takes on new works as it does in this weekend’s “I Am.”
The production of four commissioned pieces came from founding artistic director Dorothy Gunther Pugh’s ideas regarding, as she says, giving voice to the voiceless.
The encompassing title “I Am” is inspired in part by the iconic “I Am A Man” signs held by striking sanitation workers in Memphis in 1968. Their action for better pay and conditions attracted national attention and the presence of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., murdered by an assassin during the strike.
None of the pieces is specifically about that moment in Memphis history. But they reflect the larger, related idea that everyone matters, that dignity and kindness ultimately must speak louder than the superficial noises and dark currents all around.
Opening the program at Playhouse on the Square is “I Am A Child,” choreographed with stark beauty by Julia Adam, a frequent contributor to Ballet Memphis. It’s a meditation on children — essential to life, yet so fragile. With references to churches destroyed by hate, Adam’s dancers fight fires, weep, limp and struggle to protect that which is so precious.
The second work, Brooklyn-based Reggie Wilson’s “I Am A Man,” is an extraordinary piece, rooted in civil rights, religion and the choreographer’s Delta heritage. Knowing those inspirations gives some context to what you see, but it can no more describe the grace, power and emotion of the movement than a title to a book or artwork can convey the depths you’ll see or read.
What is true in each of these works is that a certain balance lifts them to excellence. The themes are gargantuan, but the richness comes in the details.
The beginning of Wilson’s piece has Elizabeth Mensah gliding across the stage to fetch other dancers from the wings. She keeps staring at the audience with a baleful look and it’s unsettling and intriguing. The dancers — in a variety of Naoko Nagata’s costumes evocative of the mid-20th century — find a spot on the floor and lie down. When all have come in, they begin to rise and move and the effect is terrific.
Many times, the dancers move together, but not as one. They are united in the effort, but they remain individuals, gyrating around the stage with passion. Wilson conveys a sense of randomness but with a great purpose.
Gabrielle Lamb’s “I Am A Woman” examines how women clothe themselves, through their own choices or influenced by others. Lamb, who also has choreographed for Ballet Memphis previously, has created something that is, by turns, witty, creepy, heartbreaking and beautiful as the dancers go through all manner of contortions to appear to be who they think they should be. Inventive costumes by Christine Darch are spot on.
The final dance — “I Am” — comes from the company’s artistic associate Steven McMahon, who was inspired by the universality of humankind. The piece opens with the half dozen dancers in loose, hooded garments moving to Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis,” an ethereal work perfectly suited to the dance, the mysterious costumes (by Bruce Bui) and lighting by Helena Kuukka.
Eventually, the dancers shed the obscuring costumes and embark on a series of expressive movements, singularly and in groups, and frequently pointing with index fingers into the air, signifying “I” — the balance, again, of the individual with the community.
McMahon’s finale is a thrilling recap in movement and music to Mahalia Jackson singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
The program, which ends today, is, in its reach and effect, a triumph for Ballet Memphis and for the creative and collaborative energy in Memphis.
The Commercial Appeal, February 22, 2015
Photo by Ari Denson