Arts Engaged
Engage Now

Chapter Sixteen

A Dance Company's Irresistable Call To Community Engagement

by Dorothy Gunther Pugh

My company, Ballet Memphis, continues to stand in its first position: one foot firmly planted on the board of ballet tradition, the other on concern for and responsibility to the city that is our home. We began committed to each; experience has drawn us more deeply into both. Contrary to the thinking of some in the ballet community or in the community development world, it is possible. In the case of Memphis, it is not only possible, it has proven essential.

Before I begin our story, I need to clarify one point. My definition of community engagement is not “being engaged in the community as a social worker with an arts skill.” I don’t take issue with that, but I do take issue with what is sometimes the result–minimizing, misunderstanding, and occasionally dismissing the deep and vital connection to creating art itself. There are deep and vital wellsprings from which most artists must draw their life’s breath. This breath is what artists must be encouraged to inhale; it is the breath from which all human beings draw sustenance. My first plea is that the creation, production, and performance of art not be tossed out as archaic or aloof as the community activism model is embraced.

Arts institutions must support this need to be alive in our art as all of us in the world of art live and move with our community’s populations. We are all evolving results of what and who have preceded us, as well as what and who surround us and affect us. Understanding this should be the base for creating and engaging in art, in performance, in curating, or in community enrichment.

We are well served if we do not turn our backs on who we are, but examine, search, discover, feel, and think about this. For me, a fifth generation Memphian, I knew something of my community’s deep and often tragic history, its amazing cultural gifts to the world in the form of its literature and music, and its entrepreneurial business successes.

 

History

I knew from the beginning that art must reflect who we are as people. That’s not a terribly difficult concept. So, when I first started a young performer’s group that eventually became a professional company, that’s what my art did. I loved tutoring in the inner city on Saturdays when I was in junior high. I loved directing a day camp in the summers between college years. I loved English and French literature, playing basketball, being Student Government President, studio art classes on Saturdays. I loved thinking and academic challenges. I loved my ballet classes–but not enough to pass up going to college.

I was always going back and forth across fences, never realizing they were even there. The result now is that I know many of them are artificially constructed. They don’t scare me, nor do they constrict me. And they don’t need to constrict people in the ballet world. If a talented dancer should go right into a company at age 18, so be it. But he or she must know the world and our capacities for involvement in that world–even when they are first and foremost performers. Maybe especially as performers.

That’s because what we dance and how we dance it matters. What we teach about dance and how we teach it matters. The context and content of what we create and transmit should be scrupulously examined and explored.

Start with what you know. After college, where I majored in English Literature, I taught in an inner-city junior high in the day and danced with a semi-professional company at night. I turned down a full time professional job offer to dance with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and went home to take over a small ballet school. Enrollment jumped from 75 to 175 in 2 years, and I started a young performers group. We danced what we knew–meaningful stories from children’s literature. We grew to be a civic-sized company in which we were commissioning music from Memphis musicians, dancing to music by W.C. Handy and Elvis Presley and to stories of life’s passages based on a local poet’s work.

I apprenticed my small company as “little sister” to Tulsa Ballet Theatre, to become more involved with a company which was founded by a Native American Tulsan ballerina, Moscelyne Larkin and her European husband Roman Jasinski. I learned from their lighting, costume, and production staffs. Our children danced with their company when we presented them here. This was a two-year collaboration.

Eventually, we had our own professional company. But we never stopped paying attention to our school and the Junior Company which keep us rooted in the community. Out of these grew a Pilates program and center, and together, the three supported our mission by nurturing healthy bodies, offering Memphians entry into our institution, and supplying ticket buyers and donors.

When we built our new building 12 years ago, it won local, national, and international awards for design excellence and our school enrollment doubled. As our city’s demographics have changed, so has our student population, It is now estimated at 25% minority (which is soon to become the majority in Memphis), and 40% are on scholarships.

This past June, we were asked to perform with nine other significant companies from across America at the Kennedy Center, and were singled out with excellent reviews and commended for our unique, heartfelt connection with our community’s culture as we performed to the music of Roy Orbison.

This abbreviated history should give some idea of how I built upon what I knew. But as institutions develop, many people falter in what I’ll call the “stopping” of knowing–a person and an institution can quit learning. Why this happens is not for me to discuss here, but I will say that I began to notice the stopping as I became more and more engaged in the national ballet scene.

 

Questions

I was asking questions I wanted to hear raised by my peers, questions I am now, gradually, starting to hear. Ten years ago, the common questions were “How can we get so-and-so’s work in our rep?” when I was wondering how our European-based art form would resonate with the changing demographic in our country and how we were going to participate in an important national dialogue about meaning, inclusion, tolerance, gender issues, etc. Where would our art form help out? Still, too often I hear “This ballet really sold a lot of tickets … (or not).” and not, “This work resonated with our audience because. . . .”

So, I continued with what I knew, exploring these questions with people mostly outside of my field so I could think harder and learn more. One of the things I learned early on was how much there would always be to learn from others. But make no mistake–a huge part of what I knew and still believe, is that the production of meaningful, relevant art is at the heart of who we are. But we have to find new avenues, open new partnerships so that people will experience what we so passionately believe is vital.

I had been wrestling with ideas about art and community for many years before I wrote to the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The second paragraph of my spring 2006 letter to the Foundation began, “Performing arts organizations, particularly in mid-sized cites–and perhaps even more so those in the oft-neglected ‘fly over zone’ of the heartland–are at a crossroads.” I went on to say that the things we had been presenting and selling as “artistic products” for many years have come to seem increasingly obsolete. Ticket sales were down, donations remained essentially flat, and costs were increasing dramatically. Audiences–along with the world–are changing. Nearly everyone, artist or not, wants to connect with others. But how do we do that today? Where do we find places to meet, learn, and grow together? Do we really even share a notion of the common good? Two and a half years later, I still wonder how arts organizations can serve as common ground for our communities and be seen by them as invaluable points and means of connection.

For brevity’s sake, these were my basic questions: What is ballet to look like in this rapidly changing democracy? Who are we supposed to be as a reflection of our community and our nation? What should we express, create, and explore, in the midst of national and international division? Pragmatically, how can my company continue to do its work? Should it? How can I structure Ballet Memphis so that it is flexible, fast-moving, and always open to change, without losing sight of the idealism and beauty ballet inherently carries and preserves?

By the time the 2004 election sparked a national conversation about cultural differences, I was feeling almost stranded in the middle of the “red-state” territory. For those of us who wrestle to create meaningful art in places like my city, Memphis–plagued by overwhelming poverty, high crime, and a lack of educational resources–the “blue states” and their bounty can seem like a different world. I began to feel that “red states” needed attention, compassion, and help.

Yet, in a city with 24 percent of its population below the poverty level, the highest U. S. infant mortality rate in some of its areas, and the lowest wages in the U.S. paid to women, there are a few pockets of excellence, and a history of creativity and entrepreneurship celebrated around the world. Memphis is a city where giving to churches is significantly above the U.S. average and giving to the arts is significantly below. But Memphis is the city that gave the world rock and roll, soul, and blues music. The list of musical artists who have lived and worked here is astounding: not just Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, B.B. King and Johnny Cash, but also John Lee Hooker, Al Green, Sam and Dave, Isaac Hayes, W. C. Handy, Jimmy Lunceford, Phineas Newborn, Three 6 Mafia, and Justin Timberlake–this is just the tip of the iceberg. The literary giants of our region make for another staggering list: Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, Walker Percy, Carson McCullars, Flannery O’Connor, Tennessee Williams, playwright Tony Kushner, and even John Grisham. The first supermarket was in Memphis (Clarence Saunder’s Piggly Wiggly); the first motel was here (Kemmons Wilson’s Holiday Inn); and the world’s first air-freight carrier was founded and is head quartered here (FEDEX). WDIA in Memphis was the nation’s first radio station with an all-black format. Memphis has a history of exploring and creating new forms.

Today, more than ever, new forms are needed to keep the performing arts vibrant and to help hold our communities together. As Ballet Memphis was a company founded to serve its community and a company that has built a national reputation of creating fine new work, it seems natural to have built much of that work on the rich musical and narrative regional heritage which have contributed so markedly to our national culture. What more can we do to add meaning and content to our field nationally? As a dance company that has never quite followed the pack, like the celebrated entrepreneurs from our city, what can our entrepreneurial spirit do that benefits as many people as we can reach?

I saw my path as a journey in three parts. First, formulate questions for a broad cross-section of national and local business and civic leaders, futurists, marketing and trends experts, innovative non-profit leaders, educators, etc. Next, develop innovative answers to those questions. Third, use Ballet Memphis as a lab to test the ideas. As they unfold, perhaps these ideas can be adjusted by Ballet Memphis and others in the field to become a part of even better models.

The Mellon Foundation responded that they would like to begin by providing the funding to support the exploration phase of forming the questions and providing the way to make the interviewing, connecting, and incubation of ideas possible. With their support, we came up with a list of over 40 interviewees, local and national, that grew to 60 over the course of the year-long process (which began in the spring of 2007). The interviews were based on these questions:

  1. What are the current civic imperatives facing cities, and how are the arts currently involved in addressing these issues?

  2. What does it mean to be a successful community organization, and what are the exemplars?

  3. What is the relevance of dance companies to the current civic imperatives?

There were clear benefits to meeting local leaders not as Ballet Memphis’s ticket seller or fundraiser but as a community leader presenting questions and ideas, attempting to discover their deep concerns and heartfelt interests. What’s more, the meetings helped them see us as a different kind of arts organization, concerned for the community and interested in solving problems. Several knew of our many local successes; but few knew of our national honors seven years previously from the Ford Foundation or recently from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation–not just for artistic excellence and sound fiscal management but also for our deep involvement in our community’s culture.

Now that the exploratory phase is over and I’ve had the opportunity to focus closely on questions and possibilities, I realize that I must make this type of big-picture thinking my top priority. This is an unending process vital to the continued health of my institution.

 

Engagement

Ballet Memphis’s commitment to community engagement has led to significant work in economic development, education, and community building, raising our visibility at home. It has also provided opportunities to grow artistically and enhance our reputation beyond the confines of the city.

Economic Development

Ballet Memphis was a guiding force in the development of “Investing In Inspiration,” a collaboration with the Chamber of Commerce to support economic growth by fostering civic dialogue. This project is having the additional benefit of showing arts institutions as vehicles to make the city a better place to live, as opposed to simply selling tickets. We invited many other groups to participate and almost all Chamber breakfasts and lunches and Chamber circle meetings now include arts content.

Education

In the local leadership community, the widening gap between rich and poor and the city’s racial tensions are particularly concerning. The role of education in correcting these problems is almost universally agreed to be key.

To our work with the public schools, we have added a long term dance program called Dance Avenue serving third graders in three elementary schools and a dance instruction program at Youth Villages, a secured facility for highly troubled teenagers. We have also initiated a program called “FUSE” matching our professional dancers with youth groups in dance-focused mentoring.

Community Building

More and more I’ve felt that in a democracy, and a rapidly changing one, we should be highly attuned to our population and its issues. For years, I have carefully curated our professional company’s performances with the community in mind–exploring community issues in order to have a “conversation” with our audience that is relevant to all of us. This is best exemplified over the last five years with our “Connections” series and our February “AbunDANCE” performances. Architecture, food, the environment, religion, human sound, fashion and gender issues have all been addressed in these series. Dancers and choreographers and audiences are vigorously challenged while simultaneously being entertained and transformed.

In Connections: Food, choreographers and chefs created new work together, (an appetizer was made; dance was derived from it.) A particularly stunning piece was Trey McIntyre’s work built around the main course called “The Barramundi.” This fish starts life as a male, but later in life many of the fish become female; the relevant gender issues were gently portrayed in an area of the country where much intolerance and anger too frequently surround this dialogue. Connections: Food has become our major fundraiser.

More recently, Connections: Earth and Sky featured an outdoor performance including dances based on land, air, and water. In a time when Memphis has been much focused on tragedy resulting from floods, this proved to be a moving event that brought many disparate people together.

Memphis has a high rate of childhood obesity, We have recently received funding to begin a program addressing this problem and, working with Healthy Memphis Roundtable, will be appearing monthly at schools and community centers with tailored performances, dialogue and teaching materials addressing the issue.

In the Mellon interview process, many civic leaders stressed the need to find ways of embracing Memphis’s racial diversity through cultural activities. Much can be done to help our local leaders understand the deeply vibrant and life-enhancing effect the best artistic experience can have on human beings, going beyond the tired assumption of “art is great for the economic development of our city.” This continues to pigeon-hole us and places us in a constricted mind-set that is exactly the opposite of the amazing effect we can have on the deeper places of the human heart. Our education and community building programs help counteract this tendency.

Artistic Growth and Reputation

In the early 1990’s we produced Dancing Together, collaborative dance programs teaming with companies from around the country. In doing so, Ballet Memphis became the first U.S. ballet company to share the stage, the choreographer, and its professional dancers with Rennie Harris’ Pure Movement Hip Hop Company and with Chuck Davis’ African American Dance Ensemble.

New work is central to artistic vitality. Ballet Memphis’s community engagement emphasis has led it to (and provided access to support for) many new dances, especially in the Connections and AbunDANCE series. As but one additional example, Ballet Memphis has become part of a fascinating work in progress about fused dance with one of the Mellon interviewees and an African dancer with whom she is working. Work is being done on this project in Memphis, New Haven, New York, and Burkina Faso in Africa.

At the time of this writing, we counted nearly 150 new works created in our repertories (this may be more new work than any company in the U.S.) and two resident dancers nurtured as choreographers who had been recognized nationally in choreographic competitions.

As word of our innovations and success has begun to spread, our touring program has become increasingly important not only as a revenue generator and opportunity for more dance and learning by our staff, but also for us as ambassadors for our city. Our successful 2007 week in New York City, this past June’s Kennedy Center successes, and two years of taking our full Nutcracker to Spokane, Washington are examples. We are recent recipients of a national dance project grant to tour one of our Memphis project works.

 

Conclusion

And what have been the results of all this work? For the first 2 years of the recession, in contrast to national trends, we increased donations and ticket sales by 17%. Although this growth did not continue in the third year of the recession, we have made tremendous strides in securing major gifts for our endowment and for capital reserves to sustain our annual operations. The future looks quite stable. Exciting new partnerships with minority arts institutions are in the works as well–partnerships which will prove beneficial for our city.

For Ballet Memphis, community engagement has been an inevitable aspect of our work and our growth, a center of gravity whose pull has been irresistible. And, along with commitment to artistic excellence, in defining us it has also provided us a unique market niche and enhanced our financial viability. We simply cannot turn our backs on creating transformative, beautiful, and challenging work. Nor can we resist learning to speak the language of others. Around the world, ballet keeps being produced, but in ways that have lost meaning to many people. My sense is that at the heart of our discipline is belief in the ability of humans to imagine more glorious worlds and build those worlds accordingly. There are truly valuable reasons to use the ground to reach the stars, and that is at the basis of our work. There are truly valuable reasons to present, and explore with our bodies, forms and shapes and lines that go on forever. There are reasons for a corps to work together to further a human narrative, to support a vision. These beliefs, if somehow adopted by the soul of others who see us, support us, work with us, help the progress of humanity. It is up to artistic directors to be in touch with that heart and create, plan, and nurture accordingly.

The following is an overview of some of Ballet Memphis’ actions and successes since 1999:

 

Ballet Memphis Around The World

  • At any given time, nearly 20 percent of our professional dancers represent a global presence in our city, hailing from as far as Japan, Scotland, Dominican Republic, Belgium, Venezuela and more. These dancers call Memphis home and communicate through social media and press with their constituents back home spreading the news of Memphis.

  • In 2009 two Ballet Memphis company members were part of the nine-member U.S. contingency that competed in the Helsinki International Ballet Competition. In 2010, company member Hideko Karasawa competed in the U.S. International Ballet Competition, going through to the semi-final round.

  • The company has performed in Paris, New York, Houston and Quebec. The company also has performed as part of the Inside/Out Series at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival in Becket, Mass., and Spring to Dance in St. Louis.

  • In 2007, Ballet Memphis performed to sold out crowds at the Joyce Theatre in New York and made the world take notice of the regional-themed work coming from this culturally rich area.

  • In 2009, the company toured its Nutcracker from coast-to-coast, performing excerpts in Georgia and taking the entire production to Spokane, Washington, where it sold nearly 7,000 tickets.

  • In 2010, Ballet Memphis became the first Tennessee arts organization to take the main stage at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. Performing as part of Ballet Across America 2, only nine companies were asked to perform, and Ballet Memphis was mentioned positively for both its repertoire and technique in over two dozen reviews and blogs thus far, including The New York Times and Washington Post.

  • Founder and Artistic Director Dorothy Gunther Pugh has established herself as the national go-to person to discuss women in the arts–from being one of only five female leaders of a professional ballet company to the role of women as choreographers in the world of dance. Her published white paper “Dancing Into the Future,” co-authored with President of National Arts Strategies Russell Willis Taylor and funded by the Andrew Mellon Foundation, led to invitations to speak at the Glass Slipper Ceiling Conference in Richmond, Virginia, as well as Dance USA panel discussions in Washington, DC, and a keynote address at their New York Symposium.

  • PBS Newshour also published on their website a two-part interview with Pugh and two other male artistic directors, which aired during the Kennedy Center performances.

  • Most recently Pugh was the first Memphian inducted into the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA), a 250-year-old organization that has been a cradle of enlightenment thinking and a force for social progress.

  • Choreographers from all over the world have traveled to Memphis for the chance to work with the company. In the last few seasons notable figures have come from California, New York, Canada, France, and this season, Africa.

  • The Ford Foundation named Ballet Memphis a “national treasure” and selected the organization as one of only four for its New Directions: New Donors initiative alongside Alvin Ailey in New York, Hubbard Street Dance in Chicago and San Francisco Ballet.

Ballet Memphis At Home

  • Each season, Ballet Memphis touches more than 75,000 people through performances, training in both the Ballet Memphis School and Pilates Centre, and outreach.

  • In 25 years, Ballet Memphis has grown from an organization with two professional dancers and a $75,000 operating budget, to one of the most notable companies in the U.S. with 16 professional dancers and an operating budget of $3.3 million.

  • Unlike presenting organizations that pay a great deal of money to bring performing arts groups in for a few shows, Ballet Memphis hires and keeps some of the most talented young professionals in the nation, who as part of their association with us live in our city and are a daily part of the creative and educational life here.

  • Ballet Memphis believes in nurturing young choreographers and annually creates more original new work for the stage than any other company of this size in the nation. In fact, Ballet Memphis has received grants from the Princess Grace Foundation, Shubert Foundation and the National Dance Project for this commitment to excellence and innovation in the creation of new work.

  • Seven performances over nine months bring in nearly 20,000 attendees to spaces from downtown and Midtown to East Memphis and beyond.

  • More than two dozen visiting designers, choreographers and technical directors are brought to Memphis each season, representing an average of 250 hotel and restaurant nights.

  • The Ballet Memphis School, the only dance school in Memphis housed with a professional company, trains over 600 ballet school students weekly with a uniquely formed syllabus based on kinesiology and taught in a nurturing and imaginative environment. Each year Ballet Memphis gives over $40,000 in need- and skill-based scholarships.

  • Nearly 15,000 inner city children are served by Ballet Memphis’ Community Outreach and Educational Enrichment programs, including Dance Avenue in the Memphis City Schools, reduced-price school matinees, free open rehearsals and visits to churches, hospitals and other nonprofit organizations.

  • The Pilates Centre of Ballet Memphis boasts the only certified STOTT PILATES® facility in the Midsouth, and the only facility with all STOTT-certified trainers. With patrons ages 14 to 89, the Pilates Centre helps more than 300 people each week.

  • The diverse board of directors represents some of Memphis’ top companies: FedEx, AutoZone, LeBonheur, EnSafe, SunTrust, Accredo, Philips Bodine, Mid-America Apartment Communities, Urban Child Institute and more.

  • The Ballet Memphis Studios, designed and built 13 years ago, gained local, state, national and international design awards and was exhibited at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Architecture.

Ballet Memphis' Diversity Record

  • Artistic Director and Founder Dorothy Gunther Pugh is one of only five women in the United States to direct professional ballet companies of note and is becoming known for her voice on gender issues in the ballet world.
  • Julia Adam, one of few women choreographers successfully on major ballet companies, is Artistic Associate for Ballet Memphis.

  • Ballet Memphis has only five people on its administrative staff (in charge of a nationally respected professional company, a school of 700 students, an outreach program in the Memphis City Schools, a touring program, and a Pilates Centre with 300 students) including two African Americans.

  • The Ballet Memphis School faculty has two African American teachers.

  • The Ballet Memphis wardrobe staff is headed by an Asian American and composed on one Asian American and three Hispanic seamstresses.

  • Five out of 24 Ballet Memphis board members are African American.

  • Company member Stacie Williams was one of four African American professional ballet dancers profiled in the June issue of Pointe magazine.

  • Company member Hideko Karasawa (a Japanese citizen) competed at the 2010 International Ballet Competition in Jackson, Miss. She made it to the final 13 dancers out of 600 women.

  • For more than 20 years, Ballet Memphis has performed at many organizations around the Mid-South as part of its outreach program, Dance Avenue.

  • Former Ballet Memphis student Nicki Lewis, an African American, heads Dance Avenue and in 2010 she began a successful dance/movement program at Youth Villages, one of the nation’s leading facilities for troubled youth and their families.

  • Ballet Memphis is the only dance company in the city to have commissioned a rap artist to create music for a school outreach program featuring the professional company.

  • Ballet Memphis is the only dance company in the city to have created a work based on a book used in the Memphis City Schools’ curriculum, Giraffes Can’t Dance, based on an African short story. The company performed the program in the Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools as part of its outreach program.

  • Ballet Memphis did a joint fundraiser with LeMoyne-Owen College that featured Dance Theatre of Harlem.

  • In 2009, Ballet Memphis launched an annual mentoring/collaboration program with the professional company and young dancers from the Boys & Girls Clubs of Memphis called FUSE. In 2010, the program expanded to include other youth organizations and other area artists.

  • Ballet Memphis was the first professional ballet company in the United States to collaborate on the stage with America’s foremost theatre hip-hop company, Rennie Harris Pure Movement.

  • Ballet Memphis was the country’s first professional ballet company to collaborate on stage with the renowned and respected African American Dance Ensemble.

  • Ballet Memphis was the first American professional ballet company to bring to New York ­– and perform for a week on the Joyce Theatre stage – a work by African American choreographer Thaddeus Davis that incorporated the art of two African American urban poets from Memphis. Davis’ work also featured music by Memphis rap artists and producers.

  • Ballet Memphis commissioned work from Kirk Whalum, a Grammy-nominated musician and composer, which featured more than 60 voices from the New Olivet Baptist Church Choir. We then set a commissioned ballet by Jane Comfort, made possible through a prestigious National Dance Project award, to Whalum’s music.

  • Ballet Memphis has performed (in three different seasons) Grace, a commissioned work by Trey McIntyre set to gospel music performed by live musicians from LeMoyne-Owen College and Stax Music Academy choirs and band.

  • Ballet Memphis has commissioned several original works about the African American experience including:

    • A ballet based on the Freedom Riders Struggle, a photograph by well-known African American photographer Andrew Taylor

    • A ballet based on the famous Ernest Withers photograph I Am A Man

    • A ballet by up-and-coming African American choreographer Camille Brown, based on a painting of Beale Street at the Brooks Museum of Art and danced to music by Aretha Franklin

    • Works based on the music of W.C. Handy, Duke Ellington, Rufus Thomas, John Lee Hooker, Al Green and more

    • Four Women, a work by former company member Damien Patterson, based on the women who raised him a Baltimore housing project and featuring the music of Nina Simone

    • A new work choreographed and performed with the White Station High School Step Team

  • Ballet Memphis performed an original work based on the Tom Lee story and set to music by African American composer William Grant Stills. In 1925, Lee rescued 28 white women and children from a burning paddle-wheel in the Mississippi River.

  • Ballet Memphis created an evening of works, Where the Girls Are, based on perceptions of women over the past century and a half. It was reprised in the 2010-11 season with a new world premier by Emily Coates and Lacina Coulibahy, considered the “African Baryshnikov.”