Ballet Memphis
Joyce Theater
New York, NY
April 3, 2007

by Susan Reiter
copyright © 2007 by Susan Reiter

Aside from a fleeting 2001 appearance on a shared program, Ballet Memphis had not been seen in New York City, so its week at the Joyce served as a proper, and quite well thought-out, introduction to this 20-year-old troupe. Founder/artistic director Dorothy Gunther Pugh not only brought two programs, but the entire repertory consisted of works made on the company. We saw dancers performing with bracing zest and flair in works that were fresh and inspired directly by their talents and personalities.

The first of two programs offered works by resident choreographer Trey McIntyre, Julia Adam, and Thaddeus Davis. (Additional works by McIntyre and Adam shared the alternate program with a repeat of Davis’ work.) The company certainly gets points for variety; these dances represented a wide range of styles and approach as well as musical inspiration.

McIntyre’s “The Naughty Boy!” featured a pert, mischievous Dawn Fay as a nimble modern-day Cupid encouraging, and sometimes mixing it up with, four couples. Set to a Mozart Violin Concerto, the dance was a showcase for McIntyre’s confident, sassy, sometimes overstuffed use of the classical vocabulary. Every fillip of Mozart’s delicious music was reflected in the choreography, but one sensed such an affectionate and big-hearted instinct behind it that its excesses became lovable rather than intrusive.

The first of the three movements was performed with a dark curtain stretched three-quarters of the way across from stage right to left, blocking about a third of the stage’s depth. Fay, in white tights, fitted plaid jacket, and a chic little hat, entered as colored streamers sailed on from offstage, setting the bright, exuberant tone. McIntyre showcases her crisp attack with fleet, sharp legwork and frequent bourrées that seem to skitter perfectly on top of Mozart’s notes. Meanwhile various couples are emerging – or at times peeking in from behind the curtain — entering as new sections of the music are introduced.

The couples’ costuming is varied, although all are dressed in pale colors and vaguely pastoral-looking draped designs. Each pair had a chance to establish itself with fluent, at times slightly gymnastic partnering, with Fay appearing periodically to insinuate herself into a deft, entwining trio. Crystal Brothers was immediately notable for the lush fluency of her phrasing and her piquant charm, and in the second movement, with the mid-curtain removed, she and Travis Bradley became the central attraction.

McIntyre has a tendency to overstuff his phrases, and there were moments when their otherwise eloquent adagio felt hectic in a way that contradicted Mozart’s sublime calm. But one always feels there is an inner, is idiosyncratic, logic behind his movement, as he persuade us to hear what he does in the music. Fay returned to embody the curlicues of the movement’s cadenza, and then everyone took turns bounding through swift, intricate passages in the third movement. McIntyre’s inventiveness provided moments of surprise and delight, right up to the final moment, when Fay he lifted triumphantly above clustered pose, and streamers once again sail onto the stage, somehow timed perfectly with the music.

Adam, a former San Francisco Ballet dancer who has contributed works to that company’s repertory, took on the tricky task of embodying a short story in dance — in this case, Eudora Walty’s “A Curtain of Green,” which is the title tale in an acclaimed 1941 collection. The three dancers are not identified by specific character names, and without knowledge of the story’s specifics, one could only glean a general sense of melancholy loss with a hint of an unfulfilled connection.

Adams set the brief dance to the wistful arpeggios of two Philip Glass Etudes. Fay, in a simple print dress, rocked in a chair, facing away from the audience, as if lost in her memories. She twisted her torso and raised an arm in a rigid, robotic manner. At the side, a man (Steven McMahon) entered, fell forward, left and repeated the sequence. We were drawn into her looping recollections of his death — her frenzied reaction, attempts to pump his chest. She seemed to will him back to life, and he partnered her briefly, her body arcing and swooping through space, until they both feel to the ground. She returned to the chair, resuming her sad rocking and semaphor-like gestures. After a blackout, Fay reappeared in a fanciful green jumpsuit of sheer material to confront Kendall G. Britt, Jr., a figure of boyish innocence who traced his finger along the ground while seeming to lie in wait. The committed performances were not enough to clarify the dramatic situation; Adam did her best to evoke a mood but the specifics of the relationships were left too vague, without some prior knowledge of Welty’s story.

Closing the program was Davis’ “Mercurial Balance,” which was very much an attempt to connect to the here and now. Two hip-hop style poets provided brief, not especially articulate observations and questions (“are we capable of defining love”) before and between the dance segments, in which the eleven dancers, wearing chicly casual practice clothes, expended a lot energy to minimal, and mostly grim effect as a pulsating, numbing contemporary score. The stage was stripped bare to its brick walls, the women were tough and everybody looked suitably alienated. The dancers gave it their feisty, vigorous all, but seemed disconnected from the material, which requited them to obedient athletes with none of the personable incandescence that glowed through in McIntyre’s work.

Volume 5, No. 14
April 9, 2007

copyright ©2007 by Susan Reiter

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