Ballet Memphis in Julia Adam’s Devil’s Fruit
Dorothy Gunther Pugh has a drawl so thick you could cut it with a knife—she’s homegrown, born and raised in Memphis. When the small ballet school she operated began attracting attention, she was approached with the idea of heading her own ballet company. In 1986, she launched what was then known as Memphis Concert Ballet with two professional dancers, a half-time business manager and a budget of $75,000. Thirty years later, Ballet Memphis has 24 dancers, eight trainees, a school, a stand-alone Pilates center and an operating budget of $4.5 million. The organization owes its success to Pugh’s innovative approach to programming. For instance, this month, the event “Pairings” matches four contemporary dance works by local choreographers with beer tastings from four Memphis breweries.
On programming “I want to do things that the audience would want to come in and see. And if they’ve never heard of certain choreographers, it’s not gonna matter how fabulous the choreography is, if I can’t find a way to package it. Like the last time we did Pas de Quatre, it went on a program called “Where the Girls Are.” We did a lot of things that were really directed at how one looks at a woman. Up against Pas de Quatre was a piece called Four Women with music by Nina Simone, by one of our dancers who grew up in the projects of Baltimore. And we did The Awakening, the Kate Chopin novel. We do pieces in the context of, ‘Let’s come look at this together—let’s have a cultural conversation.’ Not just, ‘It’s time to do a romantic ballet.’”
On priorities “The older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve realized that when parents entrust the most important thing in their universe to you—their children—you very well better do your best. Because it’s such an honor for someone to say, ‘Here’s my child. Will you help in their greater development?’ That’s way more important than, ‘Here’s my child. Will you turn her into someone who can do multiple fouettés?’”
On ballet stereotypes “I think we could all, in the ballet world, nudge ourselves away from our assumptions. I think we need to do that aesthetically, about our ballet dancers. Sometimes you’re going to hire a dynamite dancer who’s gonna appeal to your audience, whether her thighs are a little too big or her feet aren’t completely arched. I’ve lived that way, anyway, for 30 years in hiring people. I’ve done it pretty quietly, but I’m getting more vociferous now.” DT
Training Studied under Edith Royal, Louise Rooke, Raymond Clay, Donna Carver and David Howard; completed teacher-training courses at the Royal Academy of Dance
Leadership Founding artistic director of Ballet Memphis (1986)
Photos by Ari Denison; both courtesy of Ballet Memphis