By Lisa Traiger
Friday, June 11, 2010; WE39
Nine companies will share the Kennedy Center stage next week in a weeklong festival celebrating ballet with an American accent.
The second installment of the Ballet Across America program offers an eclectic sampling of what American ballet looks like after a half-century of dispersion from its centers in San Francisco, where the first ballet troupe on American soil -- the San Francisco Ballet -- was founded in 1933, and the dance capital New York.
"We wanted to look at the wealth and riches of regional ballet companies and bring in many of the smaller companies from across the country so that Washington audiences can see them," says Meg Booth, director of dance programming at the Kennedy Center. With more than 90 professional ballet companies from which to choose, this year's roster was, according to Booth, picked to represent the breadth of ballet in the United States.
Although many regional companies have been founded in the past 25 to 50 years by former stars from the top guns (New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre and the Joffrey Ballet), Ballet Memphis, one of the companies performing at the festival, is entirely homegrown. Founder and artistic director Dorothy Gunther Pugh counts five generations of Memphis natives on her family tree, and she began her own ballet studies with the Memphis Civic Junior Ballet. In 1986, with two dancers and $75,000, she founded a professional ballet company in her home town.
So what makes Ballet Memphis, with just 16 dancers, quintessentially American?
"The culture of Memphis is reflective of so many cultural trends that have contributed to changing the world," says Pugh, who presents works that reflect the social and political history of her Southern home. In Washington, the company will dance "In Dreams," a quintet by Wichita-born choreographer Trey McIntyre, who spent seven years as choreographer-in-residence at Ballet Memphis, and inspired by the music of singer-songwriter Roy Orbison.
Orbison -- first signed by Sun Records in Memphis, which also gave a start to Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis -- represents one of Memphis's most important contributions to the nation: music.
"There was this convergence of white music and black music right here," Pugh says. "And rock-and-roll and soul music both exploded in Memphis. So it seems appropriate that this city offers a place in art to address questions about who really does sit at the table and how do we express the questions of humanity living together."
For Pugh, that means not offering a ballet like "Swan Lake" just because it sells tickets or a Balanchine revival because that's what is done in New York. Instead, her choreographers mine the musical and literary history of Memphis, drawing on Southern novels and the musical catalogues of Stax and Sun Records for inspiration.
"If I just kept doing what everyone else did, I wouldn't really be servicing the needs of our community," Pugh says.
Other highlights of Ballet Across America II include Ib Andersen's Ballet Arizona performing the director's "Diversions" and Peter Boal's Pacific Northwest Ballet dancing up-and-coming choreographer Benjamin Millepied's "3 Movements."
The festival also features the Houston Ballet in the playful Mozart-accompanied ballet "Falling"; Washington's own Suzanne Farrell Ballet in George Balanchine's "Monumentum Pro Gesualdo" and "Movements for Piano and Orchestra"; and North Carolina Dance Theatre, directed by Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, dancing his bluegrass-inflected "Shindig." A third program features the D.C. debut of the Tulsa Ballet in Nacho Duato's "Por Vos Muero" using 15th-century Spanish music; the Joffrey Ballet in "Age of Innocence" by Edwaard Liang; and Jorma Elo's "Red Sweet," danced by Aspen Santa Fe Ballet.
Traiger is a freelance writer.
Ballet Across America II June 15-20. Kennedy Center, Opera House, 2700 F St. NW. 202-467-4600. http://www.kennedy-center.org. $29-$79.