WASHINGTON, D.C. — The steady, 24-year rise of Ballet Memphis — from a local dance studio to a nationally recognized professional troupe — reached another milestone Thursday night at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
The company performed a 2007 work, “In Dreams,” as part of the Ballet Across America II series. It joined the larger Arizona Ballet and Pacific Northwest Ballet on a program attended by nearly 2,000 people in the 2,300-seat Opera House. And the critics, at least at the New York Times and the Washington Post, praised the performance.
“I thought (Ballet Memphis) was doing very interesting work that employed regional music,” said the Kennedy Center’s director of dance programming Meg Booth of why she selected the company to take part in this second installment of the biannual series. “They bring homegrown work with ties to its local culture.”
Created by increasingly-renowned Trey McIntyre, who was then Ballet Memphis’ choreographer-in-residence, the work pays passing homage to Sun Studio recording artist Roy Orbison.
The five dancers, wearing western-style shirts and somnambulant expressions, inhabit the darkly dreamlike atmosphere evoked in Orbison’s recordings, among them “Dream Baby,” “The Crowd,” “Crying” and “In Dreams.”
Artistic director Dorothy Gunther Pugh said the music — and the theme — is popular with audiences, which is why “In Dreams” has been consistently performed since it premiered. “Roy Orbison is the Placido Domingo of country music. You can hear his heart breaking,” Pugh said.
The performance was sharply executed and well-received by the audience. Dancers Stephanie Mei Hom, Steven McMahon, Julie Niekrasz, Jonathan Powell and Jane Rehm drilled the movement for a week-and-a-half before traveling to Washington.
“There are a lot of different reasons why coming to the Kennedy Center is important,” said the company’s ballet mistress Tamara Hoffman. “But I think the best thing is that people here finally get to know about us, and that we’re doing great work.”
In the last decade, Ballet Memphis has pursued the attention of national critics. The company made its New York City debut in 2001 at Hunter College. It returned there in 2007 to perform at the famed Joyce Theatre, where McIntyre’s choreography was also highlighted on a program.
Early reviews, posted online on Friday and likely to hit the papers Saturday (just in time for Ballet Memphis’ final two performances), were positive.
A Washington Post review praised the Memphis performance: “The dancing is clear, expansive and uncluttered. Orbison’s magnificent voice fills in the rest of the picture, flooding the stage, washing over the seats with his distinctive emotional fullness. ... Orbison and ballet: Who’d have imagined that one could refresh the other, and both would emerge tinged with even deeper feeling?”
The New York Times online review said, "A passage of footwork may suddenly tie in to a figure in the musical accompaniment, a sudden lift may catch a salient note in Orbison’s singing, a dancer may arch back on a closing chord, but much of the choreography floats around the music. In solos, duets and trios, different images of need emerge; but even though the duets are intense, it’s as if they’re happening in the traumatized unconscious. “In Dreams” — which I imagine would make more impact in a smaller theater — is distinctive, touching, and ambiguous."