The first thing you might expect from Ballet Memphis' "River Project" — a program of three new dances inspired by the Mississippi River — are strong allusions to an actual river.
Visual touches such as a watery lighting design or iconic music along the lines of "Proud Mary" or "Take Me to the River" may have been what artistic director Dorothy Gunther Pugh had in mind when she assigned three choreographers the task of riffing on the river and its metaphorical tributaries.
The result, however, now running at Playhouse on the Square, is a colorful, multifaceted program that takes unexpected turns, often far from the Mississippi's shores.
Artistic associate Julia Adam is the sole choreographer to get her feet wet, so to speak. Her visually enchanting dance "The Second Line" traces the musical and social history of New Orleans. Dancers first appear as French aristocrats elegantly moving across the stage in sheer costumes by Christine Darch that give them the breezy lightness of ghosts. Moving forward in time, Travis Bradley and Kendall Britt begin a close duet linked by a wooden stick that could suggest a 19th century master and slave.
Rafael Ferreras, wearing a voodoo top hat, rocks ceremoniously to African drums as his fellow dancers sprout fingertip branches and surround him like trees in a shape-shifting swamp. Adam concludes her travelogue with a macabre Mardi Gras parade in which death himself makes an appearance while a Dixieland band plays "When the Saints Go Marching In."
Choreographic associate Steven McMahon's "Confluence" opens with Virginia Pilgrim slowly traversing the stage in a series of bold, swimming arabesques. Her journey, like the journey of a river, eventually brings her into a happy pool of other people, moving in harmony to Mavis Staples' "Don't Knock."
Dressed in salmon pinks and yellows, McMahon's dancers joyfully swarm across the stage like sunbeams. The strikingly lithe Daniel Russell Cooke — one to watch this season — spreads his long arms, full front, as if radiating the positive energy of the piece directly into the audience.
Program notes are helpful in appreciating Matthew Neenan's "Party of the Year (Victoria Avenue, CA 12/25/70)," as is the short documentary video that Ballet Memphis shows at the start of the program to explain how the choreographers developed their concepts.
Neenan takes us to a Christmas party in California where Rachel Shumake, in a black and white dress, strikes a somber tone among her revelers in rich purple, green and blue attire. The voices of Albert King, Ray Charles and Joni Mitchell frame this bluesy and perhaps unresolved dance that is as far from the Mississippi River as a choreographer can get.
Ballet Memphis’ ‘River Project’
8 tonight, Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at Playhouse on the Square, 66 S. Cooper. Tickets are $10-$72. Call 901-737-7322.