It's a 'Family' affair for Ballet Memphis

Ballet Memphis dancers Julie Niekrasz, Travis Bradley, Crystal Brothers and Kendall Britt perform in “Family Matters” this weekend at Playhouse on the Square.
Mathieu Young

Ballet Memphis dancers Julie Niekrasz, Travis Bradley, Crystal Brothers and Kendall Britt perform in “Family Matters” this weekend at Playhouse on the Square. Mathieu Young

Ballet Memphis’ “Family Matters”

Performances are 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at Playhouse on the Square, 66 South Cooper. Tickets are $10, $22, $43 and $72. Call 901-737-7322.

Like families, dances change over time. Some grow larger, others shrink away. They evolve emotionally, take on new meanings, connections and depths the same way families do in the face of new challenges.

Recently, Ballet Memphis’ artistic director Dorothy Gunther Pugh shuddered during a rehearsal for this weekend’s “Family Matters” program, a mixed rep of works that illuminate aspects of family life.

First performed in 2000, the dance “George and Betty’s House” by choreographic team Shapiro & Smith offers a humorous glimpse into a dysfunctional family. In one brief moment, the precocious male child (typically danced by a large man) throws a temper tantrum and points a toy gun at his parents.

“It was intended as a gag to show that the kid was really bratty,” Pugh said. “But now, in the context of our national debate about gun violence, you have to worry about people being offended.”

In fact, people were offended when “George and Betty’s House” debuted. But at a scene in which the mother and father satirically attempt intimacy while wearing latex gloves and surgical masks.

“I watch that part now and can’t believe people would have been shocked by it,” Pugh said.

Times have also changed since Julia Adam first choreographed her dance “The Crossing” for the Joffrey Ballet. Inspired by 9/11, it depicts a close-knit family with three sons. When one of the sons passes through a doorway, the family’s movement becomes a harrowing expression of loss.

When Ballet Memphis first performed the work in 2004, Pugh said that “we were sitting in the audience talking about how much we loved that family, and how we were witnesses to a very private grief.” It was the dance that helped turn Adam into a member of Ballet Memphis’ own family. She is now the company’s artistic associate and creates work regularly for the company, including last fall’s “Second Line,” a musical collage of New Orleans.

One of Ballet Memphis’ previous choreographic protégés and now the director of his own company in Boise, Idaho, Trey McIntyre, created “High Lonesome” for Ballet Memphis in 2001.

Loosely based on members of his own family, McIntyre’s athletic, fast-moving ballet depicts a family in a state of change. It’s set to the rock music of Beck.

Pugh compares bringing these works back into the repertoire to curating a museum exhibit, only that none of them will ever be exactly the same. New dancers bring their own experiences and emotions to the roles.

One dancer, Steven McMahon, won’t appear in any pieces on this program. The longtime company member broke a bone in his foot in November.

He did, however, create the only new dance on program, a comic piece called “The Royal We,” inspired by the British royal family.

McMahon, a native of Scotland, said he wanted to take a lighthearted look at one family that is never out of the public eye.

“When I started thinking about the idea of ‘family,’ I remembered my country’s obsession with the royal family. It’s very exaggerated,” said McMahon.

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