Ballet review: 'Family Matters' an elegant portrayal of everyday struggles

The four works on Ballet Memphis’ latest mixed-rep program “Family Matters,” concluding Sunday at Playhouse on the Square, bring to mind Tolstoy’s observation: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Each family depicted in this evening of wide-ranging choreography struggles with different issues. Like psychological case studies, one family copes with fame and fortune, another with death. One couple has a loveless marriage, and the last family must settle personality differences.

Audience members will no doubt have personal ways of connecting to these works. Indeed, it was hard to find consensus at Friday’s opening as to which dance left the deepest overall impression.

Three of these domestic sketches have been part of Ballet Memphis’ family for many years, though new dancers bring out new details in the choreography.

The most enduring piece is the moody “Crossing.” It’s nice to see Julia Adam’s work more than a decade removed from its source of inspiration, the 9/11 tragedy. Now, it speaks to broader notions of grief — of how our loved ones cope with sudden loss. Her movement is crisp and sophisticated but with quirky hints of folksiness that both give the family its own internal language and also make it relatable to our own. When a happy young man, elegantly portrayed by Travis Bradley (who is probably the hardest working dancer in the company right now), “crosses” to the other side, the dancers’ bodies become stricken with yearning. Glimpses of 9/11 take your breath away: two women are held aloft by the men in twisted, grotesque lifts, like a snapshot of people falling. So much anguish in a simple tableau.

“George and Betty’s House,” a somewhat older piece by Danial Shapiro and Joanie Smith is a comic take on the “modern” family, although the stoop-shouldered mom in her frowsy brown house dress and the emotionally detached father in his business suit look like characters in a 1950s sitcom. Brandon Ramey and Virginia Pilgrim make slapstick use of their long, slender arms and legs as they lovelessly knock about their house to creepy, synthesized music. Pilgrim brings unexpected humanity to a role that is almost all caricature.

Trey McIntyre’s “High Lonesome” still manages to enthrall with its muscular, exciting movement set to a handful of great songs from Beck’s album “Odelay.” The music hasn’t aged one bit in 17 years, though the dance (not the choreography per se) has lost some of its impact. For one, Playhouse’s stage is too confining. “High Lonesome” looked much better at the Orpheum. For another, the dancers are too smooth, too fluid. McIntyre’s work originally had a sharper edge; balletic, but striking.

Steven McMahon’s “The Royal We” superficially looks at how members of a ruling family relate to issues of fame. It’s a trifling bit of dance: Bruce Bui’s costumes reveal the characters in full (a sparkly egomaniac prince, a doll baby princess, a graceful old swan queen, etc.) When members of the family struggle to lift the crown, it’s a Vaudeville routine as clichéd as the cliché that inspired it, namely “heavy is the head that wears the crown.”

In a way, McMahon proves Tolstoy wrong. Some unhappy families are alike, too.

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