Classical dance and Memphis jookin' meet at Ballet Memphis

'World Wonders' on tap this weekend

Ballet Memphis dancers Rafael Ferreras Jr. and Crystal Brothers will perform in this weekend’s World Wonders.

Jon W. Sparks/Special to The Commercial Appeal

Ballet Memphis dancers Rafael Ferreras Jr. and Crystal Brothers will perform in this weekend’s World Wonders.

There’s nothing like that last week of rehearsals.

Whether a play, a musical presentation, an opera, or — in this case — a ballet, the days just before opening are grueling.

Ballet shoes

Jon W. Sparks

Ballet shoes

And if you’re creating something entirely original, then the risk looms large.

So it is for Rafael Ferreras, company member of Ballet Memphis, whose piece titled “Politics” debuts this weekend at Playhouse on the Square. It’s one of five very different works the company is presenting in its “World Wonders” mixed repertory production.

Dorothy Gunther Pugh, founding artistic director of Ballet Memphis, called on Ferreras to create a work that would stir cultural interest. “The first thing that popped into my head was to have all women,” Ferreras said.

“Then I wanted to make a parody of a work environment. Because when you go to work, no matter what you do, whether you’re working in a restaurant or working in the arts or working in an office, you have to put on a certain costume and a certain persona for a certain amount of hours, then you leave work and you’re back to your original true self.”

The various elements he wanted to add and the way the story would unfold began falling into place.

“The women are wearing the same exact thing, the same colors,” he says. “So you can watch the different reactions to the elements and, if you will, how they handle their jobs and how they deal with the stresses at work. So it’s a little bit of a stressful piece — it’s insanely fast.”

He also wanted to find a fusion, mixing classical dance with jookin’, the hip-hop dance style with Memphis roots.

“I know the first thing you think about with hip-hop in ballet is hip-hop versus ballet,” Ferreras says. “And I wanted to get away from that. I wanted to blend hip-hop with ballet.”

While this is his first main stage choreography for Ballet Memphis, Ferreras — who has been with the company since 1998 — did a related project last year with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra. He choreographed excerpts from Leonard Bernstein’s “On the Town” that featured dance from members of Ballet Memphis and the U-Dig Dance Academy.

Hip-hop has always had an allure for the dancer, who is from the Bronx and has trained with the Dance Theatre of Harlem and Joffrey Ballet.

“When I first started dancing I wanted to do hip-hop,” Ferreras says. “I loved hip-hop and I loved the music. I wasn’t really enamored with the culture because it wasn’t part of my culture, but it’s the same way I felt about ballet — it wasn’t really part of my culture. I just knew that I enjoyed doing the discipline. I just wanted to do the work, but you also have to be part of the community. But there is a certain etiquette that you have dealing with the hip-hop community, the ballet community, the modern dance community, the contemporary dance community, the tap dancing community. They all have this different way of dealing with things.”

Ferreras met some hip-hop dancers in 2009 with a Ballet Memphis project called “Fuse,” where dancers from Ballet Memphis worked with youngsters from the Boys and Girls Clubs of Memphis.

“That’s when I discovered jookin’ and the intricate footwork,” he says, “and immediately in my head it popped that footwork and ballet — there is a connection.”

LaShonté Anderson, a teacher at KIPP Memphis Schools, is helping Ferreras choreograph the piece.

She’d worked with him on the recent short film “Bookin’” that has two ballet dancers and two jookers collaborating on a performance at Earnestine & Hazel’s. “He reached out and said he wanted me to be part of the next season,“ Anderson says.

“He asked if I had jukettes who could be part of his project, so I brought in some ladies I’d been jookin’ with for a few years. Like in the film, we have so many similarities in our styles.”

He would work up some moves for the ballerinas and then have Anderson do complementary movement with the jookers.

“But I’m not using only those elements,” Ferreras says. “I’m also using singers from Hattiloo Theatre. They’re doing the Passacaglia in C minor by Bach using only their voices. This is something I’ve never seen and they’ve never seen. I just said, ‘Let’s see what happens.’ They’re also singing the Moses Hogan arrangement of ‘Elijah Rock’.”

Ferreras is confident despite juggling what might be an overwhelming variety of elements. “It’s a good thing, but it’s making my job even harder,” he says with a grin. “The worst thing that can happen is that people say ‘we hate it!’ It’s not like we’re going to lose a war.”

So yes, it’s a risk, especially for his first piece. But he’s thoroughly committed.

“So far, it’s happening,” Ferreras says. “I’m enjoying that. I can’t wait to see what it looks like.”


Ballet Memphis

‘World Wonders’

8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday

Playhouse on the Square, 66 S. Cooper

Tickets: $10, $22, $43, $72

The other works in the production include:

Don Quixote pas de deux, choreographed by Marius Petipa and based on the story by Miguel de Cervantes. Danced by Virginia Pilgrim and Brandon Ramey.

Flower Festival in Genzano pas de deux, choreographed by August Bournonville in 1858 for Denmark’s Royal Ballet. Company dancers Hideko Karasawa and Kendall G. Britt Jr. reprise their performance for the Ballet Asteras 2013 Gala in Tokyo.

Manifold by Gabrielle Lamb is inspired by the works of Spanish surrealist painter Remedios Varo.

Water of the Flowery Mill was created for Ballet Memphis by Matthew Neenan for the company’s 2011 Connections: Food event.

© 2014 Go Memphis. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Comments » 0

Be the first to post a comment!

Want to participate in the conversation? Become a subscriber today. Subscribers can read and comment on any story, anytime. Non-subscribers will only be able to view comments on select stories.