As New York Times dance critic Alastair Macaulay noted in his 2012 review of Ballet Memphis' River Project, "sometimes a great tribute has nothing to do with the subject." Macaulay was responding to choreographer Matthew Neenan's "Victoria Avenue, CA, 12/25/70," a new work that had everything to do with a wild party in Los Angeles and nothing to do with the mighty Mississippi, which, in theory, gives the River Project its name and purpose. It's precisely the kind of response Ballet Memphis founder and artistic director Dorothy Gunther Pugh anticipated when she launched the ambitious project with an idea that her hometown is an American crossroads that transcends geography, creating an opportunity for Ballet Memphis to become a "launching point" and "creative center of American dance."
On the other hand, sometimes you have to "dance with the one who brung ya." For "Moving Currents," the third, and final installment of the River Project, Neenan has crafted a haunting new piece called "The Darting Eyes," inspired by fading photographs of river baptisms collected in the book/CD package Take Me to the Water by Lance Ledbetter and Luc Sante. Juxtaposing American folk music with selections from Handel and a vintage sermon, it's no more literal than "Victoria Avenue" but just as arresting.
"Flyway," choreographed by Ballet Memphis regular Steven McMahon is a whimsical, colorful work inspired initially by avian migratory patterns, but more specifically by "the many peculiarities, behaviors, and patterns that birds exhibit in this setting."
Also taking to the air, "Night and Day in FedEx City" is an intermittently surreal glimpse into the world of overnight package delivery. In his choreographer's notes, Petr Zahradníček says his ode to Memphis' largest employer is inspired by the "movement of commerce" and the "ballet of packages." Though the tone is oddly dystopian, it aims to take audiences neatly boxed parcels, above the clouds.