In a modern building on the edge of Cordova, Ballet Memphis‘ company of dancers prepares their performances for Memphis audiences, in quiet isolation as they tighten the screws on their art. When MemphisConnect visited last week, the company was hard at work in rehearsal for their April 20 and 21 performances of The Wizard of Oz, at the Orpheum Theatre.
But our conversation was only partly about dance. That’s the commodity Ballet Memphis trades in, but it’s only a slice of what they have to offer. Like every deeply dedicated arts non-profit in any town, they see their role in the community as that of connectors, cultural instigators, fire starters.
“Out here, we’re removed from the hub of what’s going on in Memphis,” said Lauren Kennedy, Ballet Memphis’ Partnership Manager. “But as artists, we’re all interested in other art forms. We’re always looking for interesting things going on in the community.”
Under her guidance, Ballet Memphis has this year launched a public lecture series, dubbed sparkconversations, to add the organization’s voice to the dialog of the local arts scene. Leaving the suburbs and leaping into the heart of the city, they have partnered with Crosstown Arts on the monthly lecture series, which explores the creative process across art forms.
The April sparkconversation will be held tonight, at 422 N. Cleveland, from 6:30 to 7:30, with the conversation thematically tied to the company’s upcoming performance of The Wizard of Oz. Dancer and choreographer Steven McMahon will explore the creative differences between the original book, the 1930s movie masterpiece and the ballet. Joining him will be film professors Steve Ross from the University of Memphis, and Keith Corson, PhD, adjunct at Rhodes, U of M and Memphis College of Art.
Kennedy says community outreach is a big part of the company’s intent with the spark series, getting new audiences interested in what ballet is capable of as an art form.
“Many cities have a built-in ballet audience,” she said. “We don’t have that in Memphis. But, we do have a company that does more new work than many other, bigger companies, and a lot of work with a regional focus. We’re a pretty different company. We ask our dancers to do things out of their comfort zone.”
Kennedy says the events will hit the cultural sweet spot that young, creative people crave, looping experts in diverse fields into a common conversation. Last month, the program was tied to Playhouse on the Square’s production of Angels in America, a powerful piece that inspired a robust conversation about diversity in Memphis. In a moment when our city was in the national spotlight for the clash of history and respect at the heart of our debate around the names of our parks, Kennedy saw the discussion as important.
“People in Memphis always have something to say about diversity,” she said. “But we don’t often have multiple groups in one place to talk about it together. People need the chance for a dialog. We didn’t plan for this, but the conversation became very racially focused. It became apparent that people needed to have that conversation.”
Only a few months in, Kennedy says a culture is already sprouting up around the sparkconversations, and “people are beginning to expect them. Now our conversations have a life of their own, and live beyond the events.”
Asked about the role of sparkconversations have among Ballet Memphis’ busy schedule of classes, performances, open rehearsals and special programming, Kennedy says the events are another important way to interact with the city, and are here to stay.
“The series will go on for a long time, as long as I can do it,” said Kennedy. “There’s always something to talk about.”