Ballet Memphis holds to core values of innovation after 30 years

It’s been a steep climb, but after 30 years Memphis Ballet Company has risen from a small, local dance company to a position of national recognition.

A lot of the credit lies with founder Dorothy Gunther Pugh.

“We’ve built such a strong and admirable institution. We’ve been pretty careful about it,” said the CEO and founding artistic director of Ballet Memphis.

In 1986, she founded Ballet Memphis. Since, the company has grown from two dancers to 26. The budget followed suit swelling from $75,000 to $4.1 million.

Further reflecting the trend in growth, a new $21 million facility in Midtown at 2144 Madison Ave. will also formally open its doors on Aug. 26.

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“The company has changed so much in the past 20 years. People are moving back into the city, taking part in this urban renaissance, more walkers and bikers. We wanted to be in the new hot bed of activity,” said Pugh.

Ballet Memphis founding artistic director and CEO Dorothy Gunther Pugh

She was quick to thank those who have provided support from day one.

“They have supported us without fail. The philanthropists in this town are dedicated and it’s amazing all the things they help make happen in this community.”

Credit also lies with the culture Pugh and early company members created.

Ballet Memphis values diversity among its company and its staff, Pugh said. Currently, over 60 percent of its dancers are of color.

“We have dancers from Memphis; we recruit nationally – I have a dancer from Charlottsville, Va. We have two Panamanian dancers. They’ve come from North Carolina, from Boston, from Japan, Mexico, Spain, France, Russia, the Phillipines,” said Pugh.

Some dancers have been with company for 20 years. There is little turnover. Some years, there is only one spot to fill. Dancers spanning the globe travel to Memphis to audition. Ballet Memphis holds tryouts in diverse locations, as well.

On tour, the company tries to project Memphis' unique voice. Pieces from their River Project or Memphis Project are generally performed.

“When we performed at the Kennedy Center in 2010 with 'Dance Across America' we were on stage with nine major companies and we were the star of the show – the finest reviews went to us with our five dancers and our Roy Orbison inspired piece called ‘In Dreams.’”

Dancers will be visible as they ply their craft at the new Ballet Memphis headquarters. They, too, will be part of the scenery at the Overton Square intersection.

The spirit of inclusiveness is also reflected in the design of the new 38,000-square-foot facility. The front exterior features open spaces. An abundance of glass panels provide transparency. Colors were chosen from nature’s palette to mirror the outside world. The effect is a melding of the inside and outside spaces.

“We want people to come in, look around and feel welcome.”

From Madison Ave., the work of the costume shop will be visible. Through its glass panes, selections from an estimated 10,000-piece wardrobe will be exhibited. You can also catch costumers hard at work.

Dancers will also be visible as they ply their craft. They, too, will be part of the scenery at the Overton Square intersection.

“It feels great to finally be working in the new building. One of the things I’ve really taken note of is seeing how the space has affected the people who work in it – their spirits really seemed to have soared from the moment they stepped into the new space," Pugh added.

Within its walls are studios, offices, a costume shop, meeting and classroom space and a corner café.

Softly curved in an almost egg-like shape, the Mama Gaia Café, or the “egg,” as Pugh calls it, will serve organic vegetarian fare to visitors.

The second floor features a “nest” or loft. Here, dancers and staff can gather and relax.

“It provides a sense of lifting our spirits up and a nesting for ideas and things that are not born yet or are in the process of growth. There’s a lot of metaphorical language in the building that reflects what the ballet world can do for people.”

Each studio has its own name and identity.

The main studio, which is referred to as Fly, fronts the building. With a 45-ft ceiling, it was built to house practices for high-flying performances like “Peter Pan.” It has retractable seating for 200, so it can be converted into a performance space. It also features a state-of-the-art sound system and lighting.

The space will be available to rent out for business gatherings or special events.

The other studios are dubbed Imagine, Discover and Dream. 

A board room will also available for rent as a meeting space.

From Madison Avenue, the work of the costume shop will be visible.

“We’ll have to work it around our first job, which is to make sure the dancers are doing what they are supposed to be doing; it’s our primary mission. But another part of our mission is to bring people into the space,” said Pugh.

As excitement is building for the imminent grand opening, the old Ballet Memphis facility has plans earmarked for it, too.

“We didn’t need two large buildings.”

The decision was made to pair with the Memphis Jewish Community Center to maintain a presence in the East Memphis area.

“We still have wonderful families in East Memphis and it may not be convenient for them to come into the city after work for classes. So, we are keeping a presence out east with the MJCC partnership. We are trying to serve both areas,” said Pugh.

With the decision to maintain both facilities, the footprint of Ballet Memphis has grown. This dovetails with Pugh’s desire to expand the ballet’s impact on the community.

“I don’t want our dancers to hide in their theater bubble. We encourage them to be in the community; meet the families and children that partake in Ballet Memphis. It’s not about one of us; it’s about all of us together. And that’s my inspiration and hope for our new home,” said Pugh.

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Read more articles by Kim and Jim Coleman.

Kim Coleman is a journalist with over 20 years of experience in newsrooms as a reporter, editor and graphic designer, including ten years with The Commercial Appeal as Design Director/Senior Editor and Print Planning Editor. 


Jim Coleman is a freelance writer, covering a variety of topics from high school sports, community news and small business. He has written for different news organizations over the past 20 years, including The Commercial Appeal, Community Weeklies, Lexington Herald-Leader and The Albuquerque Journal.