Building Ballet

Ballet Memphis CEO talks about the future, move to Midtown

By Andy Meek

Ask Ballet Memphis CEO and founding artistic director Dorothy Gunther Pugh about her dance company's newly announced move to Midtown, and the conversation doesn't immediately turn to obvious things like the when and the why.

Ballet Memphis is planning to move its headquarters to Overton Square in Midtown. Founding artistic director and CEO Dorothy Gunther Pugh: ‘We have to use our talent to make life better for humanity.’

(Ari Denison Photgraphy)

Instead of contracts and construction timelines, or the myriad other items on the kind of checklist that accompanies organizational milestones like the one Ballet Memphis is approaching, Pugh would rather talk about urban renewal.

Other conversational detours that come in rapid succession include city building, the environment in which “creatives” thrive, civic pride, the Memphis brand, and then, oh, right: Ballet Memphis also has decided to move from the suburbs to the heart of the city.

The ballet company is under contract to buy land in Overton Square to build a new facility. That facility will stand on the corner of Cooper Street and Madison Avenue, on the site of the old French Quarter Suites at 2144 Madison Ave.

“There's kind of an urban renaissance going on, and if you look, this is happening in cities around the world,” said Pugh, whose company chose Overton Square after considering several different options around the city over a two-year period. “I've long felt – and it’s why I live in Midtown – that there's something about pockets of creative energy that are really important to communities.

“If you look at our staff, most of us live in Midtown. There's such a purposeful energy there. And people are there to be together, whether they're going to Hattiloo or whatever else they're doing. They're not there to just be going to and fro.”

A scene from Ballet Memphis production ‘The Darting Eyes’ 

(Ari Denison Photography)

Soon – Pugh didn’t want to speculate on an opening date – they'll also be able to stop and take a moment to enjoy the artistry and atmosphere of Ballet Memphis’ new facility designed by Memphis architecture firm archimania. Among its features: almost 30,000 square feet with five studios that can be configured in different ways, as well as community spaces, a costume shop and administrative offices.

On the cusp of celebrating its 30th anniversary (in 2016), Ballet Memphis today employs 28 dancers, runs on a $4.4 million operating budget and serves more than 80,000 people each year through its combined programs – the dance company, a ballet school, educational enrichment and Pilates classes.

Greater Recognition Locally and Beyond
As Pugh and her organization have traveled and taken a bit of the Memphis brand with them, the response to that brand has changed.

It used to be, Pugh recalls, that audiences and others would respond when Ballet Memphis ventured to an area by saying things like” “Who knew a city like Memphis had this? Who knew it had dancers who look like this and dance like this?”

People don’t wonder those kinds of things, at least aloud, anymore, Pugh said. Surprise has been replaced by “Now, they know who we are.”

Her organization, meanwhile, also needs to know “who we are” for its own purposes. Ballet Memphis used a 2014 feasibility study to look at data related to patrons and students, projected that out into the future and used it as the basis to explore different growth scenarios. A multi-year strategic planning process with the goal of Ballet Memphis determining the best course to sustain and grow its programs led the organization to the Midtown real estate transaction.

A scene from Ballet Memphis production ‘Devil’s Fruit’

(Ari Denison Photography)

"We don't want to get hidebound or stay in a narrow world where you don't have to be as creative,” Pugh said. “We’re about opening up the conversation to as many people as we can. That's sort of been at the heart of who we are. And we’re definitely nationally respected for pushing the boundaries of the art form.”

That art form will be nurtured and studied and supported by the company’s dancers in what archimania principal Todd Walker said is “one of the most exciting and dynamic creative spaces” his company has ever worked on.

Right now, Playhouse on the Square is Ballet Memphis’ Midtown main stage performance space. Ballet Memphis also often shares resources with Hattiloo, with the two of them working on projects together.

Rehearsals and informal performances will take place in the new space, but the company will continue using the Orpheum, Playhouse and Memphis Botanic Garden as its performance venues.

Since it opened in 1998, Ballet Memphis has operated out of a studio in Cordova. The organization will keep that space for classes even as it works on moving into its new facility.

“Our art form is about pulling dichotomies together and using the ground to fly, to soar,” Pugh said. “There's an inspirational component our form of movements have. A lot of art forms conceive of better worlds we can strive toward.

“We as keepers of the flame of ballet technique need to be aware of that social responsibility. We have to use our talent to make life better for humanity.”