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VOL. 130 | NO. 97 | Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Raising the Barre

Growth of dance collectives, companies allow art form to thrive in Memphis

By Madeline Faber

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Memphis has always been known for its rich musical history, but another performing art is whirling across the city: dance.

Several collectives and companies are dedicated to making dance accessible to underserved communities and changing the perception that ballet is a dusty and stifled endeavor.

In recent years, many dance groups have popped up – including Co-Motion Studio, Project: Motion Modern Dance Collective, Racine + Southern Dance Exchange and Madison Dance Studio – making dance one of the most thriving performing art forms in Memphis.

“Movement is very natural,” said Marcellus Harper, managing director with Collage dance Collective. “Dance is an art form that is very accessible in terms of whether it crosses certain socioeconomic boundaries, racial boundaries, agitation levels, technical ability levels and multiple language level barriers.”

Collage dance Collective is one of several groups in Memphis that has a dedicated mission to foster diversity in ballet as an art form. That overarching vision is what nudged the company’s move to Broad Avenue in 2007. Instead of continuing work as a traveling professional troupe born out of the closure of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, Collage dance Collective decided to “take part in the city’s exciting artistic renaissance,” Harper said.

Two years later, the group formed the Collage Dance School. The nonprofit trains 400 students a week through affordable classes and partnerships with inner-city schools.

“We saw so many kids that lacked access to the most basic of cultural resources,” Harper said. “Being able to also work in communities where we could help to change the communities through the art form was very enriching and empowering.”

Ballet on Wheels Dance School & Company is another organization dedicated to bringing dance to Memphis’ underprivileged communities. Though housed at TheatreWorks, Ballet on Wheels stays true to its name by traveling to the community centers and schools where classical training is scarce. This community component, titled Dance on Wheels, keeps costs low and schedules flexible to accommodate the area’s needs.

ArtsMemphis – a supporter for Collage dance Collective, Ballet on Wheels, Ballet Memphis and New Ballet Ensemble & School – holds that dance is picking up speed as one of the city’s most notable art forms.

Elizabeth Rouse, ArtsMemphis president and CEO, attributes the growth to the dance community’s strong leadership and united vision to increase accessibility to ballet.

ArtsMemphis has aided New Ballet Ensemble & School, located at Cooper Street and York Avenue, in building the dance community through several community engagement projects. The partnership launched the ArtsMemphis Community Dancespace in 2009 as an incubator for arts groups across the city to use for rehearsal space or collaboration.

ArtsMemphis also has funded the New Ballet Ensemble Family Resource Center at Dunbar Elementary School. Students from Orange Mound’s Dunbar Elementary attend free classes while the parents get computer access or job search assistance.

Brandye Lee, a teacher, principal dancer and director of community engagement for Collage dance Collective, instructs dancers in the Tarantella 2 class.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

“It’s a way to keep the students engaged by keeping the parents engaged,” Rouse said.

Rouse said dance will continue to grow through partnerships with other arts organizations. Saturday’s Memphis Renaissance & Harlem family day was a watershed event for the Levitt Shell and fine arts organizations in the city. After a day of art-making activities with the Urban Art Commission, Carpenter Arts Garden and Spillit Memphis, New Ballet Ensemble performed onstage with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra to music of the century’s great African-American composers.

“They’re not just sharing a stage but collaborating,” Rouse said. “We will continue to see more and more of that which is what makes Memphis unique.”

To uplift diversity in the art form as a whole, these Memphis groups are making ballet accessible by offering scholarships, school residencies, discounted tickets and fresh perspectives with new choreography alongside classical training.

“We're also asking, ‘how do we grow the art form?’ And that's going to be about reaching out to people that are not currently engaged, not just catering to those who already have deep appreciation for the works,” Harper said.

Harper admits that there is still work to be done in terms of building a professional community outside of longstanding Ballet Memphis, but the city is moving in the right direction. For many parents, the natural inclination is to put their young children in dance classes. For those that can’t afford it, these groups make it possible.

The students create the foundation of an audience base, which leads to potential patrons and a greater number of people who are exposed to the art form.

“Leveraging our city's incredible history in the arts is something really powerful alongside with the realness and authenticity of Memphis,” Rouse said.

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