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VOL. 132 | NO. 155 | Monday, August 7, 2017

Ballet Memphis Begins Move Into Midtown Facility

By Bill Dries

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The new $21 million Ballet Memphis studio in Overton Square has room for Peter Pan to fly and a two-way view of a ballet company making revolutionary turns in dance.

But all of the choreography during a Thursday, Aug. 3, tour of the 38,000-square-foot set of five studios, offices, a costume shop, meeting and classroom space and a Mama Gaia corner café at Madison Avenue and North Cooper Street was among construction workers.

The Ballet Memphis facility at 2144 Madison Ave. formally opens Aug. 26 with a community celebration ahead of the company’s 31st season from October through April, including an April production of “Peter Pan” at the Orpheum. The Orpheum and Playhouse on the Square remain the settings for Ballet Memphis main-stage shows, while informal performances and events will be held at the Midtown facility.

The main studio where Peter Pan and other performers playing the Darling family will practice “flying” has a 45-foot-high ceiling.

The studio will include retractable seating for 200.

And as the dancers work on their craft with a view of Madison Avenue, they will also be part of the streetscape scenery at the intersection that defines Overton Square.

The building, which has lots of window space, has a perforated copper “art wall.” Dancers will work later hours on Thursday and Friday specifically to be a part of the busy nightlife in the area.

“There’s just something about the process of making dance that is foreign, I think, to most people,” said Steven McMahon, associate artistic director. “And I think that it’s really great for the community to understand that this is their job. This is what they do every day and they’ve committed their life to doing it. Being able to share that more ways than just being on the stage is important.”

Wardrobe Supervisor & Resident Costume Designer Bruce Bui inside Ballet Memphis' costume storage room. The room contains at least 10,000 different costumes.  (Daily News/Houston Cofield)

Virginia Pilgrim-Ramey, one of the dancers, says in some ways it isn’t much of a change.

“We’re performers at heart,” she said.

The concept is one of several that challenge traditions and conventions of ballet in America.

“I think we are the No. 1 most diverse company in the country,” Pilgrim-Ramey said.

The three metal sculptures of dancers from the Cordova location of Ballet Memphis were put in place Thursday atop the northern brick wall.

The Cordova building itself, which Ballet Memphis had outgrown, is under contract but not yet sold. The Memphis Jewish Community Center is the second Ballet Memphis School location.

James Vessell has been a dancer in the company for three years and has seen the environment “growing through us, through other companies and through the community and the way their dancing is starting to affect different shows and performances.” “The arts are really starting to come together here, which is awesome,” he said. “I think as the city is growing, the arts are growing.”

Dancer George Sanders said working in studios surrounded by windows is a statement.

“That’s what art is,” he said. “Art is life.”

“I don’t really think anybody here knows how big we actually are,” he added. “There are a lot of members in the company. Everybody is from some crazy place. Some from Memphis. I’m excited for people to see that side.”

The studios used for ballet and dance classes have curtains and other measures to offer privacy to younger students and those taking classes at Ballet Memphis, which has lots of programming other than the performances by its company during each season.

Meanwhile, the costume shop in the new facility, which has at least 10,000 wardrobe pieces, includes a display window to exhibit some of the costumes that were just getting put on racks Thursday.

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