Memphis: en Pointe, Crossroads interview with Dorothy Gunther Pugh

In a community generally recognized for rock ‘n’ roll, soul and rhythm and blues, one might think that the ivory tower world of fine arts could remain aloof. Not so in the Bluff City. Over the past twenty-five years, Ballet Memphis has emerged as a unique and powerful element in the Memphis arts community due in no small part to the work of artistic director and CEO, Dorothy Gunther Pugh.

Since founding Ballet Memphis in 1986, Pugh has led the institution to new heights of esteem and in directions a ballet company doesn't normally follow, remaining committed to not only exceptional performances but also being a reflection of the community it calls home. In its 25 years under Pugh, Ballet Memphis has grown to employ 18 professional dancers, an annual budget of more than $3 million and a permanent studio in Cordova. To say that Ballet Memphis has been very active recently would be an understatement. It used to be common for the company to take shows outside Memphis twice a year. This year was a bit different. Ballet Memphis has had ten national tours this year, from St. Louis, Missouri, to Long Beach, California. All in addition to their home schedule including the traditional and beloved Nutcracker and a collection of new works called The River Project inspired by the mighty Mississippi.

On top of their busy season, they coordinated the celebration of Ballet Memphis’ 25th anniversary gala at the end of this past April. "And that was just a few weeks after closing Cinderella!" said Pugh.

In every sector of the American workforce, employees are working harder and with fewer resources. Apparently, even in fine arts. "We’re definitely part of those high productivity statistics we see across America," said Pugh. In addition to their formidable performance schedule, Ballet Memphis opened a community center program focused on childhood obesity available at nine different community centers throughout the city. Pugh says they aim to double the number of centers next time. Happily, Pugh is looking forward to adding more staff soon simply to keep pace with all the work.

Pugh, like the company she leads, is unique. She is a board member at the Greater Memphis Chamber, a position that astounds many of the ballet directors she meets in other cities. Having a place on the board of the Chamber is a position that Pugh believes signals a distinct commitment to the arts that other ballet companies would envy.“We are not and have never been a typical ballet company any more than Memphis has been a typical city,” said Pugh. She’s proud of the fact that Ballet Memphis has been engaged in a way that stretches beyond commerce and into the greater community. She’s quick to point to past programs like the Chamber’s “Investing in Innovation” and “Calling All Artists” as proof that the arts are well valued by the entire community, not just a select few.“

Quietly and away from the limelight, Memphis has demonstrated that we can think ahead and we’re not afraid to take risks and be different,” she said. Taking those risks and being different is something that helps Ballet Memphis become an extension of the city itself. “You should always sing the song of your community,” said Pugh. “The ballet company should say something about the community it’s representing.”

As they have every year for almost a decade, Ballet Memphis ended the season with Interiorworks, a dancer-produced program with 10 new works designed to raise money for dancers needing help transitioning between careers. The work normally done by administrative staff such as marketing, scheduling, food and beverage and audience perks is all coordinated by the dancers.

Written by Ed Arnold, this story is also featured in the 2012 Summer issue of Memphis Crossroads Magazine.  Read any issue, anytime at                

Posted by Cynthia Saatkamp at 9:37 PM
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