Ballet Memphis’ “I Am,” from The Memphis Flyer


Ballet Memphis choreographer Steven McMahon remembers struggling to strike the right tone with his assignment. He was tasked with developing the title work for I Am, a collection of four short identity-focused dance pieces all loosely inspired by an important piece of civil rights iconography. "Obviously, the 'I am a man' statement is particularly important to our city," he says.

Reggie Wilson's "I Am a Man: Grace and Dignity" uses a dozen dancers and repetitive abstract gesture to reflect on the Memphis sanitation workers strike, how movements grow, and how messages struggle to be understood. Other works like Gabrielle Lamb's "I Am a Woman," used "I Am" as a springboard to essay the male gaze and how women dress for themself vs. how they dress for others. Julia Adams' "I Am a Child," was inspired by artist Cornelia Parker's suspended sculpture Anti-Mass, which is built entirely from the charred remains of a Baptist Church destroyed by arsonists.

"I think Julia tried to put herself in the position of someone who lost a child in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, and to take us through the five stages of grief," McMahon says. "It's heavy, but it's special. And now it's maybe more relevant now than ever.

"It's difficult to sum up an evening of heavy material," McMahon says. He finally found his inspiration for his concluding work in Mahalia Jackson's live recording of "You'll Never Walk Alone" and the African humanist philosophy, ubuntu.

"It roughly translates, 'I am because we are,'" McMahon says. "I thought that was a pretty powerful and succinct way to bring together all these other things we're trying to share."