Ballet Memphis takes brilliance to the river, By Jon W. Sparks

There are long moments of inspiration — many of them, in fact — in Ballet Memphis’ production of River Project 2. The first chapter of the project was staged a year ago and with this second installment, the tribute to the Mississippi River is given a glorious presentation. This was an opportunity not only for dancers to shine, but for the choreographers to bring out fresh material.

Three pieces by three choreographers are given equal treatment, each expressing some aspect of the river or cities or events along the waterway. The opening piece, “The Hurdle Runner,” is by Petr Zahradnícek, choreographer in residence with the Milwaukee Ballet. The tribute is to hurdler George Coleman Poage, the first African-American to win a medal in the Olympics. Kendall G. Britt Jr. dances the title role with the precision and nuance we have come to expect from him. Poage was a trailblazer in several ways, which also meant overcoming brutish segregation in America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Britt’s expressive fluidity is countered by his expressionless face, until the very last moment of victory that brings a smile.

The middle work by Julia Adam — “Devil’s Fruit” — examines, of all things, the mushroom, in all its delicious, dangerous history and strange mythology. Backed by Max Richter’s contemporary versions of Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” and Philip Glass’ “Islands,” the piece literally evokes the fleshy fungi with enormous umbrellas that have images by Stephanie Cosby projected onto them. The dancers swirl about with plenty of repetition mirroring Glass and imbuing the work with wit and mystery.

The final piece is a forceful and fascinating view of St. Louis by Julie Marie Niekrasz titled “Corps de Fortitude.” Partly a recognition of the women who shaped the American frontier, her use of geometries and organic nuances in the first part of her work smartly reflected the push of human settlers trying to tame nature. Other parts of her work take in the Lewis and Clark Expedition, helped in no small way by the Shoshone teenager Sacagawea, and the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904. The dancers pull off breathtaking work in the piece by Niekrasz, a long-time company member. This, however, is her first mainstage choreography and it’s an impressive debut.

One of several ingenious touches was including live performances by vocalist Lee Taylor. The singer’s uncommon voice evoked something of Bessie Smith or Billie Holiday, but invested her music and the dance with what was very much her own mesmerizing take.River Project 2 is a refreshingly original and creatively exciting venture by Ballet Memphis being performed at Playhouse on the Square. It’s not to be missed.