River as muse, part 2: heralded River Project returns

The New York Times described the River Project as "one of the most beguiling new American ballets of our day ... all lyricism and complexity, it suggests the growth of a culture." Now, three more exciting new works will join the River Project this season, including premieres from Milwaukee choreographer Petr Zahradnícek, San Francisco choreographer Julia Adam and the first mainstage work by emerging in-house choreographer and company dancer Julie Niekrasz. 

But why the Mississippi River for a muse? 

“Here is this amazing waterway that is metaphorically one of our nation’s most influential points for life, culture and creativity. It’s an artery for it; a barrier for it; even transportation for it,” explained Ballet Memphis Artistic Director Dorothy Gunther Pugh on the birth of The River Project. 

“I’m always concerned with the exodus from flyover cities like Memphis to a coast or mountain range because there is such a rich story here that needs to be told.” 

Ballet Memphis is known worldwide for being an excellent storyteller—especially stories of the region as told in critically acclaimed Memphis Project works such as Curtain of GreenHigh Lonesome and In Dreams. Pugh handpicked three choreographers to research life along the Mississippi in order to create three new works that would carry on that tradition.

“I love working with Dorothy. She always gives a theme and a challenge. I love that. It pushes the choreographers to create more interesting pieces,” said Petr Zahradnícek who was tasked with looking at the cities along the headwaters of the river. He discovered the story of George Coleman Poage who migrated with his family from Hanibal, Mo., to La Crosse, Wis., only to return to St. Louis for the 1904 Olympics where we would become the first African-American ever to win a medal in the games. Zahradnícek is collaborating with Rhodes College African-American History Professor Dr. Charles Hughes to gain historical perspective on the “great migration” along the river that was integral to Poage’s story. Hughes will go on to speak at our River Project Symposium held in Rhodes College Hardie Auditorium on October 3.

Fresh off her look at the evolution of New Orleans culture in last year’s Second Line for River Project, Julia Adams will explore the flora and fauna of the river this season, specifically the vast and intricate underground network of mushrooms. Pugh and Adam were inspired by breathtaking botanical photos Pugh had found, and the sheltering quality of the plants themselves.   

When Julie Niekrasz pioneers her choreographic style on stage, she’ll be doing it for all the women who pioneered the west with their families in the early 1800s. Her piece focuses on these unsung heroes, their hardship and hope, traveling along the Mississippi and through St. Louis in order to settle America. “One of our values at Ballet Memphis is to give voice to the voiceless; and, in many ways, I feel there are several voiceless cultures right along this river that runs through our home,” explained Pugh. “It’s good that we focus some energy on sharing these stories. I’m proud that we are giving everyone a place at the table.”