Rolling on the River: Ballet Memphis's River Project 2 is inspirational and aspirational

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Dorothy Gunther Pugh thinks dance artists shouldn't be content telling stories. Performances can become conversations with the audience, and in a short film that screens before the curtain comes up on "River Project 2," Ballet Memphis' artistic director says it's her job to search for threads common enough to bind us together but not so common as to invite cliché. As a source of renewable inspiration, Pugh, her choreographers, and her dancers have turned to the Mississippi River.

The second installment of the company's ongoing "River Project" begins with an inspirational number, then moves into a more mystical landscape, and closes with a soulful history lesson. The tone is light throughout, and the trio of original danceworks emphasizes the company's physical strength and classical training.

"The Hurdle Runner," choreographed by Petr Zahradnicek, begins with the northern migration of African Americans. It spotlights George Coleman Poage who, like Mark Twain, was born in Hannibal, Missouri, but who moved with his parents to La Crosse, Wisconsin. In 1904, Poage became the first African American to win an Olympic medal. His event, the 200-meter hurdles, makes an easy and appropriate metaphor.

Employing huge umbrellas, inventive lighting, and a stage littered with flower petals, choreographer Julia Adam celebrates the mushrooms growing along the Mississippi. "The Devil's Fruit," doesn't conjure up images from Alice in Wonderland and nobody will be subjected to the music of Jefferson Airplane; nevertheless, it is a sweet and relentlessly sincere walk on the psychedelic side. It is also a blithe display of raw strength and easy elegance.

"River Project 2" closes with Corps de Fortitude, inspired by the sights and sounds of St. Louis. It's a joyful piece, but when Lee Taylor takes the stage to sing a soulful rendition of that city's namesake blues, the dancers nearly disappear. And taking not a thing away from Taylor's performance or that of the dancers, that may still be an actual complaint.

"River Project 2" is at Playhouse on the Square through October 27th. Balletmemphis.org

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