The Flyer's fall arts guide

| September 10, 2009
Greely Myatt
  • Greely Myatt

Forget spring. The time of renewal, as far as the arts community goes, is fall, and this fall promises to be one of the most colorful ever. We've got an artist who's been around for two decades and remains unpredictable; a dance company that strives to be accessible to everyone; a theatre troupe that goes beyond the state line; and a symphony that's looking for a new leader.

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Greely Myatt's 20-year career is celebrated with multiple shows.

Is Greely Myatt serious? For 20 years now the whimsical sculptor and professor at the University of Memphis has educated, entertained, and occasionally confused art patrons with slender Greek columns cast in soap, quilts of wood and steel, inedible ice cream cones, and rusty anthropomorphic bed springs. He once compared the history of modern sculpture to an unremarkable pedestal blowing soap bubbles.

"Of course it's serious about my joking," a haggard-looking Myatt says, resting on a bench in the Clough-Hanson Gallery at Rhodes College. He is surrounded by speechifying cookie tins, burned-out light bulbs, and well-worn rugs made from broom handles and mirrors.

To celebrate his two decades on the art scene, Myatt, who has been installing his work in galleries nonstop since July, has nine shows running in Memphis between August and October. Or maybe it's 10. It could even be 11 if funding comes through to re-install Cloudy Thoughts, an award-winning billboard-sized artwork created with the UrbanArt Commission. If money to rent the cranes comes through, clouds overlaid with Myatt's famously empty thought balloons will once again dominate the skyline over Madison Avenue in Midtown.

"It all depends on how you count things," Myatt says, trying to figure out how many shows he's actually opening. It's 12 if you add his show in Knoxville. Thirteen, including Chicago. And there are still a few more pieces in Myatt's studio "in case anybody else wants to show the stuff."

An admiring critic of the artist's work, which is often punctuated with empty thought and voice balloons, observed that nobody says "I've nothing to say" better than Greely Myatt. It's an observation Myatt, an avowed art-world prankster, rewards with many approving giggles.

"That's what the speaking balloons and the light bulbs were all about," he says. "If you want your art to say something, if you say it says something, it does. The light bulbs are about not having an idea."

Myatt's mega-show began as a more manageable project. Artist and gallery owner and manager Hamlett Dobbins wanted to do a pair of shows at Rhodes and the University of Memphis. From there, things spiraled.

Myatt's and exactly
  • Myatt's and exactly

"It's all manageable," Myatt says, allowing that he'd been up until 3:30 a.m. working. "A lot of people have come up to me and said, 'It's too bad you've got so much going on that you can't enjoy it.' But I am enjoying it. I've always liked the building and the installing more than the receptions. This is the most fun I've had in years." — Chris Davis

Greely Myatt: Twenty Years opens on September 11th at Clough-Hanson Gallery and on September 12th at the Art Museum at the University of Memphis. His work can also be seen at David Lusk Gallery, the National Ornamental Metal Museum, the Memphis College of Art, the Dixon Gallery & Gardens, Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, P&H Center for the Arts, and — quite possibly — Material.

New Ballet Ensemble
  • New Ballet Ensemble

Everybody Dance

New Ballet Ensemble reaches out to Orange Mound.

Katie Smythe founded the nonprofit New Ballet Ensemble in 2001 to ensure that every child has a chance to dance regardless of their families' financial situation.

The troupe's performances, such as Nut ReMix and SpringLoaded, mix classical and hip-hop and draw huge crowds.

A year ago, Smythe, with support from the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis, began a partnership with the Orange Mound neighborhood and Dunbar Elementary School.

"I was asked by the principal at Dunbar to bring dancing to the school," she says. "She is a great principal and wanted to get the arts going there."

With the principal on board and funding from the Community Foundation and other organizations and individuals, only one roadblock lay ahead: the cooperation of parents, who were unfamiliar with the ensemble.

Smythe went door to door to get the signatures required for each child to participate.

At a cost of $800 per student, Smythe held her first three-day clinic for the 6- and 7-year-olds at Dunbar.

The clinics involved skipping, jumping, and turning and did not require a background in ballet. By the end of the three days, the students memorized arm and leg positions. From there, Smythe chose five students to continue into a 12-week, twice-a-week beginning-ballet program.

"Within two years, hopefully, they will be onstage for the Nut ReMix," she says.

Smythe plans to work with other communities in years to come. She chose Orange Mound because of the high level of poverty and proximity to the New Ballet studios in Midtown.

With some students paying full tuition and others on scholarship, Smythe is bridging the socioeconomic divide in Memphis through ballet.

"You don't go to New Ballet Ensemble with racial problems," she said. "Kids encounter something different at New Ballet Ensemble. Even the parents are getting to know people they would never know." — Erica Walters

The New Ballet Ensemble performs Freefall October 16th-17th at the New Ballet studios at 2157 York.

Jerre Dye
  • Jerre Dye

Tough Enough

Voices of the South prepares for the Big Apple.

The 2009 Ostrander Awards for excellence in Memphis theater were SRO and energized like never before in the event's 26-year history when University of Memphis acting Professor Josie Helming — surrounded on all sides by her former students — received the Eugart Eurian Award for Lifetime Achievement.

It felt like the passing of a torch. U of M grad Steve Swift — in the guise of the outspoken evangelical Sister Myotis Crenshaw — hosted the event along with Todd Berry and Jenny Odle, who are all U of M alums and all members of the company Voices of the South. That same night, VOTS artistic director Jerre Dye picked up a Best Actor award for his performance in Cyrano de Bergerac at Theatre Memphis, and Voices of the South won a special award for Best Performance of an Original Script for its annual and ever-changing Christmas revue Present PRESENT. This small but scrappy professional theater company, born of the U of M theater department and based in Midtown, hadn't just come of age, it had become a certifiable community treasure.

VOTS is having the kind of year any performance troupe in the world might envy. On September 19th, during the annual Cooper-Young Festival, the company opens its new performance space TheatreSouth (located in the basement of First Congregational Church), with a revival of Sister Myotis' Bible Camp. In March 2010, TheatreWorks will host the premiere of a new (currently untitled) play commissioned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The following June, Sister Myotis' Bible Camp opens again, this time off-Broadway as a part of the Abingdon Theatre Company's season of new plays by established and emerging American playwrights.

"We are 14 years old, you know," Dye says. "Teenagers, I suppose, with plenty of growing pains. [And] plenty of drive and energy. We've just worked really hard. All of us. The company. Our administrative staff. Our board of directors. And frankly, we dreamed even harder. All of us together.

"We grew tired of being told that we had to move to, live in, and work in the big cities to have real success," Dye adds.

"We decided instead to embrace our name Voices of the South, make our own success, and let the out-of-town 'powers that be' come to us," Dye says. "Why not theater? Why not new plays? Why not solo performance? Why not smart educational plays? Why not make a little creative noise and show the world what Memphis is made of?"

Chris Davis

Left to right: Alastair Willis, 
Mei-Ann Chen, and Thomas Wilkins
  • Left to right: Alastair Willis, Mei-Ann Chen, and Thomas Wilkins

Seeking Direction

The Memphis Symphony Orchestra begins its season

without a conductor.

It's been over a year and a half since longtime Memphis Symphony Orchestra (MSO) conductor David Loebel announced his plans to resign from the post. But the city's professional orchestra is still without a leader.

This season, which began in early September, a rotating cast of guest conductors, three of whom are named finalists for the vacant music director position, will lead the orchestra.

"As each finalist directs a show, we'll be looking for chemistry, as well as their conducting style, their musical interpretation, and their personality," says Susanna Perry Gilmore, a search committee member, violinist, and concertmaster for the MSO.

On October 17th, finalist Alastair Willis, former associate conductor of the Seattle Symphony, will conduct Brahm's Symphony No. 1 in C Minor at the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts.

Candidate Thomas Wilkins, music director for the Omaha Symphony Orchestra, will direct Beethoven's Prometheus Overture at the Buckman Performing & Fine Arts Center on November 6th.

Candidate Mei-Ann Chen, assistant conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, will conduct the MSO's performance of J. Adams' The Chairman Dances: Foxtrot for Orchestra at both the Cannon Center and the Germantown Performing Arts Centre on November 21st and 22nd.

A conductor should be chosen by next spring. Until then, the 12-member search committee — which contains six MSO musicians — will be watching the candidates' every moves.

"The search committee will also be watching how they interact with the Memphis community. Every candidate will have opportunities to have conversations with staff, the [MSO's] board, and our patrons," Perry Gilmore says. "Even when they're mingling at parties, everything they do will be examined."

Symphony patrons will also have a say in who makes the final cut. After each performance, the audience can participate in a Q&A session with the candidates. They'll also be asked to fill out a survey on each candidate.

Although three finalists have been named, MSO spokesperson Anthony Plummer points out that the competition is not closed to new candidates.

"The search committee reserves the right to add additional finalists," Plummer says.

In the meantime, Loebel is sticking around to guest-conduct a few performances and offer advice during the transition. — Bianca Phillips

Memphis Symphony Orchestra Conductor Candidate Performances

• Cannon Center for the Performing Arts, October 17th

Candidate Alastair Willis conducts Brahm's Symphony No. 1 in C Minor and other works. Also featuring mezzo-soprano Marietta Simpson.

• Buckman Performing & Fine Arts Center at St. Mary's School, November 6th

Candidate Thomas Wilkins leads this performance of Beethoven's Prometheus Overture, and other works.

• Cannon Center for Performing Arts, November 21st, and Germantown Performing Arts Centre, November 22nd

Candidate Mei-Ann Chen conducts J. Adams' The Chairman Dances: Foxtrot for Orchestra. Also featuring guest cellist Julie Albers.

Sister Myotis' Bible Camp runs from September 19th-October 3rd at TheatreSouth.

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