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Dream Dancers

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We wear the mask that grins and lies, / It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes, / This debt we pay to human guile;

With torn and bleeding hearts we smile, / And mouth with myriad subtleties. — Paul Laurence Dunbar, "We Wear the Mask"

Before he was assassinated, Dr. Martin Luther King wrote down a big question: "Where do we go from here — chaos or community?" It's a question the Memphis Symphony Orchestra (MSO) and New Ballet Ensemble (NBE) look to address with Memphis Renaissance: Going on From Here, a free concert at Overton Park's Levitt Shell, performed in conjunction with National Civil Rights Museum's MLK50 commemoration.

Last year’s Memphis Renaissance
  • Last year’s Memphis Renaissance

Collaborations between arts institutions create their own kind of chaos. Plans for Going on from Here were laid while the MSO was rebuilding, rebranding, and going through changes with conductor Mei-Ann Chen leaving and Bob Moody coming aboard as her replacement. NBE's founding director Katie Smythe describes the process as being more fruitful than frustrating. "It forced us into a kind of deep collaboration," she says of her work with MSO engagement and inclusion manager/spoken word artist Steven Fox and assistant conductor Andrew Crush. The result is an original story about a young person's search for identity, buoyed with the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar and music by Jimmie Lunceford, W.C. Handy, Duke Ellington, William Grant Still, Stevie Wonder, and Marvin Gaye.

"We have kids from Dunbar elementary featured in this piece," Smythe says. "They've grown and are now juniors and seniors in high school, and they didn't know Paul Laurence Dunbar poetry. Now they're dancing it set to the most important African-American symphony historically in the repertoire."

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