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The Next Level

Some of Memphis’ key arts organizations are making courageous and innovative moves in tough times.



We often hear the cliché about "taking things to the next level." But what does that mean exactly? Would we recognize the next level if we saw it? Maybe so. In recent years, several of Memphis' key arts organizations have provided us with some "world class" examples: Playhouse on the Square's new state-of-the-art facility and the strong artistic partnerships Playhouse on the Square has forged with Opera Memphis, Ballet Memphis, and the Memphis Symphony Orchestra are the most obvious examples, but there are many more.

Moving to the next level means increasing your visibility across a variety of platforms, something Memphis' UrbanArt Commission is doing in a way that may increase the visibility of every artist in Memphis. Moving to the next level means not only keeping up with trends, but getting ahead of them, which is something Ned Canty, Opera Memphis' media-savvy general director hopes to do with an online campaign to recruit Justin Timberlake for the opera's Die Fledermaus.

Moving to the next level means finding your place in the community, then finding your community's place in the world. Katie Smythe reflects on the success of her first generation of New Ballet Ensemble students, especially Charles "Lil Buck" Riley, who performs solo this week in Central Park, accompanied by acclaimed cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Moving to the next level means doing what you do better than anybody else around, and Elaine Blanchard's Prison Stories — a Voices of the South project — finds the humanity behind Memphis' most shocking headlines.

Off the Wall: UrbanArt Gets Superpowers

UrbanArt executive director John Weeden wants to dispel a lot of misconceptions, but he'd be more than happy to start with this one: You can't make a living as an artist.

"I know lots of artists who wait tables," he says. "Some of them have three or four different jobs. But the fact of the matter is, with the right tools, an artist can structure his or her career as a small business. If they can manage a studio and learn to manage proposals and fabrication in a highly informed way, there's a chance that they can make a very good living."

Weeden thinks UrbanArt has a good plan for helping Memphis artists, a talent pool he describes as "extraordinary," to do all of those things. "There are over 300 cities with a percent [of their budgets] that funds public art," he says. "They are all launching between 5 and 15 projects a year with budgets that can range from $25,000 to $1 million. Our local artists have the talent to go after these jobs, but they need the tools to help them connect all the dots and pursue all these opportunities." The free professional development tools being implemented on UrbanArt's new website have all been designed to help area artists connect those dots.

This is the summer of love for large public art projects in Memphis. In June, artist Chris Fennell will erect a massive, guitar-inspired arch in Overton Park near the recently revitalized Levitt Shell. Come August, primo-painter Jeffrey Unthank will takes his pails and brushes to Frayser to begin work on an epic, 200-foot-long mural that ranges on both sides of James Road.

"Now, finally, we have the ability to make work that's more highly visible," Weeden says. "We have a way to make people say, Hey, there really is a lot of public art in this town.

"I came in with a lot of enthusiasm, and I've still got a lot of enthusiasm. But that enthusiasm is tempered with a long-range view," Weeden says. "There were precarious pieces of infrastructure within the organization that had to be fixed in order to accomplish anything, primary among which was our relationship with the city of Memphis."

Many UrbanArt projects are created through Memphis' Percent for Art program, which sets aside a small portion of the city's capital improvements fund for public art and design enhancements. When Percent for Art launched in 2002, it provided a set funding amount for operational costs and project management. "That was great in 2002 when there were only seven or eight projects," Weeden says. "But by 2009, when there were 36 projects, it was not great at all. UrbanArt was subsidizing the city rather than the city paying for the work that was being done. Something had to change."

In June 2010, a resolution passed City Council allowing up to 18 percent of an individual projects' funding to be budgeted for project management and coordination. "Now that the city's program is taking care of itself, we can start thinking about what other kinds of work we want to make," Weeden says. "And I'm not talking about the big, heavily engineered public projects made out of steel and mortar. Now we can partner with MIFA or the Grizzlies or other community groups. We can do a lot more grassroots, neighborhood-based mural projects like the 'I Love Memphis' project."

"I Love Memphis," an UrbanArt project launched in partnership with the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau, will create 10 colorful public mash notes to the Bluff City, the first of which already has been completed.

"I Love Memphis has struck a nerve with people who didn't know they liked public art," Weeden says. "It makes sense to people. They like it. It's something fun and unexpected to discover when you're driving down the road. This is the kind of project that people can roll up their sleeves and pitch in on."

In the past, Percent for Art projects have been tied to specific capital improvements. In other words, if the city built a new library in Cordova or improved a downtown police station, that facility got some art or some design enhancements. As a consequence, the parts of Memphis that saw a lot of capital improvement have also gotten a lot of public art, while other parts of the city have been completely neglected. "It wasn't fair," Weeden says. "We'd been getting so many calls from community groups and neighborhood development corporations saying, 'Hey, we'd love to talk with you guys about doing something in our neighborhood.' But, there weren't any funds available."

After a year of carefully working to re-interpret the rules, Percent for Art funds can now be used to develop projects on any public property, whether it's a 20-year-old community center that needs some brightening up or a public right-of-way.

With the help of an ArtsMemphis grant, UrbanArt has just launched the first phase of a new website with the potential to become a national model. The site, designed by RocketFuel, a Memphis-basesd content management firm, isn't complete, but when it's done it will include a wealth of interactive tools for teaching artists how to structure proposals, interpret RFQs, connect with vendors, and budget for materials. The site will also include a map of projects designed to interact with a new comprehensive signage system funded by a grant from First Tennessee Bank. Q4 codes embedded in the new signs will allow smartphone users to instantly access interpretive text related to every work of public art placed by UrbanArt.

"This will give a lot of people the recognition they're due," Weeden says. "Over 85 percent of the work done through UrbanArt has been created by local artists, and until now there hasn't been a good way to really promote them."

The website also will include a free artists registry, a social tool where artists can upload their resume, samples of their work, and links to their personal website. The registry will also become the means through which artists submit future applications for public art projects.

Opera Memphis' Drive to Recruit Justin Timberlake

Ned Canty is serious. Opera Memphis' new general director believes he can convince Justin Timberlake, via a Facebook page, to play "Frosch the jailer" in an upcoming Opera Memphis production of Johann Strauss' Die Fledermaus. Canty agreed to tweet an interview about the kinds of things arts groups can do with social media and his actual chances of catching the Social Network star with a Facebook page. Here's what Canty had to say, 140-characters at a time:

Chris Davis: You've been upbeat about the prospects of casting Justin Timberlake in Opera Memphis' Die Fledermaus. What makes you think this can happen?

Ned Canty: I've only been in Memphis 5 months, but it seems to me like this is a city where anything can happen. Plus, it worked w/Betty White on SNL.

Ned Canty: I think there is a part of me that sees how perfect he would be in the role, that feeds my optimism, as well.

Chris Davis: Yes, as stunts go, it's got merit. Perfect show. And Frosch the jailer is a good part for singing entertainer with strong comic chops.

Ned Canty: First time I worked on Fledermaus, Charles Nelson Reilly directed, & Dom Deluise played Frosch. JT fits right in. Dude is wicked funny.

Chris Davis: And by using social media you get to measure your audience in a very different way.

Chris Davis: For example, I notice you're tweeting about it in French and Spanish.

Chris Davis: Potentially it could make Memphis an international destination for opera-goers and Timberlake fans. Nice showcase.

Ned Canty: Those are actually just retweets. People from Spain, The Isle of Wight and Azerbaijan all heard of it & tried to help. Mi Espanol es malo.

Ned Canty: Many people would fly in for it, I think. Though ticket sales are not a driver for me. We only have 1,900 seats to begin with.

Ned Canty: What is more important is reminding people that sometimes opera is just fun and entertaining. It doesn't have to be your vegetables.

Ned Canty: It could definitely showcase Memphis in an amazing way, tho If we get the right party guests, it could be a full spectrum of Memphis music.

Chris Davis: Gotcha. And I wasn't thinking about ticket sales as much as attention. For opera generally and Opera Memphis in particular.

Ned Canty: Exactly. Opera has a real image problem, and something like this helps build bridges. OM did something similar with Lord T & Eloise.

Ned Canty: If I can get people thinking of opera in a new way, maybe they will see one for themselves, instead of believing the myths & stereotypes.

Ned Canty: What is ironic is JT is exactly right for this but if you told most people that JT would be great in an opera, they'd think it was a joke.

Chris Davis: Ending with this: Even if Timberlake says no it seems you're sending a message that Opera Memphis is ready to try some new things.

Ned Canty: Yes. There are tons of great people who could play it. I'm just starting w/one who would be great, but also make people do a double take.

New Ballet Ensemble's Charles "L'il Buck" Riley Jooks with Yo-Yo Ma

"We're moving out of the adolescent stage and quickly becoming an institution," says New Ballet Ensemble's founding director Katie Smythe. "That's kind of a scary place to be because when you become an institution that means the next greatest thing is coming up right behind you, right? I don't want to lose our connectedness. And because of my artistic staff, we won't."

Smythe expresses these concerns for her company on the eve of a New Ballet's alum's biggest gig to date. On Tuesday, June 7th — the day before this article hits the streets — Charles "Lil Buck" Riley, a Memphis dancer known for fusing ballet and modern with jookin', a brand of hip-hop dance unique to Memphis — performs center stage with Yo-Yo Ma and The Silk Road Ensemble at the Summer Stages' opening night showcase in Central Park.

Riley thought he wanted to be a visual artist until he got his first taste of Memphis jookin' at the age of 13. "I was good at drawing," he says. "If I saw anybody once, I could draw them and it would look just like them." Then, on a visit to the Crystal Palace skating rink, he discovered jookin'. "This man was dancing, and it was so fluid it was like he was made out of liquid," Riley says. "Everybody was giving him so much praise. That's when I quit drawing and started dancing."

"Charles was in love with it," Smythe remembers. "He danced all the time. He danced at school, he danced on his porch. In some of the early YouTube videos, you see him dancing on Rozelle, just south of Lamar, wearing his backpack."

Smythe met Riley when he was enrolled at Yo Academy, a Memphis charter school that was eventually shuttered after it failed to perform academically. But Terran Gary, Riley's dance teacher at Yo, recognized that Riley and several of his peers were especially gifted and might benefit from more extensive training, so she contacted Smythe at New Ballet Ensemble.

With the help of funding from Nike, New Ballet Ensemble devoted a studio to the students from Yo Academy. Smythe taught them ballet three days a week, and Gary taught Smythe's ballet dancers hip hop. That's when New Ballet's signature mix of of ballet modern and hip-hop began to take shape.

"The first time she saw me dance, she said, You're going to be in my class," Riley says of his first encounter with Smythe.

"He'd never been exposed to classical music," Smythe recalls. "I put on a recording of Chick Corea playing Mozart that was produced by Bobby McFerrin and asked if he could dance to that. And he did."

"Classical music brings me peace of mind," Riley says, although there was a time when it was far more likely to find him jookin' to Orange Mound rapper DJ Squeaky.

In 2010, Riley's fluid fusion of street and classical was on full display when he choreographed the video for Janelle Monae's Grammy-nominated hit song "Tightrope." In the past year, he's danced in music videos for songs by Lil Wayne and the Black Eyed Peas and appeared three times on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. In April, Yo-Yo Ma and Riley improvised together at an event in Los Angeles promoting art in schools.

"We met at Disneyland," Riley says. "[Ma] asked if I'd try something with him and we just did it." Where the Wild Things Are director Spike Jonze was on hand to witness the spontaneous collaboration and shot a video of Riley dancing to Camille Saint-Saëns' "Dying Swan" — a piece he'd danced previously at New Ballet. The video went viral.

What does it mean for New Ballet to have a star student in the national spotlight performing with someone like Ma?

"When we go into schools, I want to be able to show a projection of Charles on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and tell the students that his discipline got him there," Smythe says.

"As talented as Charles is, we are regularly seeing kids who are just as talented — hundreds of them, some of them as young as six," Smythe says. "They've been dancing their whole lives, and it's just like being at the ballet bar; you get better with repetition." Smythe hopes that the attention some of her early students are getting will make it easier to reach these kids and let them know that, with discipline, they can turn their skills into opportunities.

The Memphis Symphony Orchestra Becomes a Magnet for Young Conductors

At a time when municipal symphonies are folding at an alarming rate, the Memphis Symphony Orchestra continues to innovate and thrive. According to Symphony CEO Ryan Fleur, the MSO ended its first season with Maestro Mei-Ann Chen with a 20 percent increase in both ticket sales and a 20 percent increase in giving. The symphony still isn't selling out every show, but it is playing to 75 percent capacity, a 7 percent increase over the previous season.

"Our Opus One performances have become legendary," Fleur says of the symphony's musician-led pops series that takes the musicians into unusual venues and pairs them with popular local performers such as Harlan T. Bobo, Amy LaVere, and Joyce Cobb. "We're planning to do something with Al Kapone next season," Fleur says.

"I was trying to push the orchestra as far as I could," Chen says of her first season. "I told them if we think we have 10 years, we will take our time."

To help the process along, grant money was secured to provide the symphony with five weeks of rehearsal instead of four prior to a Masterworks performance. "I think there is now a clear understanding that we have different expectations," Chen says.

In its boldest move, the MSO launched an international conducting competition in May that resulted in some of the world's top young conducting talent taking a trip to Graceland and then heading for the banks of the Mississippi River for the Sunset Symphony. The competition, which attracted 236 applicants from 35 countries, is unprecedented in the United States.

"A couple of things are ground-breaking," Chen says. "Other orchestras aren't willing to sponsor a  competition. Also, we have no age limit. Our first-place winner would not have had a chance if we had an age limit, like other competitions [in Europe]." The first winner of what is slated to become a biennial event was Ken Lam, an attorney who traded a successful career to try his hand at classical music.

 "We are also a competition that focuses on nurturing and development," Chen says. "It's not a 'good luck, take the money and run' competition. The second- and third-place winners will be coming back in October to prepare [to conduct the MSO]. I want Memphis to develop a reputation as a hub for launching conducting talent."

Voices of the South Goes to Jail

It's been a banner year for Voices of the South. Last June, the company opened Sister Myotis's Bible Camp Off-Broadway to mostly favorable reviews. They toured Wild Legacy, a major government-sponsored commission celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Arctic Nationial Wildlife Refuge. In May, the Fellowship of Southern Writers honored Cicada, a play by the company's artistic director Jerre Dye, with the Bryan Family Award for Dramatic Literature. Over Memorial Day weekend, the company hosted its sixth successful installment of the Memphis Children's Theatre Festival, a pay-what-you-can event that attracts talent from across the region.

In a recent interview for Memphis magazine, Dye said he wanted his audiences to think about Voices of the South differently than they think of other theater experiences. He wants TheatreSouth, the company's home base, to become a hangout for the theatrically inclined, a place "where people can come to hear reading after reading of plays by people from here."

Writer and storyteller Elaine Blanchard is helping Dye accomplish his goal with her project Prison Stories, which brings depth and humanity to crime in Memphis.

Blanchard isn't afraid of silence, and some of her sessions with female inmates in the Shelby County penal system feel like a Quaker meeting. The participants sit around in a circle until one finally decides to talk about a pre-determined subject. The resulting stories, which Blanchard helps to develop into works of narrative theater, are unflinching and intimate.

"The hardest part is gaining their trust," Blanchard says.

In a recent workshop focusing on violence, Blanchard presented her group with circles cut from black and red paper and asked them to tape the dots to their bodies wherever they had been impacted by violence. "It will help us see you differently," she said.

Most of the prisoners, a racially and generationally diverse group, attached the dots to their heads and their hearts, although a few also taped them to places where bones had been broken and eyes had been blackened. The stories that resulted range from a childhood nightmare about watching a younger sister die in a random crossfire to cautionary tales about taking your drug-addled boyfriend's most expensive pills.

Most of the women in the group had been in abusive relationships. One was serving time for killing a man who used to bite off chunks of her flesh, telling her it was his way of making her ugly — and ensuring no other man would be interested.

"It's part of the human experience to have anxiety over whether or not 'I matter,'"  Blanchard explained prior to a May performance of Prison Stories. "We are story-telling creatures. That's why I go out to the prison twice a week and sit in a circle with these women who have great fear that nobody really cares. And, by the time we've spent four months together, they come to realize that not only do people want to receive their stories, but that their stories are unique, powerful, and beautiful. Just like they are."

"I knew that Elaine was someone we needed in the mix," Dye says. "She approached me about pursuing Prison Stories and said she'd always been drawn to the subject and sensed the real need for these stories to be set free. We said yes immediately, and off she went to chart the course of what has now grown into a gorgeous process."

Earlier this year, Blanchard was honored with a Jefferson Award, a national award initiated in 1972 by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis to encourage and honor individuals for their contributions to community service.

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