Dorothy Gunther Pugh founded Ballet Memphis in 1986 with two dancers and a budget of $75,000, so she knows a thing or two about trying and triumphs: today the company has 22 dancers and a $4.6 million budget. That happens when you deftly travel the path of organizing, wooing donors, nurturing dancers, keeping up with changes, and tending to the main thing: Making thrilling art for appreciative audiences. A tribute to Pugh’s savvy leadership is the ballet company’s gleaming new home that opened last year in the heart of Overton Square.
With performance theater making a resurgence in Midtown, Pugh wanted Ballet Memphis to follow Playhouse on the Square and Hattiloo Theatre in setting up shop around the recently revitalized Madison and Cooper district. The new space is impossible to miss. Large windows, a perforated copper curtain that protects those inside from too much sun, and layers of metal make the building stand out among a more conventionally-designed lineup of nearby shops and restaurants.
The distinctive exterior is abetted by inviting outdoor seating for Ballet Memphis’ resident restaurant, Mama Gaia, and public courtyards. Working with the design firm archimania, Pugh had it firmly in mind that the building would be a civic place, a central location that connected Ballet Memphis with the community. “I didn’t just want people to see us and feel that they could come in,” says Pugh. “I wanted to remind everyone who works here that we are in service to the world around us, and not just trying to be another typical ballet company.” The large windows along Madison Avenue provide a glimpse into dance rehearsals and pilates lessons, while the large hallways and meeting rooms provide extra space for working or discussion.
The ground floor consists of storage areas filled with more than 10,000 costumes (Ballet Memphis manufactures most of its apparel in-house), a large performance venue, and the four main studios where Ballet Memphis’ dancers can practice.
“I named the studios Dream, Fly, Imagine, and Discover,” says Pugh. “When people are in the studio, I want those to be the things that we are all experiencing, and I want to help people experience that if they’re involved with ballet.” Even for those outside ballet, a walk past the eastern side of the building brings with it a glimpse of an upcoming production, with a storefront display window, a la Saks Fifth Avenue, showcasing a full array of costumes.
And there’s plenty of space to go around. When not serving as a bastion of classical dance, Ballet Memphis makes its space available as an event venue. Any of the studios, meeting rooms, board rooms, or even the whole building, can be rented out for parties or various corporate functions.
Throughout the interior, the spacious design ensures that the whole building is well lit. Even the more conventional second-floor office spaces avoid the common drudgery of workplace aesthetic with large windows. The continued presence of light gives the whole working space a positive, energetic feeling, and the artists a better base in which to function creatively.
Pugh’s personal office continues the theme, with bright artwork and a large window overlooking the parking lot and surrounding neighborhood. Her bookshelves are filled with photographs of her ballet career, various awards (Memphis magazine named her Memphian of the Year for 2017), and numerous books. When a new production is under way, she assigns choreographers literature in anticipation of the theme of a show.
One prominent book, which has a whole compartment to itself in the office, is Occult Witchcraft & Magic. “There’s a lot of ancillary information that I think feeds into old stories in ballets,” says Pugh, “and I think most people don’t understand that.” The tales in the book provide a good entry into the realm of the supernatural, which is a heavy theme in Ballet Memphis’ run of Giselle next April. “If we’re going to have a witch, or something magical, we want everyone involved to understand that culture.”
That didacticism permeates every facet of Pugh’s role at Ballet Memphis. “A lot of people don’t understand what it means to be a real ballet company, one that auditions dancers from around the world and has top-notch choreographers and a lot of expenses,” she says. “There is no other dance company like that here in Memphis. We have a lot of exciting things going on here, many full-time artists who are great, and this is really for everyone in the community.”